In Conversation with Active Together 

** Content Warning: Racism, White Supremacy **

Over the past academic year, Exeter University’s Education Incubator opened up a call for student-led, anti-racism projects, announcing that they were “looking for students at Exeter who [wanted] to develop innovative ideas and approaches to enhance the anti-racism agenda both within the University community and beyond.” Subsequently, five student-led projects were awarded funding to develop their collaborative, student-centric, anti-racism projects. I had the chance to speak to the faces behind one of these projects: Nina Cunningham, a third year BSc Sociology student, Rhianna Garrett, a Master’s student of Technology, Creativity and Thinking in Education, and Manan Shah, a first year LLB Law student. Together, they launched Active Together, which aims to tackle the culture of racism and microaggressions that can be prevalent within University societies. 

Masters’ student Rhianna Garrett founded Active Together. She’d previously been a student at the University of Exeter as an undergraduate and had therefore experienced many different societies and clubs. After a long period of inactivity in these spaces due to COVID-19 restrictions, upon returning to Exeter in September she decided to try out a taster session at one of the sports clubs. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. She explained that she felt alienated, being the only non-white person there, stating that it “brought me back to the reality of University and the general very white-dominant space. I realised that in my entire experience nobody in these sports societies were talking about the Black Lives Matter movement, no-one was really talking about the issues of these white spaces, and it almost felt like I was the only one who really cared because no one else was going through what I was in this space. I was aware that there were probably a lot of other students that felt the same and felt quite uncomfortable.”

Sadly, this wasn’t Rhianna’s first experience with micro-aggressions in societies at Exeter, but this time, she was determined to make a difference. She attributed her inspiration for Active Together as “coming out of some kind of negative experiences, and really wanting to change that.” She began contacting members of the University and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Team, who ultimately directed her to the student, anti-racism fund. Manan and Nina were quickly brought onto the project, all of them sharing Rhianna’s view that their negative experiences should be used to fuel positive change. Manan told me how “I haven’t been in Exeter very long, as I’m an international student. However, I have dealt with [racism] at previous universities back home, so I know what it feels like. It’s nice to be able to come on board a project like this whilst I’m here early in my first year, and hopefully, this can drag on for years to come, and make a big difference.” 

Image Source: Josephine Frost, University of Exeter student

Rhianna’s initial vision was based on tackling the culture surrounding sports societies. She stated, “I thought of this idea of making these sports societies aware of these issues and kind of educating everyone. We wanted to force students to listen to what we were saying and really educate them, and almost not give them much of a choice.” This embryonic idea eventually developed into the project they pitched to the fund. They wanted to implement new and better training systems for societies and clubs, with a focus on the Athletic Union (AU) but aspired to reach all societies. Naturally, as they began work on the project, their plans shifted slightly. When researching the training that was already in place and how to improve it, the team decided to switch from their previous idea of hiring external training systems to setting up better internal training structures. Their reasoning was partly motivated by the monetary aspect, with external training systems taking up a huge amount of their budget, but Nina also explained that this change ‘provides more longevity for the project. If we try and start them, they’ll be there for however many years, they’ll keep delivering this training, making sure this project can live past the funding we’ve got this year. Anti-racism is an ever-changing, ever-growing thing and we want to improve it.” Rhianna expanded on this, stating, “we realised that we could take the time and really analyse the training they already had. We’ve been liaising with outside training resources to see what they think is missing or how they think it can be improved because they’re the ones who have experienced it before. We’ve been able to research a lot about effective training and we found that a lot of results that came from those were that one-off training systems don’t necessarily give you the results you want. They give you a change in attitude but not a change in action.” Internal training also meant that students and societies could be involved in helping to build this new foundation, which was important to Nina as she explained, “often, I think, students feel disenfranchised, so to have student voices shaping the training that’s going to happen is very important.”

This shift from external to internal training freed up a lot of Active Together’s budget, which the team have directed into securing new professional resources. Their first aim is to help students recognise and report racial aggressions or micro-aggressions at the University of Exeter. Active Together have reported that many students are unaware of how to recognise this form of racism at University, nor the procedure to report these incidents. To tackle this, Active Together want to put more money into resources that teach students how to recognise these incidents and that they can be safely reported. The best way to do this is through social media, where Active Together found a worrying gap in information, which they are currently trying to fill with resources – including hiring artists to produce work for the project. “We are currently working on hiring outside professional sources,” Rihanna told me, “but artists of colour. We don’t want white artists doing this as it seems we are not really supporting the cultural positions that come with this artistic representation. One [artist] that we found actually works through something called BARC, Building the Anti-Racist Classroom, which is a training company that gives you insight into how training works, and they have a lot of really beautiful artwork that doesn’t just express different races but different cultures, different religions.” The second step in this process is to improve the reporting system in place at Exeter University. “We want to improve the resources that [the University] have,” Rhianna told me, “[The University] currently have a downloadable PDF that explains the different avenues you can take, but it’s very complicated and it’s not very easy to follow. It probably deters a lot of students from both educating themselves on how it works and using the system in the first place.” 

