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A place to breathe: UEL students share solidarity and support via Teams

11 August 2020  
Posted by: Gus MacDonald
A place to breathe: UEL students share solidarity and support via Teams

UEL Library, Docklands


University of East London has a 70 per cent BAME student population, 32 per cent of which is black, and is based in one of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 – a disease that is more likely to result in death for sufferers from BAME communities. Regina Everitt, Director of Library, Archives and Learning Services, explains how and why she organised a forum to help students make sense of George Floyd and Covid-19.

On the morning of 25 May 2020 (Memorial Day in America), Christian Cooper, a black man, was bird watching in Central Park, New York. Amy Cooper (unrelated), a white woman, was in the same area of the park with her dog, which was off the lead. When Christian asked Amy to put the dog on the lead, in compliance with park rules, she threatened then proceeded to call the police claiming that an African American man was threatening her life. She knew exactly what she was doing. In a nation where black people, men particularly, have lost their lives due to police brutality, she knew that Christian Cooper would automatically be considered a threat because of the colour of his skin. Christian Cooper filmed the incident, which later went viral on social media. Amy Cooper apologised after furious backlash on social media.

On the same day, George Floyd was arrested in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after allegedly trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. He was handcuffed and killed as one police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes whilst two other officers held Floyd down. A fourth officer simply stood by and watched. The filming of this heinous act did not deter the officers. In fact, at one stage, the officer with his knee on Floyd’s neck looked straight at one of the cameras in much the same way as those photographed witnessing lynching in Jim Crow’s American south.

Floyd’s death sparked protests led by the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) across America and around the world. BLM was started in 2013 in response to the acquittal of the killer of Trayvon Martin, a teenager visiting family in Florida in 2012. BLM is a global movement aimed at ‘eradicating white supremacy’ and building local networks to challenge violence against black communities thereby ‘creating space for black innovation’ (Black Lives Matter 2020). The police officers responsible for Floyd’s death were immediately fired after the emergence of the video, but were not charged until people took to the streets.

George Floyd protest in Uptown, Charlotte
George Floyd protest in Uptown, Charlotte NC, Photo © unsplash.com/@claybanks

Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic continued to claim lives across the world with BAME populations disproportionately impacted. According to a June 2020 Public Health England report, BAME people have a 10 to 50 per cent higher risk of death when compared to white British people (Public Health England 2020). Bangladeshi people, specifically, have around twice the risk of death, according to the report. Contributing factors, according to the report, include dwelling in urban areas and/or extended-family households (called ‘crowded households in report) as well as presence of illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension. There is a danger that some people may infer that BAME people brought this on themselves due to living conditions and lifestyle. However, one must consider the systems and structures that lead to poverty and poor health care.

After Floyd’s death, I surfed the breadth of news outlets watching peaceful protests by day turn to violent clashes at night. My emotions flipped between sorrow at the loss of a yet another life and intense anger at the metaphor of the white man’s knee on the black man’s neck. Meanwhile, the video of Floyd’s death played on loop showing our children and our students that their lives had no value. Our student population at UEL is nearly 70 per cent BAME, of which about 32 per cent is black. The institution is located in Newham, one of the councils hardest hit by Covid-19 due to poverty and health inequalities (Fiaz 2020). I knew that our students would be struggling to make sense of everything that was happening, so I Whatsapp’d the Black Academy at UEL and said: “We have to do something.”

The Black Academy, a collective of black academics and professional services staff focused on social justice, anti-racism, and black representation, was founded at UEL in 2019 by Lurraine Jones, senior lecturer and acting head of social sciences.

Transition to Virtual Delivery

Since the government lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic in March, UEL pivoted to online delivery like all HEIs. At UEL, many departments and services had been experimenting with MS Teams for about a year previously, which helped with the transition to online delivery.

As we have libraries on two sites (Stratford and Docklands), we used Teams for meetings to save travel time and cost. After lockdown, beyond use of Teams and Moodle for academic delivery and meetings, it was used across the institution for coffee mornings, pub evenings, conferences, and other events. Library teams also created chat areas where staff and students shared book reviews as well as news about virtual gallery tours and plays. So, a Teams forum was the obvious way to reach out to our students about Floyd’s death, the protests, and Covid-19.

