As we settle into the new decade, we talk to someone making waves in Britain’s academia. Sofia Akel is a Race Equality specialist, who is dismantling the obstacles BIPoC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) face in Higher Education, one ivory brick at a time.
A thousand allegations of race discrimination have been made against public British Universities in the last 5 years, lest we imagine what goes on behind the closed doors of privatised universities and institutions. Slowly we are seeing light being shone on this deep-rooted issue going on within Britain's academia. It’s activists and researchers like Sofia, who are the ones shifting culture to secure a future where our literature, books and schools of thought actually reflect the diversity of modern Britain.
What's your name and what do you do? Tell us about a recent piece of work.
Sofia Akel. Researcher and Race Equality in Higher Education Specialist, working to tackle institutional racism and eradicate the attainment (awarding) gap. My recent research Insider-Outsider, which examined the experiences of Black and minority ethnic students at Goldsmiths, UoL was published in October 2019. This looked at institutional racism across the university, from the curriculum to attainment, with evidence-based recommendations to tackle the issues.
How does your identity affect your work and your life in general?
As a Black female, my work is directly related to my identity in a society and sector that marginalises ‘people of colour,’ whilst centring whiteness. It means that whilst I work to fight institutional racism, at the same time I often find myself having to strategically navigate it in order to advance racial equality. I am no longer a student, but our experiences unite us.
In general life, I like to surround myself with inspirational and empowering people who keep me energised for the long road ahead. I love embracing and learning more about my ancestry and heritage, it keeps me connected to those who came before me, who dealt with unimaginable oppression.
Who have been your role models and why?
My role models have typically been fellow students, especially at the time that my activism began. I met incredible, determined and hard-working student activists, with whom I worked alongside as a student to hold universities to account on racism and their handling of complaints. With each generation, there are lessons to be learned and new ways of seeing the world to be enjoyed, as well as new approaches and energies to dismantling systemic oppression. Student activism is unapologetic and I admire that.
Do you think other people see you differently to how you see yourself?
Definitely, everyone lives within their own truths, which means that we interpret and see each other within the gaze our lived experiences and knowledge.
Are you tired of hearing about Diversity & Inclusion?
‘Diversity’ is a meaningless term without inclusion and equality. When the terms ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ remain abstract and divorced from one another, they become empty, co-opted words, exploited by institutions for public relations. Diversity is the bare minimum on the road towards equality, the fact that the bar is currently lower than this says a lot about the institutions within which we operate.
What one thing would you say to your younger self?
Be proud of your roots, be proud of your heritage and live unapologetically with purpose.
What are you currently reading?
Gal-dem is my go-to source for news, journalism and culture, written by PoC and Black women. Additionally, I am reading a book called Pachinko, written by Min Jin Lee. The book it set in Korea and Japan, centring on themes of colonialism, war and poverty. I am committed to reading books that do not exclusively focus on western culture.