Image is a still from Pi’s interview with Hajera before the UCLU elections last spring
I recently sat down with Hajera Begum, UCLU’s Black & Minority Ethnic Officer. She’s been voted by the UCL population to champion all things to do with minorities – she’s organizing Black History Month in October, she will host regular forums, and she has big plans for leaving a real network behind that can help make BME students feel more included and comfortable in UCL.
BME: bacon, mayo… egg?
First of all, what does BME mean, really? It stands for Black & Minority Ethnic, but even Hajera recognises that that’s sometimes a nebulous term. “I don’t understand why Black is separate from minority… Actually, all the ethnicities [in UCL], other than white Caucasian, are not a minority at all if you bulk everyone together,” she said. Grouping certain people together and calling them a minority can be another way of pushing those groups aside, of relegating them to the ‘other’ folder. Hajera’s equivalent at NUS is just called the ‘Black Students’ Officer’, but, as she says, “not everyone identifies as black, and not everyone will accept that term, and then they might not get involved”. However, in lieu of a better term, Hajera insists that while the words themselves do matter, it shouldn’t deter anyone from getting involved. “There’s space for a discussion, but if you’re going to get involved, then you’re going to get involved.”
Black History Month at UCL
For more information, event listings, and how to volunteer, visit this page
One of the big events that Hajera has organised at UCL is Black History Month. It has been observed in the UK since 1987, and this year UCL’s celebrations are bigger than ever. The three main focal points are the past, present, and future. The first ten days consisted of looking to the past, and the events included lectures and tours around The British Museum as well as a treasure hunt. The next 10 days will focus on the present and the struggles that have been overcome. The events on offer include an international food fair, a health and beauty market organised in conjunction with the Disabled Students’ Section, film screenings with the Women’s and LGBT+ network, as well as interactive discussion panel events. After this, the activities will look to the future. This will include entertainment such as talent shows, a culture show with performances of societies and professionals all on the same stage, spoken word poetry, and a comedy show. More information is on the UCLU website.
October will end with one lecture and one panel event. The lecturer will be a UCL student from America, who will discuss the global perspective of Black History Month – it does have its roots in America, after all – and what its point is. ‘That’s a good way of looking at the future, and asking whether we are celebrating it in the right way,” Hajera adds. The closing of the month will be a discussion based forum panel event focusing on how UCL is tackling the issue of race equality. There will be academics and a couple of students on the panel, so it’s a great chance to find out what UCL has been doing – also, it’s the perfect platform to grill these academics on what you disagree, or agree, with.
If you look at history books, there’s a certain point when black history is included, and then there’s a period of 100 years where it’s literally wiped out
Why should there be a Black History Month? What’s the point, anyway? “I don’t think it should be just a month, but you do have to start somewhere”, Hajera says. “It’s more of a time to remind ourselves that this is a part of history that has been wiped out. Literally, it has been ignored – if you look at history books, there’s a certain point when black history is included, and then there’s a period of 100 years where it’s literally wiped out. If a black person had done something, the painting is a white person. This actually exists in books”.
There are those who argue that a month specifically dedicated to a certain race or minorities in general is counterproductive to the goal; it promotes racism rather than equality. “For people to say that if there wasn’t Black History Month, then they would [still pay attention to Black History] is very arrogant, because they do ignore it. So, the proof is there”, Hajera argues. “At UCLU, we include BME in the month, so that’s Black, Asian, Latin American… anyone who identifies as BME, really. When we say Black History Month, the ‘Black’ is used in a political sense rather than just African-Caribbean.” It’s hard to argue when she states personal examples of “people that have said ‘it’s so amazing to be able to see myself represented in an exhibition’. You can never undermine how powerful that is”.
Hajera’s goals for the future
“There is no typical day for any sabbatical officer, it’s not a 9 to 5 job.” Hajera is only the second BME officer to ever be elected into UCLU, so getting recognition is itself a full time job. She has three main goals for her time as sabbatical officer.
- Set up a formal network of BME students that can provide feedback about what they need. In her own words: “for example, I’m not a postgraduate student, so I don’t know what a postgraduate student would need. There has to be some sort of formal network within the students who identify as each group to make sure that all the students who are BME can get what they need at university”.
- Be more vocal about the social aspect of BME. There are loads of events, but sometimes not everyone knows about them. This year, Black History Month has double the amount of events as last year, and such a wide variety that it’s sure to please everyone. Also, very importantly, Hajera is keen to work “with all the different liberation networks. For example, you’re not a woman and BME. You’re both together”, so many events are organized together with other organisations.
- Formal careers advice, from students for students. Often, a career talk will be one very successful man in a suit speaking to hordes of terrified students – Hajera wants to have students who’ve just come out of internships or who’ve just landed that graduate scheme to tell us exactly what needs to be done to ensure success. “You can ask the questions you would feel too stupid to ask someone who’s working and who is part of a huge company”. These career events would, of course, be open to everyone, and not just BME students.
Student involvement with UCLU
Welcome general assembly time -where you decide if we should have wed lectures, cheaper rent, recognise Palestinian state #myUCLyear
— Ayo (@AyoBMEStudents) October 9, 2014
It’s not hard to see the importance of Hajera’s role for our university. So many of us identify as minorities – why, then, does it seem that when spring or autumn elections roll around, no one seems to be particularly bothered? “It’s a problem that UCLU has had forever and ever”, Hajera laments. UCL students just don’t seem that interested in our very own university politics.
I was voted in to represent people, so unless they’re telling me whether or not I’m representing them, how will I ever know?
UCLU helps make UCL the university that we all know and love for most of the time. When you go to the gym and then immediately treat yourself to a cheesecake from Print Room – trust me, they’re delicious, and you deserve it – or when you went to Welcome Fair, or when you go to Summer Ball, you’re involved in UCLU events and institutions. The library being open 24 hours? UCLU. The policy that ensures you receive a grade back within three weeks? UCLU. Any society you’ve ever joined? UCLU, again. So, obviously, students are involved in UCLU, but not in the elections – and that’s just a terrible paradox. Hajera concedes that it’s their fault for not “shouting about it enough”, and they’re actively trying to change that. Having said that, though, she also adds that “those who don’t like what we’re doing, and want to change it, do come to our general assemblies or the different forums that we have. It’s possible to make a difference.”
“If there’s something that [any BME student] needs, any sort of support, or an event that they want to run: I have an open door policy, so they can just come in whenever, or email me, or telephone me. If they want to get more involved, they can come to the forum meetings. There’ll be free food. I was voted in to represent people, so unless they’re telling me whether or not I’m representing them, how will I ever know? People have to hold me accountable, and I welcome that.”
The first BME forum will be held on October 16th, from 12:30 to 2:00 pm, in Room 404 of 25 Gordon Street.
To find out more about Hajera and what she does, you can visit this page, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her office is on the fourth floor of the Union building, just above Phineas. Or, tweet @uclu or @uclu_bmeso