BLM Protest, EndSARSLucas Maddalena

When my co-researchers and I proposed the Black Advisory Hub, I didn’t expect to be speaking at its launch event just under 18 months later, on Friday 14th May 2021. The Hub was initially created as part of the Action and Participation Plan: Participatory Action Research project (APP PAR), which explores the specific obstacles that negatively affect Black British students and disabled students with mental health conditions. These two groups have the widest awarding gaps at Cambridge, meaning that they are leaving with lower degree grades than their counterparts — a vital issue to be addressed.

There are many factors which co-researchers noted as contributing to the awarding gap, and my research group decided to focus on the support systems that Black students at Cambridge have access to, which we agreed are currently limited. The number of Black undergraduates at Cambridge has increased rapidly over the last few years, but the resources we need have not necessarily followed. Many Black students rely on student-led groups and societies such as the African Caribbean Society (ACS) and the SU’s BME Campaign for community and support. To be clear, it is not a problem that support comes from students, but what is often overlooked is that these students often face the same issues. The onus should not be placed on Black students to try and solve anti-black racism at Cambridge. It must be a collaborative effort between students and staff.

“our Blackness can simultaneously make us visible and invisible”

The complex structure of the university also makes it challenging for Black students to access the support they need. With so many different colleges, faculties and departments students may feel overwhelmed, not knowing where to turn to for support and receiving different answers from different people. In my experience, being a Black student at Cambridge requires the navigation of a complicated space, where our Blackness can simultaneously make us visible and invisible. It is not uncommon to be the only Black person in a room, meaning our experiences and identity are often ignored; but when they are highlighted, it can be done without sensitivity, reinforcing how we are perceived as ‘Other’. When this is replicated across different settings in the university, you become uncertain as to how to cope with it. In light of this, we envisaged the Black Advisory Hub as a centralised support space, making it easier for Black students to access. It was not about replacing the support systems that Black students across the years have established and contributed to, but rather supporting them and promoting their work, as well as shining a light on opportunities that Black students may not have heard of.

Our proposal for a Black Advisory Hub was not free from challenges and hesitation. Part of our research involved gathering thoughts and feedback from current Black students; how did they feel about the creation of the Hub at Cambridge? Many students were enthusiastic, but some were apprehensive. Some were worried about potentially hostile responses from other students. These worries were totally valid and further exemplified why the initiative was needed. After all, the university community needs to understand how anti-black racism can affect the experiences of Black students, in order to dissuade unhelpful accusations that a Black Hub is self-segregating.

“three key development stages form the Hub: Bronze, Silver and Gold [...] hoping to transform it to the most useful source of support for Black students”

There was also the issue of what the Hub’s focus should be. In our research, some students emphasised the need for academic support. Others valued careers’ support and establishing networks. The crucial role of staff was also highlighted, considering how they could use the Hub to better help the Black students that come to them for support. It was clear that more research was needed, so a scoping research project was conducted. This concluded with us identifying three key development stages for the Hub: Bronze, Silver and Gold. The establishment of an online Hub completes the Bronze phase, and during the launch event, Professor Toope expressed his desire to launch the Hub into the Silver phase, with further work enacted to help transform it to the most useful source of support for Black students.


Mountain View

Seizing the Day: A proposal for radical joy in the lives of marginalised students

My favourite question from the launch event was concerning the future of the Hub; a student asked whether the long term plan for the Hub is to close as it would have served its purpose and will no longer be needed. To be honest, I think there will always be a need for the Black Advisory Hub. The goal of the APP PAR Project is to help narrow and eventually eliminate the awarding gap that exists between Black students and our counterparts. But the Black Advisory Hub has a role much bigger than this. The website lists four main areas of support available for Black students: welfare, academic, financial and career. The experiences of Black students at Cambridge are being heard now more than ever. After years of Black students speaking up, it feels as if we are finally being listened to and steps are being taken to support us during our time at Cambridge.

We often speak about the importance of understanding access work as needing to occur beyond the application stage. The awarding gap is proof of how crucial this is. Other projects as part of the APP PAR have focused on issues such as the shortcomings of the supervision system, the importance of decolonising the curriculum and the transition from school to university. The Black Advisory Hub is one action out of many that must be taken to not only help close the awarding gap, but also to ensure that Black students enjoy their time at Cambridge and the barriers that we face are lessened and if possible, eliminated.