Founder of One Love Radio and Equal Rights Campaigner
One of our longer Q&As, Sofia Akel has a number of interesting opinions, stories and experiences to share - read our conversation with her about defying discrimination whilst running a campaign at university
Havering College, East London
A-Levels: Media, Sociology, English Language, Psychology
Let's begin with your original university campaign ‘Why is my Curriculum White?’, which is why I contacted you in the first place as I know you won LUSU Liberation Awards for Campaign of the Year and Ethnic Minority Students Campaign of the Year. What was that and how did you go about starting it?
Basically, NUS started it and a friend of mine at Leeds University, who’s also studying history, told me about it. It made me think more about our history department, which is very limiting, very Eurocentric and whitewashed. Of all the modules on offer, there are a thousand ones on Nazis, loads on Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, but you can’t learn, for example, about black British or black minority history here in England. Even though they do regional history, you can learn about Lancaster, but you won’t learn about how it was the fourth largest slave port during the height of the slave trade. It shocks a lot of people. You wouldn’t know that. So I brought together a few people that I knew were really interested in racial equality and decolonising the education system and we decided to start it here. We started it in February 2016, which is late into the year, but it gained momentum quite quickly. I think it’s probably because the name’s very striking.
Yes it is - that’s how we noticed around campus on the posters, it got us talking about it.
I was conflicted between backing the name and also telling people it wasn’t my name for it (the NUS coined it), because I think a lot of people naturally felt offended by it. It seems like an attack when you read it. But then I reminded myself why I brought it here and that I needed to support the movement in its entirety, name included, and not let the idea of ‘white fragility’ and offense dilute the message - just as our voices have been diluted for centuries.
In terms of the department responses though, the History department seemed most reluctant to accept the issue and the need for change.
Why were they resistant?
Well, the only minority person in there is from Europe. In my time of doing this campaign, there was not a single black professor in the department, nor a single course that looks at BME people outside of servitude. Most of the professors there are researching very Eurocentric topics and the department seemingly only hires people who fit this mould. Everything that they’ve spent their lives researching is just a duplication of colonialism, because they don’t teach outside of the framework that is still quite reductive and doesn’t look at the wider picture.
So we had the launch, which featured a few speakers including Kehinde Andrews, who started the first ever black studies course in England at Birmingham City University, as well as Anthony Anaxagorou, an incredible poet. We got quite a good turnout. It was nice to have such a diverse amount of people, because one thing that’s very important to me is to bring both sides together, as I’m mixed race, I've lived in the ‘middle’ my whole life and no one should have to feel like they don’t belong to a community. I really try not to make it a strictly black issue because I think that white people have just as much to gain from this as we do. If the curriculum was decolonised right from a younger age, then I think it would really shape people’s perceptions of how they see England, how they see the Empire, how they see immigration and everything else. We’d be a lot better off for it.
I've heard many people say, ‘Well, England is white, doh? That’s why your curriculum’s white?’ But people would believe that as that’s what they’ve been taught by the existing curriculum. It said on the BBC that the earliest recorded black person in England goes back as far as the 13th or 14th century, which surprised even me, because I didn’t realise they were here that early. Or, for example, if you learn about the industrial revolution, you’ll never learn about the aristocratic black people that existed in this country at that time - we weren’t always slaves.
It’s so strange how you don’t notice that immediately in your curriculum, but as you say it here, I entirely see what you mean. That’s terrible.
No, no, it’s not bad at all - that’s the thing, I didn’t want people to feel bad or guilty. The curriculum’s quite political, the way that it teaches you to still look at developing nations in such a negative light, for example. You don’t even realise you’re doing it or that you’re being taught that way. I am really passionate about this campaign because when I was growing up at school, I didn’t have anything to identify with and in all of my history classes, the only time I remotely could was the module on the slave trade - of course i don't identify as a slave, but i felt my ancestors in it. Even the way they teach it is quite ridiculous, It’s all very matter of fact - but when they teach about Nazi Germany, it’s so severe, how evil were they? Yet slavery was treated more like, ‘Oh yeah they put them in boats and they sent them off to the beautiful land of the free.’
You're currently working on One Love Radio - what is that and why did you choose to start it?
I’d initially describe it as a radio show that educates and celebrates Pan-Africanism through music, which has since grown into a social enterprise, hosting events etc, for BME students. I’ve always wanted to get into music in some way or another, I’ve done work experience at NME as far back as Year 10, because I wanted to be a music journalist before realising it wasn’t for me. I’m not artistically musical, but I enjoy listening to other people’s. I joined the radio here at Lancaster and I thought, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it properly - I’m not just going to come on the radio and play my favourite songs and leave’. I had a good think about what was on offer and I thought there was nothing that really catered to minority students here in terms of student media. So you know in America you’ve got Black Entertainment Television? I watch that back home and it got me thinking - there’s nothing here like that either. The only time I can think where we’ve been covered in any sort of media - have you heard of Top Boy?
I think I have, on Channel 4?
Yes! I watched that and I really related to it. I mean, I’ve not been in a gang. But I was thinking there’s not much else that really highlights the black experience of being in England, especially the plight of the poor, working-class estates in London where i came from. I wanted to give a voice to someone who doesn’t have one right now. I have received feedback from people saying, ‘Why have you let this non-black person work for One Love?’ But I would never dream of telling people that they can’t do something because of their skin tone and I think it’s fantastic if non-BME people want to get involved, because it shows a willingness to learn of our experiences.
