Day 4 | The Big Day! Presentation Day!

Both myself and Melodie’s presentations were scheduled for today. Melodie’s workshop on “a sense of belonging” and my focused discussion on the “enterprising mindsets of first generation students, studying at a major arts institution in the UK.” Melodie went first in the morning, we went into the room a little bit earlier to make sure technology was on our side. Thank God we did, because we definitely needed that extra time to get all the digitals on board.

Sidenote: A tip for future conference directors, it’s 2017, please make sure you have up to date technology and speakers that can be heard by more than three people sat around it. Secondly, it would be very useful to have pens and paper available for attendees who have spent hundreds and some flown cross country to participate in your conference. These are essentials.

Melodie had prepared an interactive workshop, with an open presentation, a sound piece for the audience to respond to, sharing copies of our Terms of Reference Zines and an opportunity to split into groups to brainstorm on paper. Exactly the kind of creative delivery I spoke about in my last entry! The response was amazing, and stood out from all of the other sessions that I had attended prior to this. People were engaged, they were talking and interacting with the zines – saying that they will “definitely be using these as resources for their students.” Wonderful! It was yet another example of the impact that the work we do at Shades of Noir has, internationally. It reminded me of the importance of always being yourself, and delivering excellence whilst you do it.

The premise of my presentation is essentially an academic retelling of my journey through higher education. How students like myself, succeed despite attainment gap statistics showing that black students are 33% (Finnigan, Richards, 2015) less likely to graduate with a first. Instead of focusing on such a negative statistic, that doesn’t offer context and presents black students (me being a black student) as a percentage without a story, I would rather look at the higher percentage of black students who ARE succeeding and speak to them as individuals.

Speak to us as individuals. How are we doing it and what are the struggles that we face? How are we managing to navigate institutions that are still behind on their implementation of diversity? How are we carving out our own unique paths in industry and remodelling traditional routes to success? Because so many of us ARE doing it – all you have to do is look at the structure of organisations like Shades of Noir, Gal-dem and Black Blossoms are examples of this. Individuals like Tolu Coker (student at CSM) and Clara Amfo (BBC Radio Presenter) are too. If you want to see real, progressive and permanent change – let us write the blueprint. We’re the ones making it happen so isn’t that obvious?

My abstract begins with a James Baldwin quote “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” This rings true in every aspect of my life, written and presented from the perspective of a young woman of the African (Zimbabwean) Diaspora in the UK.

Knowing where you come from, contributes greatly to helping you understand who you are today and why you are that person. With this you are able to stand firm in your beliefs, in your purpose and your direction in life – that’s not to say everything instantly makes sense – but you do become stronger and wiser for it.

For example, when arriving at this conference I was slightly nervous about being younger than everyone else and perhaps not being taken as seriously because of it. Subconsciously I carried myself in that way, and gave off that energy. I was shy and didn’t really get to engage or feel involved like I would have wanted to. Then after some contemplation and a brief conversation with Aisha (Shades founder via Whatsapp as she was in the U.K.) – I remembered who I was.

An intelligent and insightful 20-year-old woman, whose parents sacrificed to migrate to this country for greener pastures. Academically and creatively gifted, my words and voice move people of all generations. I am transforming my future, my family’s future and I am a part (no matter how small) of this world’s revolutionary future. I am as capable as anybody else in this room, if not more so. Above all, I know who I am, where I stand, what I deserve and I won’t settle for less.

I then began to carry myself like this woman, and things changed. I found the confidence to speak up articulately during sessions and spark new lines of conversations. Lines that wouldn’t have otherwise been visible without my (our generation’s) unique perspective. I continued on to make exciting and meaningful connections – ones that would allow me to travel again for more international conferences, that would mail me copies of their students’ zines to review, that I would be able to visit when I return to Toronto and that would contribute to the work I am doing at Shades of Noir.

Next up was my presentation – which took an unfortunate turn. Ready, prepared and excited for my “focused discussion” which I had expected to be a round table discussion, following an introductory presentation by me. I was wrong.

Looking at the timetable I noticed 13+ focused discussions packed into one room, within the same 45 minutes. The room wasn’t one of the rooms where the other presentations had been taking place in a consecutive order, we were all placed in the lunchroom. Everyone whom I had connected with couldn’t attend my session, because they had sessions going on at the same time – many of them in the same room – so close that I could listen in to their sessions whilst delivering my own. I was totally unprepared for this and totally gutted. I couldn’t see the sense in the choice of placement and timing, but anyway…

Only one woman came to sit at my table with Melodie and I, we had an incredible in-depth conversation. I talked her through my story, she shared hers – we spoke about black womanhood, redefining success, government conspiracies, and the differences between America and the UK. A truly wonderful and engaging conversation is what came out of it in the end.

Whilst I was disappointed, I took this as motivation to submit another proposal for another conference and do it bigger and better. Change doesn’t ever happen without discomfort.

It was only the first, far from the last. It was indeed a learning curve, certain mistakes won’t be repeated and I now know exactly how to navigate academic conferences. I won’t ever forget this trip, as I said in my first entry I am extremely grateful and incredibly excited for what the future holds. I came back to the UK a 20-year-old woman, with a new lease of life. Ready to work and to make the utmost out of my time on this earth.