Of course, we were aware that there were students within our population who did not have access to PCs or internet access (the digital divide). Of those who did have access to devices, the equipment may have been of low specification or their internet connections unreliable, thus hindering them from accessing Teams or Moodle. In response to the quick switch to sole online delivery, the institution spun up a loan scheme where, upon application, a student could have a loan device delivered to their home. There was also a limited supply of high specification machines available for loan for students on specific programmes (e.g. computer sciences, gaming, etc.). As ever, funding was limited, so not all students’ needs were met. The library team is working cross-institution to understand the extent of the “digital divide” and how to close the gap.

A Place to Breathe

Authorisation from the Vice Chancellor and President’s (VCP) office (Professor Amanda Broderick) was swift. Our communications and events teams pushed out invitations and promotions within one day. Within hours of posting the event, entitled ‘A Place to Breathe: Making Sense of George Floyd and Covid-19 Impacts on BAME Communities’, the allocated 220 places were filled. The space allocation was estimated by the events team based on their experience of managing online events and allowed for last minute requests.

The 1.5 hour-programme was deliberately kept simple so that students would be given the maximum amount of time to speak. Lurraine Jones gave the context for the event: an opportunity for students to share their stories, grief, and anger about the killing of George Floyd, the impacts of Covid-19, and other issues around racism and discrimination. I and a few academic colleagues made brief comments to encourage discussion, then monitored the chat as the floor was opened to students. Students used the hand-raising function to request to speak. The event was not recorded, and participants were reminded that it was a safe space for all to share their views without naming specific individuals within the forum or institution. (Students were invited to raise issues about specific individuals or issues after the event). Students were made aware and welcomed the fact that the VCP and other members of the university executive board were listening.

The student and staff stories about their experiences of racism, discrimination, and exclusion were heart-breakingly raw. They spoke of being called derogatory names, antagonised by the police, ignored in the classroom and receiving lower grades than peers for the same level of work. And they spoke about having ‘the talk’ with their children, particularly with sons. ‘The talk’ is a set of instructions about how to behave (stay alive) if encountered by the police (e.g. keep your hands visible and no sudden moves); I, too, have had ‘the talk’ with my son. The students were unflinching in their challenge to university leadership about how they needed to do better to support students through their education and to professional success. UEL has a degree awarding gap of about 25 per cent between black and white students (UEL 2019). The university has a bronze Race Equality Charter (REC) and is working through an ambitious action plan to close the gap and to improve outcomes for all students.

To this end, the university has created an Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), (the first of its kind in the country) to lead on the REC and other equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives. The Dean of the OIE is Prof Marcia Wilson, who is a keen supporter of UEL library initiatives around ‘decolonisation’ of collections and inclusive resources and educational practices. She provided keynote addresses last year at the M25 Consortium of Libraries conference and the Talent Untapped knowledge exchange for BAME LIS professionals. By the end of the session, there were still a number of hands raised as there was simply not enough time to say all that had to be said. So, we hosted a second event a week later, this time focusing on hope and resilience. Although emotions were still raw, we wanted to focus on the hope and resilience that will help students to reach their full potential against all odds.

This second event was entitled ‘And Still I Rise’, referencing Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise (Angelou 1978). The event opened with a video of Maya Angelou performing the poem with her notoriously infectious smile. The 180 attendees at this event were also candid in their discussions around calling out racism in the university and the workplace. The presenters and I reinforced the need for optimism, hope and resilience, for the students are the agents for change (e.g., Rhodes Must Fall campaign). We also encouraged students in the forum to develop support networks with one another and to use the services available to them at the university such as careers coaching and wellbeing services. Finally, I linked a resource list in the chat for those students and staff who wanted to educate themselves about critical race theory. The list was also made available on the library Teams site chat; conversations sparked within minutes of the posting. Clearly, students are keen to gain a deeper understanding about the roots of racism.

Conversations in the chat continued long after the events ended. We have received numerous emails from students and staff asking what they can do to continue conversations and make a change.

The New Normal

I have no doubt that the level of attendance at both virtual events was due to restrictions on movement due to Covid-19. With three campuses and a student population with caring and other responsibilities, it was challenging to get students to attend extra-curricular events pre-Covid-19. Even engagement with Students Union events at the university was low. Of course, the strength of feeling around the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests will have changed the level of engagement.

Library, Archives and Learning Services will continue to build the Teams communities as a blend of online and physical delivery has been and will continue to be the norm. The ‘new normal’ for us will be around enhanced use of Teams for remote or cross-site working, delivery of events, and intra-/inter-institution collaboration. The key challenge, however, is to ensure that we don’t lose students or staff in the digital divide.

Header image: UEL Library, Docklands


Contributor: Regina Everitt, Director of Library, Archives and Learning Services, University of East London

Published:14 August 2020


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