Celebrating Black History Month

Black History Month 2020 provides an important and timely opportunity to explore Black history, to reflect on and celebrate the contribution of Black and Black heritage staff and students to our University, and to discuss ways in which we can deliver our shared commitment to addressing structural and cultural racism.

Bristol-based historian David Olusoga recently reflected that: ‘The summer of 2020 was one of those moments when it felt as if history’s fast-forward button had been pressed and the pace of historical events suddenly accelerated.”  Situated in the city that was at the heart of many of these events, we hope that our Black History Month celebrations and explorations will “be infused with the spirit of this remarkable year” in which many people have engaged with ideas of race and racism as never before.

Having created a University Anti-Racism Steering Group this summer, I have been proud to see us launch a range of initiatives to both promote Black History and help bring about positive change.

One of these initiatives was the launch last week of a landmark new £1,000,000 Bristol Black Scholarships Programme.  Access to higher education is one of the most powerful ways to foster social mobility and enable individuals to realise their life ambitions. Yet we know that Black and Black-heritage students have historically been under-represented at every level of study in higher education across the UK. We have been working to address this for some time through a range of targeted initiatives, but we want to go further to improve the diversity of our student population. This ambitious new initiative marks an important step in our work to address the historical under-representation of Black and Black-heritage students and make our University truly inclusive.  I am very grateful for the generous support of our alumni and friends who have contributed to its development.

Other important initiatives aim to address the effects of Britain’s colonial past on our institution. Earlier this year we committed to reviewing the names of buildings named after families with links to the slave trade.  I’m pleased that, as the first formal outcome of this work, we have renamed our Colston Street accommodation as ‘No.33’.  Research is also underway, led by Professor Olivette Otele, to inform our review of the names of other University buildings.

Professor Otele was also recently appointed as the Independent Chair of Bristol’s Commission on Race Equality (CORE) by the Mayor of Bristol, Marvin Rees. CORE will work to address experiences of inequality often experienced by Bristol’s BAME communities in areas such as education, employment, health, housing and criminal justice. I’m delighted that Dr Jane Khawaja and Dr Marie-Annick Gournet have also been appointed as Commissioners to support CORE’s work tackling structural inequalities across our city.

It is great to see a wealth of university-wide activities underway to decolonise our curriculum.  Bristol Institute of Learning and Teaching (BILT) have established a learning community to support this important work across our academic programmes.  In an exciting initiative, we have worked in partnership with CARGO (Charting African Resilience Generating Opportunities – a Bristol collective of artists, poets and filmmakers) to create UniversalCity – a digital platform to showcase African and African Diaspora-owned businesses and community organisations in Bristol, explore the heritage and history of key points of interest around our city, and encourage students and staff to join in voluntary work to support local communities.  It is really heartening that we have worked so productively with CARGO to open up new possibilities for socially-engaged inclusive education.  I am hopeful that this will foster deeper links with diverse communities across the city.

As part of this ongoing discussion, I look forward to chairing a virtual panel event, ‘Towards a decolonised University’, on 22 October. This public online event will explore the importance of critical engagement with the ways in which the knowledge and resources we encounter at university is shaped by the impact of colonial power structures, and how do we create solutions which addresses racism and colonial legacy in our university. You can find out more and register for the event here.

The student BME Network and SU events team has also organised an excellent programme of online events throughout October, so do take a look at what’s coming up.

Elsewhere, to celebrate the first anniversary of our Be More Empowered for Success programme, the University will be unveiling our new Be More Empowered for Success portraits. These compelling new portraits celebrate our staff and students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and will be on public display in the Reception Room of the Wills Memorial Building from 23 October.

There are many more initiatives underway throughout October. These both complement and build on our existing Equality, Diversity and Inclusion workstreams.

I hope that you will join us at some of this year’s Black History Month events – to celebrate the diversity of our community, reflect on our institutional history and reaffirm our commitment to building an open and inclusive community.

Thank you to everyone who is helping us develop these initiatives. I look forward to updating you on further progress in the coming months.

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