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Anti-racism, and the anxiety of change

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I’m Erin, I’m currently an undergrad psychology student. I chose to do a placement year with the University as a project manager for HEART (Higher Education Anti-Racism Training). This is a reflection on my time with the project.

Getting involved in change can be very daunting; I’ve often thought, “I just don’t want to get in the way” however, I recently realised that this is a privileged perspective. Change requires bravery; the HEART programme encourages this.

Like many other students, I have vented my frustrations with the University’s past efforts towards a more inclusive environment especially when events both in Manchester and in society more broadly have sparked debates on institutional racism in the past two years. That’s why I was so drawn to this University programme; I felt like it targeted a considerable need for an open space for discussion on race and racism in academia, especially for staff who hold power and influence over the workings of the University.

The training has involved seminars from incredibly passionate and inspiring people promoting change, including Angela Saini, author of Superior: The Return of Race Science and Tan Ramirez, a student partner at the University doing fantastic work such as creating a safer spaces guide and a key terms handbook. This was the pilot year for the programme, but we hope to continue running the course with a small cohort each year to allow for intimate and personal discussions on race and racism.

I have been running behavioural change sessions, where the staff identify what they can change within the University, such as changing meeting structures to be more inclusive and actively calling out microaggressions. I must admit that running a class for 25 established academics seemed a tad gut-wrenching and perhaps initially a ridiculous idea. Before I held my first session, I had formed this image of an awkward silent zoom call and tumbleweed as I asked for participation. A behavioural psychologist who helped me plan and run my sessions said (much to my amusement and relief), “with academics, don’t worry about them not speaking, worry about getting them to stop”. A comment that was thankfully and quite rewardingly true.

The engagement from everyone involved has been an emotional thing to see. With spaces like this, there’s a certain level of vulnerability involved, being able to challenge and be challenged on issues and biases that you may never have even considered.

I hope that the University broadcasts the work being done for inclusivity in a more accessible way. Many students and staff aren’t aware of the programmes run by the University to tackle these issues. This isn’t being done in a vacuum – the University’s Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) has been developing a framework for an ED&I strategy, which recently launched consultations with staff and students, and has just published the Equality Information Report 2022.

I’m very grateful that I’m involved in this programme, supported by two people I admire (Shireen Gaur, clinical psychologist and group analyst and Dr Adam Danquah, Associate Dean for Inclusive Education and Engagement). This training will result in a group of staff being more aware of their biases and those within the University. I’m hopeful that this will have a long reach, tendrils of education that filter down and spread.

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