Active Together’s initial plan also included a badge system for societies, which clearly displayed to prospective and current members what training committee members had undergone to make their societies a safe space for students of colour. Rhianna believes that the badge system is more than a way of marking who has completed the training. It’s a way for societies to be held accountable. “If you do breach any of the agreements about becoming a safe space the badge will be taken away from you and that will be very visible,” Rhianna explained. “We’ve been trying to find a way of making it very open and very supportive, but also there is a very public act of ‘you’ve done something and we’re taking this away’ and people will see that. People will see that a problem has happened. It’s a good way of creating that accountability of societies. You are accountable for all your participants and if something does happen your club is partly responsible for that education not happening.” Moreover, Manan hoped that this would help with the sustainability of the project and ensure that Active Together will have a long-lasting impact. “We want this to be something that outlives us, and becomes a legacy here,” Manan said, “something that the university can be proud of as to how much they’ve bettered themselves. We’re also hoping for it to be a self-policing thing, with constant check-ins about EDI to make sure that societies are being held to their highest standard possible when it comes to EDI.”

This ties into Active Together’s larger aim. Whilst Rhianna, Manan and Nina may be leading Active Together, all of this is working towards larger discussions and widespread change around the culture in not only sports societies, but the University of Exeter too. Nina described their projects fundamental aims as “trying to promote discussion with people so we have a space to talk.” Nina hopes that this space will promote education and discussion, specifically regarding the issues of micro-aggressions, which they discovered many people had not heard of before. Nina explained how this “is something that is so problematic because people don’t think about them or think ‘it’s only a joke.’ It’s about having these discussions and forcing people to actually think about it and reflect on their actions and go ‘okay, this is something that we need to change.’” The Active Together team have been reaching out to different societies for feedback on their project, and the responses have been very positive. Rhianna explained that many societies were passionate about changing the culture and conversations surrounding equality, diversity and inclusion at Exeter, but simply didn’t know how to go about doing this.

And these are changes that need to happen. The social aspect of University experience is just as crucial as the academic side. As Nina put it, “societies and clubs are supposed to be an escape from learning.  They’re supposed to be fun and enjoyable. So, if you’re constantly on edge because you are othered by the group, it’s going to make it awful and rubbish for you.” Moreover, the effects of experiencing racism and microaggressions within society culture do not only affect students’ social lives. Studies have shown that the psychological and biological responses to race-based stress can cause disparities in educational outcomes. Rhianna wanted to emphasise that everything Active Together is doing, whether it be building training or posting social media infographics, is all built on research and information. Rhianna went on to explain how “it’s very disheartening if students do feel like we are just making a generalisation. We make a lot of what we do very academic based. We’re not just throwing away comments and we’re not just shouting at everyone, we’re saying this is proven to be fact and there are reasons why students are being disadvantaged.” 

Image Source: Exeter Education Incubator

When talking about the challenges of running Active Together, all three students reflected on the frustration of not being believed, and the emotional toll that enacts. Rhianna stated, “it’s not easy to talk about all the time, but we don’t have a choice. Every day [students of colour] have to experience this kind of thing, whereas if you’re a white student you get to choose whether you’re going to participate or not.” Manan elaborated on this point, explaining how “because Exeter does have such a high white population, things like this don’t seem to affect a lot of people, so people don’t talk about it or dismiss it as something not important. Then, you have the people who just seem a little bit ignorant to the fact that there is a race problem. There is a racism issue here at Exeter, people just push it off because it doesn’t affect them.”

This emotional strain is furthered by the fact that all three members of Active Together are full-time students and are undertaking this project on top of their studies. “I really wanted to put more focus again on the emotional aspect, because it has been a tough experience,” Manan emphasised, “it’s a lot to take in and sometimes you just don’t want to anymore, because you feel so drained it will just affect you in other ways, like schoolwork. We are all still full-time students. We have other things to do outside of this project so juggling all that together has been a challenge, but in the end, we know that it’s for such an incredible cause and we’re all so passionate about it, so that’s what’s keeping us moving.” Furthermore, Rhianna explained how, sadly, the team are anticipating potential backlash to the project. “There’s been so many issues and tragic experiences of students experiencing racism at Exeter,” Rhianna reflected, “There are students in other areas who have just got horrific racial abuse and I’m sure there’s been plenty that we don’t even know about, but there’s been so much that we are heavily anticipating backlash. We’ve been reading a lot of the blogs and experiences that students have come forward with, whether anonymously or not, and because we are trying to put ourselves in the spotlight, we are anticipating some backlash to what we are saying.”

However, Manan was also grateful for the support they’ve received along the way. “It’s been really great after only two- and a-bit months that we’ve had such great support from the guild and the AU, and sports societies and societies that are not in sport, the EDI team, the Exeter Incubation centre, all the other projects from the student anti-racism fund, they’ve all been so supportive of us, and we’ve been supporting them which is great,” Manan said. Rhianna also wanted to thank her team, stating how “I’m just so happy I’ve got a team that is so passionate about it that even if these problems do occur, we’re all equipped to face them in the correct way.” It’s this support system that motivates Rhianna to want to provide all students with access to this level of support.  She notes how “we’re lucky we have people that can support us. We just don’t want students to not have that that’s what all this is about, to show people that they do have that support system. We are anticipating problems, but we just want to prevent that from happening to other students.”

To conclude the interview, Rhianna wanted to encourage other students that change is possible. She told me to “just encourage other students to reach out. If you see a problem, don’t just see it and think that’s a shame. If every student was to do something like this there would be a huge change. It’s so possible to actually do something.” Nina agreed, “We’re living proof that we can make a difference as students.”

To keep up with Active Together’s important work, please follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The Education Incubator has released a request for new project proposals, which will be added to the Education Incubator across the third term. For more information on the projects currently being funded by the Education Incubator:

Emma Ingledew

Featured Image Source: Active Together

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