Most of my friends are white and I understand it can be really hard for them to broach topics of race and stuff because they’re worried about coming across as ignorant or racist. I wanted to create a platform where they could feel comfortable enough to do that as well as one for BME people to express themselves and feel proud of their heritage.
What have you learnt from starting a campaign at university? What do you think makes your university experience different to those that have come and just picked up a degree?
Without sounding too cheesy, it helped me find my calling. Have you heard of being woke?
Yeah, I know woke.
I think I got to a stage of being woke where once you’re awake, you can’t fall back asleep to ignorance. I felt like I really had to do something about this. Everything you hear that’s really ignorant, you feel obliged to challenge or to educate that person. I thought if I do this campaign, it could raise awareness. One of the main things that I’ve learned from doing something like this is that not everyone’s ready for diversity. I actually fell out with a few of my friends during ‘Why is my Curriculum White’, because a lot of them didn’t understand why I was doing it and they thought I was just ‘on a racial crusade’. Some people won’t give you a chance to defend yourself. I think that was the hardest pill to swallow, that even some people that I had considered amazing weren't ready to get behind racial equality. I think many just have it built in that we are the snowflake generation, everyone gets offended by everything, so they don’t respond well to calling out inequality. I even had someone accuse me of creating segregation and racism? That was probably the toughest thing.
That’s a shame, but I suppose these sorts of things bring out the true character of people? You don’t want to be friends with those that think like that.
Exactly. I had a pretty bad experience recently actually. There was a bunch of us hanging out and this one guy said to a friend, ‘When it’s dark, I can’t see you outside. When you wear black, I can’t see you’. I could see that my friend was getting uncomfortable, so I said, ‘Can you stop saying that - it’s racist and unnecessary and you’re calling him out in front of everyone, you’re making him feel separate.’ Someone said, ‘Oh, it’s a joke, it’s just a joke,’ and I replied, ‘It might be to you, but it’s not to him.’ Anyway the guy turned round to me and said, ‘Why won’t you be in my project’s group - my group’s full of white people and we need a cleaner’.
Oh my god, that’s not okay?!
I know! In my head, I was like, ‘You have picked the wrong person to be racist to’. Then he started to say to me, ‘You’re my slave, I’m your slave master,’ and the thing is that a lot of my friends were laughing at what he was saying, which hurt more than him saying it. But they looked at me and realised that i wasn’t finding it funny, so they stopped. I said to him, ‘Can I explain to you why this is wrong?’ I didn’t even shout at him. I tried to explain to him why it was ignorant, but he wasn’t having it at all. So I let it lie for maybe ten minutes, and then said, ‘Are you sorry for saying these things?’ to give him a while to reflect, and he replied, ‘No, I’m just sorry that you don’t have a sense of humour’. Any of my friends could tell you that I take the piss out of myself more than most, I do have a sense of humour - just not about that? It did resolve itself in the end. I made a status about it and the guy ended up messaging me saying, ‘I’m really sorry, I didn’t know that’s how you felt’. Its an experience we both learned from, and besides that he’s a great guy!
That’s awful - apology or not. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would think that was even acceptable, let alone funny. But moving on: why would you recommend to other university students that starting up your own campaign is a good idea and how should they go about it?
Really narrow in on what it is you’re looking to change. For me, I tackled the thing that was closest to me and that I had the most connections to get started with. I sat down and thought, ‘Okay, what’s the best way to start this?’ And then I thought, ‘Okay, the sociology department,’ because they’re more likely to have a complex understanding of race. They tend to listen to you if you’re really passionate about it. So I’d say make sure you’re really passionate about it.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Good question. How old am I...? Twenty-two. hopefully in a highly successful job, but a happy one. Something that I enjoy doing. When I do try and picture my future, I picture myself running this massive media empire, which would be amazing. I don’t know if it would ever happen, but when I picture my dream, it would be me still leading One Love Radio but having expanding into a far reaching social enterprise. With maybe its own channel on TV too! One thing that I want to do when it starts to pick up and make money is have a community thing where we give chances to people who don’t really have any. My nephews, for example, are eighteen and fifteen and they’ve had quite a tough upbringing, life hasn't always been fair to them. I’m quite close to them, but I’m up here in Lancaster and I’ve been up here for years, so I feel like I kind of have to be successful in order to help support them. I know the world doesn’t really give chances to kids like that. So I would like to ideally give opportunities to children like that because I know how hard it is to grow up in that sort of environment. They’re my main source of inspiration really.
Final question then, what is your number one advice for young women, career-wise, life-wise: what would you like to pass on?
Ooh, give me a minute. I’m trying to think of something that isn’t cheesy. I would say give yourself a chance. So, for me, personally, I want to give myself a chance first, an opportunity before asking other people for an opportunity when entering the real world. That’s the main thing.
I have quite a bit of anxiety and if I ever go to anything like networking, I feel really anxious. My advice for people who feel the same way is to just start talking - walk into the situation, talk over your thoughts, that’s how I get over it. Once you’re in it, there’s nothing you can do about it apart from be the best version of yourself that you can be. That’s how I’ve gotten half of my contacts and how I’ve done these things. Just throw yourself into situations, get the most out of your opportunities. University is a place where you can dabble in a thousand different things and if you fail, it’s fine, you can try again, you can try something else. There’s nothing holding you back.
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Interview by Isabella Ford
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