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Time to Change: Societies Respond to Black Lives Matter

Cara Lee looks at how York societies are striving for inclusivity and diversity.

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Image Credit: Norman Rea Gallery, 2020

Very few people could have predicted how tumultuous 2020 would be.  If you had told me in January that two months later all aspects of university life would be online for the foreseeable future, I’d have laughed.

Yet here we are, five months on from the first coronavirus cases in York and oh, what a distant memory that news now is.  We are at a point where normal university life feels like a dream we all simultaneously had, a collective imagining we immersed ourselves into.

As well as academic departments, societies have had to move online. In the wake of such monumental events occurring around the world, the work that is being done by societies is more important than ever.

I have had the pleasure of talking to the Norman Rea Gallery, the on-campus student-run gallery, about their new exhibition, Change, a series of responses to racism and police violence.  It launches today and is the first step in meeting the new committee’s target of improving representation within the gallery and more widely on campus.  I have also spoken to the founders of the University of York Black Lives Matter Book Club – the Literature Society, Feminist Society and University of York Amnesty International Society – to see how they have carved out a space for important conversations about race.

Change is the Gallery’s first online exhibition, and co-directors Senah Tuma and Faith I Weddle told me that this brought all the challenges one would expect when taking on such an immense task – “some of us haven’t even met in person yet”, they joked.  It has some perks though; social media has allowed the Gallery to contact a vast array of artists online.  Additionally, they pointed out that with the coronavirus pandemic, “a lot of the dialogue [about the Black Lives Matter movement] has been taking place online”, so to chip into this growing pool of awareness and activism by creating a permanent virtual resource can only be beneficial.

The exhibition was Senah’s idea, but it was a committee-wide effort to bring Change to fruition.  To date, Senah and Faith agree that the Norman Rea Gallery has not responded to world issues and they hope that Change will progress the discourse on campus and in the art world, encouraging viewers to “engage deeper…more than just social media posts”.

Artists exhibiting in Change represent a huge number of experiences and places, including the UK, USA and Angola.  Some are University of York students, including members of the BAME Network who have created a spoken word video in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.  Watson Mere - a Haitian-born, New York-based artist - is also featured, whose piece ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ has become a symbol of protest art worldwide.

A range of experiences was crucial too for the Literature Society, Feminist Society and York Amnesty International Group when planning the Black Lives Matter Book Club.  Their weekly meetings (held via Zoom each Saturday) encourage discussions not just of books and literature, but of podcasts, films and TV series too.

As to why they have chosen to discuss such a range of works, York Amnesty said, “education and re-education are so important in understanding the complexity and nuance of racism in our society”, emphasising the extent of the education we need to undertake.

FemSoc also acknowledged the timing of the Book Club as falling in July, which is Disability Pride Month; they said “it’s also important to make education and participation as accessible to those with learning difficulties and those hard of sight, who can’t explicitly engage with formally written texts in ‘traditional’ ways”.

By having a founding committee from three different societies, the Black Lives Matter Book Club encourages discussions from many perspectives.  Whilst the overall aim of the Book Club was to start conversations and increase education, the Feminist Society also told me that they feel a duty to “amplify the voices of black female activists in literature and the media”, which is why the final weeks of the Book Club (run by FemSoc) focus on the voices of cis and trans Black feminists.

Interestingly, several of the societies I spoke to felt that much of the work being done to push for inclusivity and diversity is primarily student-run.  With higher education increasingly being exposed as non-diverse, FemSoc led a campaign with an open letter to the University and each academic department, asking for equal pay, a more diverse curriculum and the creation of safer spaces.  They also reiterated that Black Lives Matter and that university support for the movement should be explicit.  The letter was signed by the likes of Free the Flow York, BAME Network YUSU, Art Society, History Society and Art History Society, plus multiple Heads of Department.  FemSoc told me some of the replies received were positive with promises of change, whereas some “were still dismissive and lacklustre…which is disappointing, and we hope this can also improve”.

Many societies have taken on the task of educating themselves and others and the Norman Rea Gallery, Feminist Society, Literature Society and York Amnesty, among several others, are using their platforms to hold institutions and systems accountable.  It is truly heartening to see.  Many societies and departments have pledged to increase diversity and inclusivity, with plans being put in place for further exhibitions and another Book Club, which  hopefully  will be vehicles to a safer, more diverse university.  And in the meantime, we must continue to speak out and act until real change has been made, on campus and worldwide.

‘Change’ launches Monday 13th July at 12pm; please see @NormanReaGallery on Facebook and Instagram for the link to the online exhibition.  For more information on the Book Club, please see @uoyblmbookclub on Instagram.

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