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Wessex Scene interview Nicole Akuezumba, who is running for the role of Vice President Welfare and Community in the 2020 SUSU Spring Elections.
Why have you decided to run for the role of Vice President Welfare and Community?
For me, the main reason is because I currently am Vice President of Women of Colour Society. So, I already work quite well with the minority community on campus and I already interact with them a lot and I can see the issues and the gaps that need to be addressed and this prompted me to run.
What experience do you have that would make you an excellent fit for the role?
Like I said I am Vice President of Women of Colour Society. In the past year working with different students with different ethnicities and sexualities, it has made me realise what is needed to be addressed on campus and that’s just what pushed me to run not a set job that I have done how I’ve interacted with people and what I have learned from them.
What are the main problems you identify with the current role of VP Welfare and Community and how would you fix that?
So I think Laura has done an amazing job this year to address the gaps that were present from 2018 with the ‘You are more than’ campaign, she has done a lot with that and then last month was Disability Awareness Month, they have done a lot along with the Disability Officer to address the gaps with different minorities on campus and I don’t think there’s anything I could necessarily say this is wrong, or shouldn’t have been done like that because I think that the Sabbs and the voluntary officers take their time to make sure that they are addressing issues. For me what I’d like to do is to review what is already in place. So like the Disability Awareness campaign, I want to make sure I’m in contact with the Disability Officer if I am picked for the role and address what they feel is missing and review what is currently in place to make sure I’m making it better and building on what everyone else has done. That’s where I’m coming from, not really like this is wrong and this is what needs to be fixed immediately.
How would you engage with students on welfare issues knowing that it can be difficult for students to come forward with some issues?
I think a good way to address issues with welfare is to, first of all, do open feedback sessions where you gather people and you ask them what they think needs to be done on campus. At the end of the day, the Welfare and Community Officer is just one person who has one experience and you can’t push those experiences on everyone else. You have to understand what is happening within all communities and empower them to prioritise what they need, that is very important in terms of making sure you don’t do what you think is right you do what people deserve and think is right for them.
How would you work to improve equality and diversity within the Students’ Union and the University as a whole?
That’s a big question. I think for me, my objectives, I did mention addressing gaps in events of cultural significance. So, like with Black History Month and Disability Awareness Month and LGBT Awareness Month I’d like to kind of assess what is already in place and make sure that they are reaching the students that need that month and the students that month is there for. For example, with Black History Month making sure that it is being promoted as early as possible so that when it comes to Black History Month it’s not like scrambling for people to come to events it’s more of a thing that everyone knows about this regardless of your race everyone can come and participate. That can be extended for all the awareness month events like Disability Awareness Month, a lot of people don’t know about it until the month it was happening. So, I think there is a running issue with events making sure that these events are being promoted properly. So I think that’s one of the first things I’d start off with to improve equality and diversity in a big way because these events are made to uplift people especially minority groups and I think by making sure that those groups are actually aware that those events are taking place months before they happen, rather than weeks or days before they happen or hours even sometimes. I think it’s important that those events are being promoted as early as possible. So, for example, Women of Colour Society were asked to run an event or co-run an event during Black History Month and we were not told about it until a few weeks before which made it very difficult to organise ourselves and the event and even to promote the event days before when we should have known about it months ahead of time so that we could schedule it properly and I feel like that is the same thing for most events that are hosted by SUSU.
I feel like there isn’t enough push it’s more like right we’re going to focus on this and after that, we’re going to focus on this. Whereas it should be a calendar of events that will be focused on, this is when they are, for now we’re going to do this, but next is this. So, I think people should know what is coming up. I think in terms of equality and diversity there’s been a lot about invisible disabilities and lots of awareness raised on campus. There was a video released in Disability Awareness Month, with a few students talking about their experiences. I think there should be more videos like that on campus because for me I didn’t know much about invisible disabilities until I saw that video and I feel like those videos should be circulated regardless of whether or not it is Disability Awareness Month. Obviously then is the prime time to do it but I think they should be circulated regardless. I think SUSU has done an incredible job so far this year making campus more inclusive by bringing awareness to them and by uplifting them, but I think there are areas that diversity and equality can be pushed more just by making people more aware of what is happening.
Following on from incidents this year, students have expressed concern with how SUSU and the University have handled racism as well as the treatment of black students in general. What will you do to tackle racism at University and how will you ensure that the voices of Black students are heard?
