Meet the young women taking on education and race

We caught up with Ore and Chelsea, the authors of Taking Up Space: A Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change as they tell us why diversity has become an empty buzzword and why they’re on a mission to change that. Taking Up Space is the flagship release from #Merky Books.

Ore and Chelsea, photo © Ayshe Zaifoglu

What is Taking Up Space about?

Taking Up Space explores what it means to be a black girl within education. We discuss everything from the barriers of entry into university, activism, mental health, relationships and diversifying our curriculums. The book addresses and acts as a guide for young black girls and non-binary students in the hope that their experiences will be validated. Although it’s a guide written to black girls, it’s a book for everyone to gain insight into how unique our experiences are. Transforming our education system will not only benefit black women but society as a whole. 

Tell us a little bit about why you decided to write the book?

Following the success of Ore’s Varsity article in December 2017, which many people claimed resonated with them, it was clear that there was a demand for something like this. But also, combined with the work that we had both done with the #BlackMenofCambridge campaign and initiatives to get more black students to top universities, we knew that a discussion that centred on the black student experience had to be had. We had grown weary of the ‘diversity and inclusion’ conversations that did little to platform and centre the voices of black students. 

Who influences you in the cultural sphere today?

Ore: There are SO many people who continue to inspire me in the work that they do. Our contributors in this book are only some of them. Also, Victoria Sanusi is one of my absolute faves. We gave her a little shout-out in the book because she is a journalist who is always doing justice to stories about black students and uplifting other black women and I appreciate that.

Chelsea: Beyonce! All day, every day. She’s the perfect example of someone who concentrates and seeks to perfect her craft. At the same time, her BeyGOOD initiative is working just as hard to spread love and joy across the world. For me, she’s the prime example that you can do both.

You have a number of fantastic contributors in the book, why did you think they were important to include?

We wanted to colour the book with a vast number of experiences to demonstrate that black students aren’t one homogenous group. Instead, we all have different stories to tell and they should be understood and appreciated in their uniqueness. For us, it was also recognising that there are certain experiences that we can’t speak on and therefore, it was the perfect opportunity to give other black women and non-binary students a platform to speak about their own experiences and not have us speak over them.

Why is it important that we have these conversations now?

Annoyingly, ‘diversity’ is becoming an empty buzzword and the conversation is very noisy. For most people, diversity of gender and of sexual identity are their priorities, with racial diversity less so. Too often black students are also lumped into this ‘BME’ category which has its practical uses but can be unhelpful for understanding the specific ways in which black students, especially black women, experience racism. We have to put faces and real experiences to these ‘numbers-based’ conversations. When we discuss what diversity in education looks like, it’s not just about getting black students in. We’re taking this further to look at what your experience is like when you’re actually there, how well we’re able to perform and how we not just survive university but can actually thrive while we’re there too. 

How do you think we can make radical changes in education and what steps are required to ensure university education becomes a level playing field for people from all backgrounds?

We need to treat these issues with urgency. At present, issues of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ have ventured into the realm of primarily existing as abstract concepts, targets and frameworks. At the same time, students from disadvantaged backgrounds are dropping out of universities rapidly, feeling isolated within their curriculums and overall, ostracised.

We need to foreground the experiences of black students, invest in detailed and critical research and data and ensure that this commitment is consistent along all ladders of university management and staff – from vice-chancellors to support staff.

Teachers also have a duty to believe in their black students. Don’t hamper their dreams before they’ve even started applying. Don’t underestimate them.

We need to improve representation in our curriculums and in the staff charged with teaching them. We need to see ourselves in these emblems of academic success. 

Taking Up Space publishes 27th June 2019 and is available for pre-order now.

Win a proof copy of Taking Up Space

Want to get your hands on an early reading copy of Taking Up Space? Enter your details below for your chance to win, and sign up to the newsletter for the latest news from #Merky Books. Competition closes 6th May 2019 and terms and conditions apply.

Terms and conditions

1. By entering this free prize draw, you agree to accept and be bound by these terms and conditions.  All entry instructions form part of the terms & conditions of this prize draw. 

2. This free prize draw is open to anyone aged 16 or over who is a resident of the UK or the Republic of Ireland, except for employees of The Random House Group Limited, its subsidiary companies, their families and any other company connected with the prize draw.  

3. Entries must be received by 6th May 2019 23:59.   Entries that are illegible, incomplete, corrupted or which fail to be received by the closing date for any reason, will not be counted. The promoter is not responsible for entries delayed or lost in the post. Automatically generated entries or entries via agents or third parties are invalid and shall not be counted.

4. Only one entry per person. No entrant may win more than one prize.

5. To enter, sign up to the #Merky Books newsletter

6. All correctly completed entries will be entered into a prize draw which will take place on 7th May 2019. The first 5 entries drawn at random by an independent person will be the winners.

7. The prize for each winner is an early proof copy of Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change by Ore Ogunbiyi and Chelsea Kwakye. The prize is non-transferrable and no cash alternative will be offered.

8. Events may occur which render the awarding of the prize impossible due to reasons beyond the control of the promoter and the promoter may, at its absolute discretion, vary, amend, suspend or withdraw the prize with or without notice. 

9. The winner will be notified by email within 10 days of the closing date (i.e. by 16th May 2019. The winner(s) must claim their prize within 30 days of the promoter sending notification. If the prize is unclaimed after this time, it will lapse and the promoter reserves the right to offer the unclaimed prize to a substitute winner selected in accordance with these rules.

10. By entering this competition, all entrants consent to the use of their personal data by the Promoter for the purposes of running the competition as detailed in these terms and conditions.  Details on how we process the personal data of entrants can be found in our Privacy Policy (https://www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/PrivacyPolicy/)

11. Promoter may disqualify any entrant whose entry does not comply with these terms and conditions (in promoter’s sole opinion) or who, in promoter’s sole determination, has acted in a manner that is fraudulent, dishonest or unjust to other entrants including, without limitation, tampering with the operation of the competition, manipulating or rigging votes, hacking, deceiving, cheating or by harassing or threatening other entrants, the panel or a representative of promoter

12. The promoter’s decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into in relation to the competition.  

13. These terms and conditions are subject to English Law and the exclusive jurisdiction of the English courts.

14. The promoter’s contact details are: The Random House Group Limited, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1V 2SA.

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