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In conversation with Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi

Posted on 11 March 2022

Earlier this month, Associate Dami Ewedemi sat down with authors Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi to discuss their new book, Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change, an account of racism and the lack of diversity in the education system.

In the session, Chelsea and Ore reflected on their experience at University of Cambridge as two young Black women, which prepared them for the things that most students fear: finances, accommodation, making friends and excelling in their studies.

Chelsea and Ore shared their views on diversity and inclusion and exploring what those words truly mean for young Black girls today.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions. 
Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

Welcome everyone and thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy session, part of a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.  I’m Dami Ewedemi and I will be hosting today’s event.  I am delighted to introduce our two guests today and thank you so much for joining us.  Chelsea Kwakye is a First Class History graduate from Homerton College, Cambridge where she also served as Homerton’s BME Officer and Vice President of the African and Caribbean Society.  Whilst there she was the only Black girl in her year group of around 200 people to read History.  She is now a trainee solicitor at a London law firm.  Ore Ogunbiyi is a Politics and International Relations graduate from Jesus College, Cambridge.  Whilst there she pioneered multiple campaigns including the Black Men of Cambridge University Campaign which went viral and featured in various media outlets such as the BBC, Elle and The Washington Post.  She also served as President of the African Caribbean Society and is now a Healthcare Correspondent for The Economist.  Their experiences at Cambridge as Black women spurred them to write the highly insightful book that is ‘Taking Up Space: The Black Girls Manifesto for Change’, which gives an intimate, honest and, at times, painful account of different Black women manoeuvring through predominantly white University institutions.  Guys, I absolutely loved your book, absolutely loved it and what I think I particularly love about the book is that it is for us and it’s by us.  And by that I mean you are explicit on who you’ve written the book for and also it was published by Stormzy as part of the Murky label.  Can you both remember the moment or how the idea of writing this book first came about?

Ore Ogunbiyi

Yeah so we were on holiday just before we got our final year results so, after third year, Chelsea’s sister called and was like ah, you guys should write like a little pocket book, like the Black Girls Guide to Cambridge and we were like ha, ha, ha, yeah, like, sure, cool, yeah like we will and literally a month and a half later we were at an introductory meeting with Penguin but it all just flowed really naturally, like we knew exactly kind of where the chapters would flow, all the different aspects we wanted to look at.  We knew very quickly that we didn’t want it to just be about us because we knew it had to be more representative than just us but the idea just came from a, you know, that kind of triumphant moment of, we’re done, we actually did well, despite all the gazillion things that were kind of against us, we did good and we’re happy and look at us. 

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

What I really, really like about it is the name as well, ‘Taking Up Space’.  It’s such a powerful name.  Why don’t you tell us what exactly made you decide on that title?

Chelsea Kwakye

Well we had a bit of back and forth about the name.  Declaration, Ore actually wanted to call it Wigs Off.  As if we’re going into this environment, you know, you can’t control us, wigs off.

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

I get it. 

Chelsea Kwakye

Shaking the table.  But yeah it was interesting and I think we had actually a mixed reaction to what the title of the book as you know now, ‘Taking Up Space’.  I think for a lot of people they almost saw it as to take up space is to take up a space that isn’t actually yours and that made a lot of people uncomfortable that you know you then start to interrogate, okay what do we mean by space, is that okay the space isn’t made for us, who is it made for?  How do we then occupy that space?  Do we need to create a completely different space?  But I think for us it just meant unapologetically being yourself and I think that’s something you really learn when you are in that environment.  I used to find it really frustrating that we were you know, Black students, when you see the news articles it would be you know amazing Cambridge has managed to get X amount of Black students and I just used to think we’re all very different you know, I’m Chelsea, this is Ore, we’re not the same and even our conceptions of taking up space like they’ll be completely different in terms of how we want to approach that.  So I think I liked the idea and I think we liked the idea that you could have so many definitions of what it meant and it meant different things to different people because we’re not a monolith, we’re all very different.  So yeah I guess that’s like the deep meaning of ‘Taking Up Space’.

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

I think you touch on a really interesting point there when you say we’re not a monolith, like we’re not homogenous, there are completely different experiences within the Black community and as you say you touch on that in the book.  Do you guys think that there should be any kind of distinction or acknowledgement of this with regards to how diversity or access programmes allow candidates to apply or whether they do?

Ore Ogunbiyi

There’s a beauty in the fact that we both wrote this book and also that we recognise things that we couldn’t speak on, just both of us, because I am from a middle class home, I did go to boarding school and there were all kinds of opportunities I had open to me that I know that many of my peers didn’t.  Me speaking about access and acting like I had it had just isn’t a fair representation of what this conversation is about, the majority of Black students especially in the UK do struggle with these applications but also being able to say I wasn’t one of them was important.  They’re definitely things that just are not for me and it’s okay that I should be able to say that. 