I think for me because I am a student of colour, I am a Black woman myself, when for example with the Mayflower incident when that happened, I remember feeling like it took me back to a place of being an invisible student. I feel like when I was speaking to friends, we already knew what was going to happen in terms of nothing was going to happen and that isn’t how it should be. I feel like the University campus should be a space where students can come to feel safe rather than feeling unheard or misrepresented or brushed over or pushed to the side which is the case now sadly sometimes. I think in terms of moving forward, I think SUSU and the Officers could acknowledge what happened instead of pushing it aside. There is nothing wrong with saying I’m sorry this happened to you and I’m sorry that was your experience, I’m going to work to help you. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that, I don’t think there’s anything stopping them saying that because when something like that happens the people in power are the ones that should be reaching out to those who aren’t in power and saying hey I’m here, I understand this happened, how scary it must have been, like can you imagine being a black student on that bus.
There is nothing wrong with saying that we are here and that this is happening, our role as Officers is to empower and uplift you which I think is the role of the Students’ Union Officers. I think there isn’t anything wrong with the Student Union just making sure that they voice that they are here for students, not taking a step back or falling into silence when things like that happen. I think there’s nothing wrong with expressing that this was wrong and that’s an important place to start in terms of moving forward. That can apply to events of racism occurring, but I think it can be taken forward to any kinds of events or acts of violence against disabled students or LGBTQ+ people. That saying I’m here, I understand what happened was completely wrong and I don’t know what’s going to happen but we’re going to try. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging when something bad has happened and I think that’s something that should happen more on campus. That’s an important place to start. For me I mentioned in my objectives about direct transparency, making sure that the Students’ Union is transparent in terms of saying we know this is happening and we’re going to make sure that we have a role in it and that can be said to hate crimes against different people with disabilities, different ethnicities, sexualities – I think that resonates with them. It is important that you are not isolated, that you are part of your community and that your fears are being addressed.
Part of your role is leading on Welfare and Community campaigns such as like you mentioned Disability Awareness Week, You are more than, Black History Month, LGBT+ Month and Cultural Festivals. How will you improve student engagement in these campaigns?
I think it’s quite tricky when you say student engagement because, for example, I didn’t know that last year only 20% of students passed the space for voting in the first place, I think it was less than 30%. The concept of student engagement is difficult in terms of it is hard to get everyone involved. With things like Expect Respect the policy that has just been raised…
The concept of student engagement, the student community is one body but when you go beyond that it is different people with different priorities and different viewpoints so it can’t just be seen as a student body. It is important to engage with the groups that do need support, for example, with the Disability Awareness Month, that for me who is someone who wants to learn more about disabilities, that information was there I didn’t have to go far to get that information and I was able to engage with it. I think it’s important that first of all these events are happening regardless of whether or not there are students engaging with them because there always will be students engaging with them, there’s people that do care about what happens to disabled students and will go out to find information regardless of whether they have a disability or not. That’s the same thing with Black History Month and LGBTQ+ History Month. I don’t think student engagement should be a priority it’s more that these events are happening regardless of whether students are participating. I just think when you go beyond the whole thing of whether or not people engage with it, if everyone is engaging with it, it just matters that the people who these events are catered to feel heard and feel represented and feel uplifted to participate in a video where they can talk about invisible disabilities rather than there not being any videos because no one will engage with it but the people that do care will engage is what I think.
What I want to do if I get this position is make sure I review what is already in place and address the gaps. Obviously I don’t know the policies and ins and outs of everything that is in place but the major thing I want to do is look at what is already in place and see where there are gaps and what can be done and what can be changed and I don’t think that’s necessarily to do with engaging more students. It’s making sure that the students that need that are supported if that makes sense.
If you were elected what would be your top three focus areas?
My first objective kind of summarises that in terms of addressing gaps in inclusion. Like I said I want to review everything that is in place for the students going forward and making sure that what is in place addresses the gaps. Addressing the gaps basically. I know I mentioned international and minority students. For me that was a way of summarising the groups I feel are sometimes disenfranchised at uni. One of my three focus areas would be addressing gaps in inclusion and events of cultural significance like Black History Month events, LGBTQ+ Month events and Disability Awareness Month events.
