Bringing the community of Oxford residents together is a central part of Oxford SU’s new strategy. We need to recognise and collaborate with the important campaigning work done by non-university Oxford residents whenever we can. Here, Shuranjeet Takhar writes about Oxford and Oxford – his project to construct and sustain community-university relations – and its first event, the Community Engagement Workshops
Oxford – Community Engagement Workshops
CN: mentions of harassment and domestic violence
Several months ago, I begun to ponder the relationship between Oxford’s universities and the wider community. Amidst the swirl of panel-discussions which, in my mind, have become synonymous with the Oxford experience, I questioned the ability of such engagements when trying to build sustainable relationships with local community initiatives.
In my memory of panel events, I can recall being but a passive spectator in an audience, sitting, listening, and consuming the information presented to me by the speakers and their responses to audience questions. As the discussion ended, much like when I attend the cinema, I left the room and discussed the contents of what I had just experienced with those around me. Within a few minutes, however, our discussions veered onto new and exciting topics, often completely unrelated to what we had just consumed. In this, I observed a distinct lack of continuity; information was presented as a temporary ‘fix’, there was very little element of sustainability within an interaction which, five minutes after, was a mere memory in the isolated bubble that is Oxford.
Oxford and Oxford aims to increase dialogue between University and Community, and primarily, it looks to redress the balance by which this relationship is conducted. Through the amplification of community-based voices, Oxford and Oxford will develop a strategy on how community-university relations can be best constructed.
The ‘Community Engagement Workshops’ on March 17th, at St Antony’s College, were the first step.
On a snowy Saturday morning, twenty-six people – students, community activists, and community members – descended upon St Antony’s College to learn more about community activists and activism within Oxford more widely. The group was split into four, with each attending a workshop led by the community activists, and once a workshop had ended, each group would switch workshop, a process which was repeated until everyone had had an opportunity to dialogue with each workshop facilitator.
Shaista Aziz, a prominent journalist, activist, and the founder of the Everyday Bigotry Project, gave an inspiring talk to start proceedings. Born and raised in Oxford, Shaista outlined the wide gap between University and Community and highlighted the importance of both sides working to ameliorate this faltering relationship.
Junie James, one of the four community activists, spoke about her experiences of living in Oxford as well as ACKHI – the African Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative. Discussing the group’s previous initiatives, Junie outlined the work due to take place this year, upon the 70th anniversary of the Windrush, a ship which, in 1948, marked the start of post-war migration from the West Indies to Britain. This process is key in shaping society, communities, and Britain up to present day, and Junie spoke about how one can be involved with this work and the types of roles needed.
Nicole Shodunke was another facilitator. Her work focused on the development of open spaces, programmes, and activities for migrant women in Oxford. The space offers a refuge for these women, with activities to assist in developing their physical and mental wellbeing. Further to this, Nicole spoke about her role as a mentor for children in Oxford’s care system, brainstorming several ways in which participants could get involved with the work, including through student-led campaigning.
Shabnam Sabir is a local community activist who manages and organises a number of initiatives pertaining to social integration, childcare and child-development, and combatting homelessness. Shabnam is the co-founder of the Oxford Homelessness Project, a group which looks to help and empower those impacted by homelessness in Oxford. Bringing together various parts of the community to combat an issue which plagues a shockingly high amount of people in Oxford, the Oxford Homelessness Project looks to align with university activists to develop its actions in a number of ways, from volunteering at lunches to further ideas about formulating longer-term strategy and links with the University. The Oxford SU campaign, On Your Doorstep, is one campaign with which Shabnam has worked and hopes to further embed this relationship.
David Bailey has been a nurse in the NHS for several decades and is a long-term political activist in the United Kingdom. At his workshop, David discussed the organisation Oxfordshire Refugee Solidarity, a group which facilitate volunteers to be taken to France, e.g. to Calais, and provide frontline support for those refugees most in need with the support of other charities. At the workshop, David showed pictures from his visits, spoke with attendees about the logistics, how the money is raised, and what volunteers do once there. Developing a relationship with the University’s ‘Forced Migration and Refugee Studies’ students and other interested student groups would likely enable the best use of student/community resources to their most effective ends.
We want to thank TORCH, Common Ground, St Antony’s College, and the Antonian Fund for their support.
What we can take from the event
At the event, I heard many conversations of varying natures occurring within the workshops. Some were related to immediate needs: how can individuals help these activists in the short-term to meet their immediate goals. However, some were related to medium/long-term needs, questioning the best methods of connecting these activists with the student groups where their work would fit best. A mixture of both was incredible to see, as I believe that this event was the first step in aligning the disparate parts of Oxford to be able to meet common goals in a sustainable manner.
It was particularly inspiring to learn about the role of student groups such as Common Ground with regards to their student-reach which raised some fantastic ideas about who each activist could work alongside. Representatives from the Oxford University Student’s Union also added to the swathes of ideas being discussed throughout the event. It was brilliant to see student groups working to realign community and university mindsets at a time where working together to correct the failings of the state is more important than ever before.
Next term, Oxford and Oxford will be working alongside the University Church to offer more university-community interaction for those interested. Furthermore, we will be looking to establish this movement, a fundamental reflection on Oxford University’s community engagement, within the institutional fabric of existing structures. We hope to continue this work towards an Oxford where the University and wider community are better aligned in building sustainable initiatives and making Oxford a better place for all.
Shuranjeet Singh Takhar is currently reading for an MSc in Modern South Asian Studies at St Antony’s College. He started Oxford and Oxford earlier in the year and is interested in the link between elite institutions, activism, and the communities which they look to help. He also works on mental health campaigning, with a look at Punjabi men, through an initiative called TarakI (https://www.facebook.com/taraki1/). Get in touch with Shuranjeet if you’d like to be involved further with the Oxford and Oxford initiative.
*Photo Credits: Shaista Aziz and Shabnam Sabir