Image Description: Lucy Tirahan holding a sign that says ‘World Food Week’
This week we are continuing our ‘Student Spotlight’ series with a student activist who has pushed for positive change, both in her college and in the wider University. Lucy Tirahan, third-year English Language and Literature student at Lincoln College, has achieved a lot in her short time at Oxford. Alongside her positions for the Common Ground Journal and the Oxford Mixed Heritage Society, she has served as her JCR’s CRED representative. Not only has she introduced events, including a World Food Week and a Soul Music night, she has also campaigned for a number of initiatives, such as the introduction of Halal and Kosher options in hall. Her hard work and curation of her exhibition, ‘Facial Recognition’, gained recognition from college staff, students and fellows, and this year’s Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards.
I recently interviewed Lucy to discuss her time as CRED representative, how we can all make a difference at the University of Oxford and the importance of leaving the lights on for future students.
You joined the University as an undergraduate in English Language and Literature and have since taken part in a number of initiatives alongside your studies. Who or what has shaped your time at the University so far?
Woah – that’s a big question! I guess one of the benefits of doing a degree with less contact hours is that I could quite easily get involved with societies and initiatives outside of my academic commitments. I’d say the moment these initiatives really started to take hold was when I was given the opportunity to be my college’s JCR CRED Representative (known in most colleges as BAME Rep). This role certainly cultivated my interest in race at Oxford, race in wider society, my understanding of intersectionality and how socio-economic factors and gender tie into underrepresented groups. I tried to make important changes in my college not just for the current students, but for all of those potential prospective students who are unsure as to whether Oxford is a place for them. My good friend, Maayan, was instrumental in encouraging me to “claim space”. As someone who spent a lot of time feeling anxious about speaking up at school, I quickly came to realise how important it is to claim space during my short time at Oxford. My role in the JCR allowed me to gain the confidence to take my interests further – I am now one of the co-editors of the Common Ground Journal alongside the incredible Saman at Oriel, and I am also the Welfare Officer for the Oxford Mixed Heritage Society.
You’ve worked really hard to ensure that the University feels like a community for everyone. What do you think the University should be doing to push this further?
Well, first of all, I think that’s something everyone should be doing. We all need to take responsibility in making Oxford a more inclusive institution. First, I think the current access initiative to pair colleges with certain counties is highly ineffective. To put it simply, some colleges are allocated counties which have a high ratio of White British students. As a result, the prospective students they are allowed to reach out to only reflect one kind of demographic. This reduces a college’s chance to reach out to prospective students with a variety of ethnic backgrounds. In no way am I trying to belittle the importance of colleges directly supporting students from under-privileged backgrounds, in fact, I actively encourage that, but the current ‘pairing’ system is an impediment to some colleges’ ability to improve diversity amongst their student bodies. One of the best things about Oxford is its collegiate system, but when it comes to systematic change, or policies, or promoting a shared ethos, it can also be one of its biggest downfalls. Each college is governed differently – a by-product of the variation in their sizes, funding, histories, subjects, values, reputations and aims. Right now, it feels like the colleges are like the different ingredients of a Full English Breakfast – they’re all cooking differently, at different rates, in different pans. The University needs to get better at making the colleges work together. We need a better fry up.
What role do you think students can play in pushing for positive change?
There are so many different things you can do as a student to push for improvements in equality and diversity, but the most important thing is to make sure you do something. It doesn’t matter if it’s small but do something. ‘Activism’ is an intimidating and loaded term. And ‘Activism’ isn’t just taking part in a protest. A good way to address its different facets is to split it into ‘individual’, ‘group’ and ‘institutional’. For ‘individual’, consider what you could be doing for yourself – if you’re in a position of privilege, are you dedicating time to try and fix your own internal biases? For ‘group’, consider how you can show effective allyship – allyship which is genuine and not performative for social media. For ‘institutional’, consider how you can appropriately tackle the University and other institutions on their policies which need updating or creating. Institutional change doesn’t happen overnight. Paradoxically, in a world which seems to move at a 100mph, the change we most need is irritatingly slow. But the worst thing you can do is let a lack of patience, indifference, or pessimism prevent you from helping this University to take steps in a better direction.
As your college’s former BME representative, during your time in office you changed the title of the role to ‘CRED representative’. What was the reason behind this? How do you think this name change allowed you to better represent the JCR?
It was a really difficult and emotionally draining process to change the name. If you’re part of the ‘Ethnic Minorities Students at Oxford’ group on Facebook you’ll know that there was much discussion about the limitations and dangers of the term ‘BAME’. Just to clarify, ‘BAME’ stands for ‘Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic’. The word is essentially an umbrella term. Earlier in June, Matt Hancock was interviewed by Sky News and was directly asked ‘How many black people are in the current Cabinet?’, he avoided the direct and disturbing answer of ‘zero’ to profess that there were many ‘BAME’ people in the cabinet who offer ‘diversity of thought’. Instances like this show how the term ‘BAME’ can be used to conveniently group together people of a non-white identity – such grouping fails to address the intricacies within different ethnicities and their struggles with inequality. We also felt there was a common misconception that events held by the BAME Reps were only for BAME students, when this was not the case. We put on events in the JCR in the hopes that everyone will feel encouraged to come. Our role was also more than educating people on racial inequality, so, as a result, we changed the name to ‘CRED’ which stands for ‘Cultural, Religious and Ethnic Diversity’ Reps. We felt the name change better encompassed the duties, topics and issues our roles were concerned with.