I think I also mentioned about increasing the frequency of campaigns on physical and mental well-being, making ‘You are more than’ campaigns and events more consistent throughout the year rather than being something that happens maybe in little groups. It is important that they are being spread out throughout the year, not just during the exam period where you can go and chat to someone. It should be whenever you feel you need to chat to someone, that that support is there. Those are my three focuses just making sure and I guess the first two can be combined by addressing the gaps in events and inclusion. They are hand in hand. We’ve already discussed incidents about events like Mayflower if those things do happen again, which sadly and unfortunately, they might happen again because that’s the political climate now. I think it’s important that we do review what is already in place and make sure that the groups that are affected don’t feel completely invisible like I did when the Mayflower event happened. Honestly, that’s one of the main reasons I decided to run, seeing people talk about that, they are not expecting much of the university when it happened because I remember hearing about it and my friends being like yeah it happened but when has the uni stood up for us. That shouldn’t be the case, especially for university students, I don’t think that should be the case. The university is a community, and no-one should feel left behind or invisible. So those are my three things and obviously these are all connected. Because mental health is important in terms of events like that affecting the health of minority students and making sure that they are included when things like that happen and that they aren’t disempowered. All my objectives play in together.
Just two more questions. In your manifesto, you mention introducing a year-round student-led support system. Would you be able to expand on that idea and how would you put it into practice?
This idea came up from my first year, in Freshers week we had students working in Archers’ Road for the first few days talking to us and helping us settle in. I remember thinking this was so cool and then kind of being left alone after like one pizza party. The pizza party doesn’t have to happen ok. I think if you do need someone to talk to there should be someone there for you. Especially because that first few months of university can be the most isolating months of a young person’s life. For me they were, and I think it’s important that you have people you can talk to if you feel like in your flat you can’t talk to anyone. I feel like there should be someone somewhere that you can talk to because first years don’t know, or I didn’t as a first-year know much about enabling services and after my first semester I changed my course so I didn’t have a comfortable relationship with my PAT and I think first of all people don’t know you can change your PAT, people don’t know about enabling services, people don’t know about these things. Especially when you’re in first year you’re already being overwhelmed. I want to make a support system because I feel like that’s really important. I was thinking of this as a voluntary service that is available, and I think a good way this could be done is asking societies to do that. For example, in Women of Colour Society, we are all aware, we have spoken about these issues. If there were a way, we would love to go into halls and be there as a support system and I think a lot of societies would like to do that as well. Just they don’t know if they can and stuff like that. I thought of this as a way of bridging the gap between being a first year and being completely isolated and knowing that you do have support. I tried to think about how it would work realistically, I think students are the best way to do this as they have already been through first year and those isolating months and would know to some extent the experiences, not professionally, but what to do and how to help. I think it is a good way of making sure that no one feels left behind those first few months. I feel it is a good way of expanding the community as part of the role, making sure that everybody feels part of the student community.
Final question: You also mentioned creating events that will appeal to students of certain faiths or ethnic backgrounds. Would you be able to expand on this and possibly give some examples?
These events link to the gaps in events of cultural significance. As I mentioned already Black History Month, LGBTQ+ Month and Disability Awareness Month, those events that happen should be done in a way that everyone is aware of them, not weeks before they happen, but months so that people know that this is happening. I feel like that could make the university experience as a whole more empowering and more positive. One thing that Laura has done this year is giving the power to societies to host these events. So, like with Black History Month, Ghanaian Soc I think did a debate. Giving power to students then makes sure that the event is how it should be and not how you think it should be. What they did there is really good and that should be done more with faith-based minorities and ethnic minorities and all minorities, in general, they should be given the power to run events how they want to. There are societies that represent them so they should be involved more in the decision-making process with the events that apply to them. For example, in Black History Month why isn’t East African society or Somali society running an event? Even if they have before, there should be more events being held by students rather than SUSU coming in and doing an event. I think that’s a way of helping the relationship between societies, SUSU and students. That would help create more connections between the three bodies. I think that also applies to faith minorities as well. Islamic society was yesterday on campus doing a positivity event, giving out brownies and cupcakes with a positive message on them which was really cool. I feel like SUSU should be able to promote these events and be the platform that they stand upon. I think when societies do fundraisers there should be a calendar to see what societies are doing and support these events, especially when they go to fundraising and stuff like positivity cupcake giving. What I want to do is make sure that I am working with the people that can sometimes become invisible and the groups that represent them to bridge that gap and make sure that the student experience is more positive overall.
To find out more about Nicole Akuezumba’s policies, read their manifesto here.