Girl On A Mission: Beth Davies-Kumadiro
So far in our Girl On A Mission series, we’ve heard from Adwoa Aboah – the high-fashion model giving girls a voice – and Tasha Bishop – the young woman changing the way we think about fertility. Next up, it’s Beth Davies-Kumadiro – founder of Common Ground Oxford.
Common Ground is a student-run movement based at Oxford University, which sets out to equalise the playing fields for those of all races and classes. Their mission does not set out to “erase Oxford’s imperial legacy”, but instead they want to investigate it and bring a greater sense of equality on campus for both staff and students.
Ahead of their symposium in June, 21-year-old Beth talks us through how the project has got to this stage and where she hopes things will go looking forward.
Why does this cause feel so important to you?
I think I am particularly sensitive to the way that British society can ignore race because it has repeatedly blind-sighted my understanding of my own identity as I have grown up. I am mixed-raced, and grew up with my white mum and a sister in the Midlands. Before I came to Oxford, I didn’t know very much about theories of race and racism; I knew almost nothing about Britain’s imperial history. My dad is from Zimbabwe, and my mum’s family were some of the many British colonials who went to the country as settlers. So, learning about our imperial history helps me to understand myself. Class is something I have been thinking about a lot longer, having had a lot of cultural capital, but not much money around when I was a kid. Like being black, social class is the kind of thing which can easily make you feel abnormal at Oxford. At Common Ground we want to shed a light on racism and classism as they exist for students and staff.
If you could sum up the ethos of the project in four words, what would they be?
As one of my core team members, Tobi, wrote when she explained why she wanted to join Common Ground: as a woman of colour, Oxford was categorically not built with her in mind. When people from different backgrounds come here, Oxford should make space for us as we are, not just accept the “culturally acceptable to upper class and white” bits, and crush the rest.
So much of the status quo is taken for granted as just “what Oxford is like” when freshers arrive. Honestly, a lot of elite networking still goes on at Oxford, and the gross over-representation of those from elite backgrounds makes for quite a bizarre social scene. You quickly get used to people calling anything they didn’t come across at school “edgy”; there’s some exoticisation of blackness and hair-grabbing; people who wear black-tie regularly also try to throw grime nights. At Common Ground we want to disrupt any idea that this kind of behaviour is “normal”. It isn’t. So, we’re calling out the stuff we don’t like, explaining why we don’t like it, and taking the piss out of it a bit. Basically, instead of giving up on Oxford, we’re contesting what it can mean to be here.
A lot of people don’t want to be racist, don’t want to be classist. They probably don’t even realise that they are being so half the time. They are probably also one of your friends. A lot of people have come straight out of boarding school and have absolutely no idea about anything outside of their lived experience. They are curious. This doesn’t make it any less bad for the person hearing their shit day after day, but it does mean that there is room for change. Disclaimer: there is never, never, never an obligation for people of colour to educate white people about racism. But engagement is one of our objectives because we reckon that the more we get people talking about racism, classism and decolonisation through formal events led by social commentators and academics, the easier they will become to address informally.
We want to encourage students who don’t fit the Oxford stereotype to own that, and speak about the ways that Oxford can be alienating. We want BME and working-class students to be able to call out their peers or staff members if they come out with something racist or classist. We want to celebrate what makes us great as a student body: not our credit-card limits, but our interests, our enthusiasm, our determination. There are actually a very significant minority of people from non-elite backgrounds out here, just doing their thing, and we want to be louder about that. There’s a lot of good stuff going on in Oxford if you know where to look.
Girl On A Mission: Adwoa Aboah
Girl On A Mission: Adwoa Aboah
How do you think being a young woman campaigner impacts the outcomes of your success?
I think as a girl you are more used to people trying to ignore what you say than boys are. So, you have to work out good responses to that, and find ways to make people actually shut up and hear you when you are trying to say something important. I’ve put all of that into Common Ground. We asked our amazing graphic designer, Frances Whorrall-Campbell, to use the colour red for our logo and promotional materials, as a colour of strength, blood, passion and revolution. She also drew out the pinks and the oranges in that, which I love. It shows that in a force for change there exists softness, pain, and kindness. I really like the work of Lora Mathis (@lora.mathis on instagram) and her use of “radical softness as a weapon.” Maybe I’m reinforcing gender stereotypes, but I think I feel most female when I use my softness and vulnerability to say something powerful and uncompromising.
What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced thus far?
We’ve actually been really lucky. I mean between us we must have sent many thousands of emails to different academics and commentators, asking them to get involved. It’s pretty tough to do this alongside the final year of an Oxford degree. But so many people have wanted to get involved. We also have a really great team of people at Oxford who have worked their arses off to organise events, get funding and design our promotional materials. I think there’s a feeling among a significant proportion of the undergraduate student body that now is the time for change. We’ve had a few problems with communication, and someone trying to pressure us into promoting their events, but nothing deep.
You’ve actively used social media – what do you think the significance of these platforms is for activism right now?
Social media is huge. One of the main aims of the movement is covering as much physical ground as possible, which means trying to get an event into every college at Oxford. I don’t think we could have done this without social media. Like someone would say “try contacting this person” and we’d just message them. In only a couple of weeks we had over 100 people involved in organising events, and within a week of launching our Facebook page we had 1000 likes. There’s just no way we’d get that level of engagement without social media. Now we just have to see whether people come to our events in person… But I’m hopeful – tickets for our first event have almost gone already, although we only launched it a few days ago!
Girl On A Mission: Tasha Bishop
Girl On A Mission: Tasha Bishop
How does it feel when you see the work you’ve done actually directly impact people in a positive way?
It’s great. I know what it feels like even to have one more voice fighting your corner in a room full of people who don’t give a damn. It really matters. And we’re not adding just one more voice, but a whole network. Hopefully the next generation at Oxford will be even more carefree, motivated and dynamic than we are. If you’re thinking about applying to Oxford from a working-class or BME background, do so. In the words of the Oxford ACS, ‘we will make space for you.’ There are so many opportunities here for you to make use of.
Who would you love to see support Common Ground Oxford?
It has to be Solange. In her song “Mad”, she sings: “I ran into this girl, she said, / “Why you always blaming?” / ‘Why you can’t just face it?’ / ‘Why you always gotta be so mad?'” and then answers her imagined critic with a single controlled line: “I got a lot to be mad about.” As James Baldwin said of America, “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” Solange’s work speaks to the feeling of being black in white society today. She shows that you can be angry and black and feminine and graceful all at the same time. We’re trying to channel something of that. Her single, “Don’t Touch My Hair” doesn’t go amiss in Oxford either.
Miss Vogue’s 3-Step Election Guide
Lastly, you’ve 150 words to say whatever you want about the issue you support – go for it!
Come to Common Ground’s inaugural symposium on Oxford’s “Imperial Past, Unequal Present”, the weekend June 10 to 11! Our speakers include Amma Asante (director of Belle) and Emma Dabiri (TV broadcaster and author) as well as numerous other world-leading academics, artists, campaigners, curators, authors, translators and performers. Our core panel discussions are on Oxford and the British class system, decolonising the curriculum and the legacy of Rhodes Must Fall. Our keynote speech, delivered by the incredible Professor Karma Nabulsi, is about learning from anticolonial struggles. Aside from those there is so much going on: from discussions about decolonising fashion and gender, to art and violence in Mexico, to a zine panel and spoken word. All events are free, and Oxford is beautiful in the summer, so there is no excuse not to come! Check out our Facebook page, website and twitter (@CommonGroundOx) for more information.
Are you a young activist or passionate about a project that you think Miss Vogue should know about? Get in touch with us by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line Girl On A Mission.