Chelsea Kwakye

For me, I was the only person from my school to get in.  I went to a school that was just at the top of my road, like it was practical for my mum and dad to drop me off, they were both working, once I got to Cambridge, I realised comparatively there were so many things that I’ve missed out on and I was just not prepared for that experience and you know people who are making these decisions who are putting together programmes, just have that realisation and that recognition that just because you’re Black doesn’t mean you are disadvantaged and I think that’s where we are just in terms of diversity conversations, we just need to be more nuanced.  There is now starting to be an awareness of you know lots of different categories in which we can access people.  Again, it’s not just to do with maybe ethnicity or race.

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

I think another way you really, really capture that well was the fact that it wasn’t just you two’s experiences and it wasn’t just Oxbridge either, you had Black women from all different Universities, some in the North, some in London.

Chelsea Kwakye

We can’t speak to everybody’s experiences and I think that’s why it was really important to have those contributors.  The majority of the UK’s populat… like student population, do not go to Oxbridge so for us to write what would maybe be deemed as like a holistic experience of the University experience, that just doesn’t make any sense but yeah, having those contributors was really important to us and having them involved in the process just gave that added layer and that added perspective. 

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

You touched on earlier the fact that you are in a predominantly White institution at Uni, you are taking up space, sometimes that can be uncomfortable but there’s something beautiful in it and I just wonder how for both of you does your experience, being in a law firm, at a journalist place, how does that compare to your experience at Oxbridge?

Ore Ogunbiyi

It’s like well actually you can do all this work in Uni and that’s great and important and it’s impactful work and leaves legacies and improves maybe the experiences of students who come after you but then you have to go and face the world and basically start all again.  A lot of places are still kind of dealing with how to diversify places, especially older institutions, right, they’re very set in their ways and have a very clear idea of the kind of person that works there, the kind of person they recruit, the kind of person they look for, they’re having to really work hard to shake up how they see, like they’re ideal candidate.  I just don’t think it gets easier, annoyingly, I think that’s kind of what I’m trying to point out.

Chelsea Kwakye

Especially something like this.  What Ore is mentioning about diversifying the workplace or changing our conception of the ideal candidate, that takes time.  So when you maybe have competing urgencies that are popping up like clients chasing you or you’ve got a deal that you’re working on etc, those will be priorities so I think now it’s almost working out, okay well how can we understand that this is a long-term goal, it just kind of sits alongside that and something that you are constantly working at, even if you’re doing a little bit every day, a little bit every week, it’s not something that will be done after a certain amount of time.

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

It’s really interesting you say, something you kind of have to work at a little bit here and there because I think what we often forget is who has to work at it.  A lot of my friends have intimated in the past when it comes to diversity matters which is that they feel pressure to take the lead or to join committees to do with diversity because they feel like well, if I don’t do it as a Black person, who will?  Is this something you both have felt in the workplace or has it affected your willingness to volunteer for things to do with diversity at work at all?

Ore Ogunbiyi

It’s tough, yes, it’s again one of those ongoing things, we felt it at Uni, it in that you know we’re doing work, we’re putting ourselves out there, like I said very visible work, we’re like on the news, we’re, people are being put on the cover of newspapers for things that they’re doing trying to diversify the curriculum and I really do sympathise with people who actually don’t want to do it and I’m very clear in that activism chapter of Taking Up Space, if you do want to go to Uni and just focus on your… please do that because that’s a privilege that a lot of Black students don’t feel like they have, to just get by and do their Degree and even to be mediocre, you don’t have to do absolutely everything, you don’t have to be that Black person in everything and make everything a little bit more diverse.  It's a very heavy burden to carry when you’re trying to get your Degree done, especially when you are working really hard, there’s all kinds of other pressures you are facing at University.  It’s a tough balance to strike and I think it’s a very personal decision so I’m very understanding of people who don’t want to get involved because you shouldn’t have to and it’s not your job. 

Chelsea Kwakye

When it comes to that working within an institution, that systemic change, don’t automatically assume that because somebody is Black they are qualified to basically give advice on how to change company policy to do this, to do that and there’s so many things that we all need to understand I think if we want that change to work and for it to stick, we have to do that process where we make sure that things are properly implemented and you know there is that collaborative process. 

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

In your view, what do you think makes an effective ally and what do you… where do you think is an ineffective ally?

Chelsea Kwakye

I think it’s a lot of courage to be able to call out you know, if you think something is inappropriate, like Ore said, you know, you sometimes you could be put in a very uncomfortable position where maybe you are seen as the one who was the killjoy, to call something out, do it and I think for me if that’s what you’re doing behind closed doors and you don’t need to scream and shout about it, it’s an effective ally alongside that, continuing the education, continuing the reading, for me is what an effective ally is.  Unaffective? 

