Queer Black students are being failed by universities. This non-binary academic has a plan to change that

Free Black University: Activist wants to decolonise UK curriculum

Queer Black students are being failed by UK universities, says Melz Owusu, who has a plan to decolonise the system.

Owusu, a 25-year-old decolonial theorist and activist about to embark on a PhD at Cambridge, is the architect of the Free Black University, a plan to “redistribute knowledge” among Black students with the needs of those who are also queer and trans at its very heart.

In just over a month, the Free Black University has raised more than £100,000 via a GoFundMe. There is an ambitious £250,000 target, with Owusu also calling on universities to redistribute some of their incredible wealth to help the charges they are failing.

“Queer and trans students — especially Black students who are queer and trans — struggle not just because of how the university interacts with them, but also because of what’s on the curriculum,” Owusu, who is non-binary, tells PinkNews.

“Universities weren’t set up with us in mind so they continually do us a disservice. And so when I consider decolonizing education, it’s about how do we stop having queer and trans voices and perspectives being relegated to an add-on to a curriculum which already has, at its heart, our erasure.”

To end the practice of Black, queer and trans voices playing a distant second fiddle to those of white academics, Owusu says they want to “flip the entire script”, putting these often-silenced perspectives at “the heart of curriculum design”.

There is a mental health crisis in universities.

As well as distributing radical texts both in book form and a vast online library, the Free Black University will deliver lectures on “transformational” topics and build a Black-centric journal and press. All of this will be free and openly available.

There will also, eventually, be a physical community space for students to address the ongoing mental health crises taking place in universities and Black and queer communities, and those who live in the intersection therein.

A 2018 Stonewall report found that trans students in particular face bullying from staff, with more than a third reporting negative comments or conduct. One in five said they had been encouraged to hide the fact they are trans. Disabled queer students are also a particular target, with 47 per cent receiving negative conduct from other students. Overall, more than 40 per cent of LGBT+ students hid their identity at university because they were afraid of discrimination.

The Office for Students has said that Black students with mental health conditions are less likely to graduate with a first or a 2.1, by 24 percentage points less than the overall student population, and are more likely to drop out after their first year.

Melz Owusu

Melz Owusu has been campaigning to decolonise universities for some time. (Will Stanley Film and Photography)

“A lot of students will go to university and come out traumatised,” explains Owusu, who began their activism while studying at the University of Leeds, where they delivered a TEDx talk on the subject.

“It might be a moment where they’re accepting their gender identity or their sexuality, and universities aren’t equipped to support them properly, and the NHS isn’t supporting them either.

“And so we want to consider the ways in which education and mental health work in tandem, and the fact that in order to have a fulfilling education you need to be supported with your mental health.”

Specifically, the Free Black University will offer tailored approaches to mental health support with an emphasis on community. There will be an understanding of how spiritual approaches can be used alongside Western psychology to support Black queer and trans students, including those who are on a journey towards accepting their identities.

Free Black University will be open to all.

Looking outside the traditional university network, there will also be an effort to meet the needs of all those who seek learning, including those who are incarcerated. Black people are over-represented in the UK’s prison population, meaning many lose out on educational opportunities full stop, before the nature of those opportunities is even considered.

“It’s important all people – even those cast away by society – receive radical knowledge and see themselves as people who can change the world,” they continue.

“Too often we see those people as too far replaced from us, but it literally could be any of us. When I think of like radicals throughout history, people like Angela Davis, Malcolm X and so many more went to prison. Some of them were even radicalised in prison, so that being a critical space for knowledge production is key.”

“We don’t see people as being intrinsically criminal, intrinsically bad. We have an abolitionist politic, we agree with the defund the police mission, and we believe knowledge should be free and accessible to all.”

By this belief, the Free Black University will be completely open access to all people, not just Black communities. However it is Black people who remain at the heart of this queer-led project, and it is Black people who it hopes to educate and empower.

There have been efforts, in recent, years, to reform curricula, to tear down statues of colonisers from campuses. And yet, only one-fifth of UK universities have committed to decolonising their curriculum as of June 2020.

For Owusu, “the progress of that movement isn’t necessarily going to end with the hope that I would like to see”.

“Rather than focusing on the ways in which whiteness continues to oppress — again, flipping the script — we’re asking how can we create a space which has at its centre the purpose of creating that radical knowledge, that centres the voices of Black, queer, trans and disable folk.”

Speaking in the aftermath of a Pride Month unlike any other, they point out the similarities between that movement and the one we are facing now.

Like those who fought against homophobia and transphobia in the Stonewall Riots, the people who today seek equality must undo centuries of oppression.

“This project is meant to create change within society in the long run,” they add. “It’s very important that it comes to fruition.”