In your time as CRED representative what have been the biggest achievements that you have made? If you were to take on the role again, what would you like to see happen?
I’d say one of the first successful events was the ‘World Food Week’ we put on in Hall during Michaelmas 2019. The week was constituted by meals which reflected different cultures, accompanying music in hall which celebrated these cultures, fact sheets lined the table with information about the meal being served and other culinary facts relevant to the country being represented, and decorations in hall meant the place itself had a different kind of ambience. I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of JCR and MCR members that turned up to hall that week. Other significant moments include assisting MCR President Nupur Patel with the installation of Lincoln’s first Multi-Faith Prayer & Quiet Room, pushing for Halal and Kosher options in hall, putting on a Soul Music Night in our college bar, teaming up with Uncomfortable Oxford to put on a workshop for our JCR members, and my personal highlight would have to be the Facial Recognition Exhibition I organised as part of Lincoln Unites. But honestly, the biggest achievement was learning to speak up for those who are underrepresented, even if that means speaking up against authority.
For Lincoln College’s first ever equality and diversity week, Lincoln Unites, you put together an exhibition, called ‘Facial Recognition’, about the experiences of staff and students of mixed heritage in the College. You were shortlisted for the Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards for this project, congratulations! What was the significance of the title ‘Facial Recognition’ and what did you wish to achieve with the exhibition?
Thank you, that’s so kind! I’ve always struggled to reconcile the different ethnicities of my mixed heritage. The discussion of the mixed-ethnic identity is one that has been neglected in the past and one that is particularly important in an increasingly globalised world. The exhibition sought to stress that diverse representation matters, not as tokenism, but to create opportunities for people of mixed-ethnic heritage to celebrate their identity and consider how it relates to their environment. Our social understanding of ‘race’ can, at times, be incredibly reductive for those with mixed-ethnic heritage. ‘Race’, a term used to classify people into specific categories, is not so easily applied to someone who has an identity which cannot be compartmentalised in this way. ‘Facial Recognition’ explored what happens when boundaries and our concept of ‘race’ are blurred, when categories are mixed, when different heritages are combined into one identity.
The name ‘Facial Recognition’ was chosen for the following reasons: the exhibition itself was designed to, quite literally, give ‘Facial Recognition’ to those who want to speak about their mixed-ethnic identity. The process of identifying and verifying a person through a biometric scan of their facial features is one which is not far off from the social codes of attributing people to different racial groups experienced every day in society. Facial Recognition is a topical term with clear links to contemporary debates about AI ethics, surveillance and technology in society. Indeed, it is a term often associated with the negative practice of racial profiling and biased surveillance. The exhibition sought to reclaim and deconstruct this label, portraying mixed-ethnic heritage as a point to be recognised for richness and celebration, rather than suspicion.
You were recently included in Lincoln College’s ‘Women at Lincoln campaign’ to mark the fortieth anniversary of women’s admittance to the College. Lincoln is one of many colleges that have celebrated women’s anniversaries this year. What does this anniversary mean to you? How does it feel to be part of this celebration?
The anniversary is on one hand, a positive reminder that progression has been made. It is, on the other hand, a scary reminder that had I been born a couple of generations earlier, I may not have been here. But, to be honest, I don’t think people should have to feel grateful to be here because of their gender. Gender, race, sexuality, disability – none of those things should ever prevent someone from attending the university they want to. So in short, I’m grateful to be here because I worked hard, and that will always come before being grateful to be here because I am a woman.
What advice would you give to future women studying at the University?
I previously mentioned support I received from my wise friend, Maayan. She once said that when you are trying to pave the way, when you are trying to claim space, make sure you leave the lights on for those who are yet to follow so it is a little easier for them. She definitely left the lights on for me, and I hope the future women of Oxford will leave the lights on too.
What is something every student should know?
The Oxford bubble can make people feel different ways. Despite what it does for you, please don’t get used to people taking your plate in hall or get used to scouts cleaning up after you. There is a real world outside of this bubble, with real issues, and we cannot afford to forget that.
What is something every student should do?
You deserve to be here. But so did many others. They were held back due to a lack of resources, a lack of information, a lack of self-belief, poverty, a lack of privilege. Now that you are here, ask yourself how you can make it easier for those who aren’t.
What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?
That scene in Good Will Hunting between Robin Williams and Matt Damon where they are sat on a bench in a park – I think it’s titled ‘Your Move Chief’. It’s a good reminder not to get wrapped up in what we read or to make presumptions about what those around us have gone through.
Image courtesy of Lucy Tirahan