Ore Ogunbiyi

Don’t… speaking over us, I think is always a… sometimes people think they’re really helping, it’s like are you just kind of trying to be heard, are you actually just dominating this conversation taking it, making you the focus?  You have to strike that balance between yes carrying the conversation forward and speaking in rooms where we’re not there, is super important.  You know, when the conversation round the dinner table gets a little bit awkward, are you taking that opportunity to share the education that you’ve learned, that you’ve been reading about, that you’ve been reading online about, we have to have difficult conversations, it will be lovely if you could also have some of those difficult conversations so that we have to have less of them, it makes it a little bit easier for us. 

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

Also, in the focus of organisations is on recruitment and improving our numbers in recruitment, improving our diversity, what do you think can be done by organisations to improve actual retention?

Ore Ogunbiyi

I think a lot of is cultural and I know we’re acknowledging that some of these things take a while to change but you know what work can, people, and this is at managerial level but also even higher up, be doing to make sure that the work you are doing is things that you find interesting, accepting that if you are going to be serious about talking about diversity that also means diverse thinking and that means more diverse approaches to your work, that means you have to accept that in its fulness it’s not just what diversity might look like, it’s also what it feels like as a culture.  Cultural things, so just making sure that you feel welcome in your entirety I think is really important.  You get a lot of really talented Black staff who leave careers that they’re in because of things to do with workplace culture and you have the opportunity as someone who is conducted that interview to actually talk to them about that.

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

What are your views since you wrote the book on the whole Black excellence narrative?  Do you think it’s a necessary narrative to combat the narratives by the media or do you think it puts unfair pressure on individuals within the community? 

Ore Ogunbiyi

We’re not just students, we’re the few Black students who were given the opportunity to go to a place like Cambridge.  Even the language given is also a problem in itself but the thing I was saying before about also feeling the pressure to go and then be an activist but similarly you feel like you have to, you have to do insanely well, you can’t just be good, you can’t just pass, you can’t just get a 2:2, you have to get a First, you have to get a starred First, you have to get a Distinction in that Masters.  It does a disservice to Black students who have also done really well and have also just managed to survive what in some cases are actually really difficult circumstances.

Chelsea Kwakye

Anything and everything we did would just be extrapolated to just the whole Black community and like the kind of work that it has taken to maybe achieve those three, four A stars whatever, is hard, it is the 6.00ams, it’s you know, sometimes mental breakdowns and I think I really wanted to tie that in with the mental health chapter and just what that really does look like.  But I also think it’s the criteria of which we assess Black excellence, like where has that come from?  It’s you know about money, it’s about capitalism, it’s about grades, it’s about corporate lifestyle, it’s not, we shouldn’t be judging people on those metrics at all.  University is not easy, having a job, work, it’s not easy so to have these extra expectations at Uni to be excellent and excel at every single thing that you do and be involved in every single thing from you know diversity committees and you are doing sports and you are doing this and you’re again trying to work, get your job, degree etc, it’s just not, we shouldn’t be held to that standard. 

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

You touched on mental health and another part that you talk about in the book is safe spaces but I thought that similarly what we’ve seen at universities is de-platforming, where speakers who are considered to hold offensive or controversial views are prevented from being allowed to attend the University and speak.  Where do you both stand on this?

Ore Ogunbiyi

The conversation has been taken so ridiculously crazy out of, like, it’s just go so out of hand but I think we have to remember that universities are at first places for students and when we talk about safe spaces, we’re talking about yes, the societies and societies in which you like to hope that the members should feel safe as a bare minimum.  It’s not you should never have to listen to anybody you disagree with.  Oh look at us, snowflake generation, I hate the way that term gets thrown around but it’s just, you know, it’s not asking too much that students want to feel safe in their University.

Chelsea Kwakye

Students are vocal, they’ll tell you why they don’t think it’s a good idea, they’ll tell you why these things need to change and…  Ore touched upon a good point, it’s not that like I’m closing my ears because somebody disagrees with me, there are reasons why this person is harmful and we don’t want them there.  That whole process of, you know, inviting speakers who are controversial, who do have harmful views, can just be a lot more collaborative.

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

Chelsea and Ore, thank you so, so much for this interview, it’s been an absolute pleasure to be interviewing you both and I can’t wait, you told me that there’s a TV show coming out soon based on Taking Up Space so I’ll be tuning in whenever that is.

Ore Ogunbiyi

At some point. 

Dami Ewedemi, Associate
Mishcon de Reya

Again, thank you so, so much for coming in.

Chelsea Kwakye

Thank you.

Ore Ogunbiyi

Thank you.

Chelsea Kwakye

Thanks for having us on.

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit mishcon.com.


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