On the 12th October, National Union of Students (NUS) President Shakira Martin came to the University to talk to students, forming part of SUSU events to mark Black History Month.
Shakira Martin is in her second and final year as NUS President, having previously held the role of NUS Vice-President for Further Education. Martin herself was a further education student and as such, is only the second NUS President not to have gone to university. She’s also the first woman from an African-Caribbean background to become President and a single mother of two.
The event lasted just over an hour with questions from student attendees, but mostly devoted to an “in conversation with”-style discussion between the Politics Society President, the much-appreciated host of the event Daniel Noruwa, and Shakira Martin. After warming up with some icebreaker questions, which saw Martin pick Solent over Southampton on the grounds of Solent’s affiliation with NUS, so ‘gonna have to look after my members!’.
The NUS President said she was from Lewisham originally and that only since ‘being involved with NUS have I been able to travel across the country; prior to that, all I’ve known is London‘. Only recently had she been able to appreciate ‘how beautiful the United Kingdom is’ as a whole, adding quickly that wasn’t to say ‘the ends’ aren’t beautiful too.
At first, Martin disliked the term ‘student politician’ to describe herself, due to the unpopularity of politicians, did ‘understand’ it. Stressing that she ‘wasn’t born for the role’, she stated that she ‘didn’t really see that education was transformative’ during her upbringing, but now as a parent views education as a critical way ‘to empower’ her children. Had she been born for the role, she may ‘have made probably a lot of different decisions in her life, but because of that, just a normal girl from the ends, [she’s] done a lot of things in order to survive’.
Martin stressed that her experiences of coming from a deprived area of London taught her that ‘there’s so many people that have so much potential’, but factors like poverty and austerity mean young people in deprived communities ‘don’t know what they can achieve in their aspirations’. Her role provides the opportunity to ‘share that knowledge’ with decision-makers to help them ‘understand why access to education is so important and how they can break down the barriers and challenges that prevent those from working class areas to be able to get their foot on the doorsteps of these institutions’.
The discussion moved onto power, with Martin agreeing that ‘the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any’. She stated a ‘lot of the work that I do that I’m passionate about is young people and crime’, and that one of her aims was to highlight ‘how poverty and the lack of opportunity allows the top to stay at the top through using the working class community to be like pucks on the monopoly board’.
Martin was frank that the education system ‘was set up for white, straight men from back in the days’ and found it frustrating when ‘privileged white men worried about their voices being silenced’, failing to recognise their privilege. For her, intersectionality is important in terms of impact on people’s opportunities and the importance of individual identity. While ‘diversity is coming through’, Martin said people need to talk ‘in their networks’ about tackling ‘institutional, structural racism’.
I think there’s about 75 years before the black attainment gap is shut, I mean that is just ludicrous to me, not even my children are going to get a chance.
Martin strongly emphasised the contribution of class to equality. She had started fearing not being working class anymore ‘when actually the working class aspiration is to provide for your family’. Ultimately ‘unapologetic’ for what she’d achieved, Martin wanted to remain ‘always grounded’ to her roots because ‘it’s where [she] comes from that’s made [her]who [she is]’. She concluded that:
I’m hoping my leadership will inspire other people, not just because I’m black and a woman, but because I’m different.
Later asked by Wessex Scene about the biggest challenge when creating her arguably flagship policy as NUS President, the Poverty Commission inquiry into the barriers for post-16 education access to working-class students, Martin noted that the word poverty can mean ‘so many different things to different people’. This broad meaning led to a vast, daunting amount of data. Eventually ‘the answer’ they sought was found, noting the Commission report’s conclusion of the existence of ‘a poverty premium’, a term used to encompass the myriad economic and social barriers faced by higher and further education students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and how a series of recommendations were made for tackling this.
So, my saying is, it’s not just about getting in, it’s about getting on and then getting out and this is why we need to work… with education, businesses and community, to ensure that we don’t just tackle sexual harassment while we’re in university, and the black attainment gap and the gender attainment gap while we’re in university, but when people move into the labour market and different industries, that we are tackling these challenges also.
Finally, Martin provided advice for students about approaching life, ‘don’t try and be what anybody else wants you to be’, before later adding:
If you put yourself in a position to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone, then you’ll be forced to expand your consciousness.
Having come from a challenging background of poverty, ‘a dysfunctional family’ and lived through a domestically abusive relationship, to become one of the most important student voices for change in UK further and higher education, it’s clear that Shakira Martin’s advice may be worth heeding.