President, Durham Students’ Union
Lauren: What has your experience of being SU President been like during such a difficult year?
Seun: Of course, being President during a global pandemic has had many challenges. However, this is also a time that I like to call ‘Durham in transition’, where the university is trying to expand, decolonise, diversify, decarbonise and expand their international reputation. Alongside this global strategy, the SU is undergoing their democratic health checks and students are taking the time to ask what our culture should be and how we want to be represented. We have had to figure out how to be democratic online and continue to inspire discourse and dissent whilst many students are at home. The online world is also a crucible for racism and misogyny and a place where people demand answers about Durham’s culture. So, my job has been to ask and answer these huge existential questions. The pandemic has made this all a bit more difficult as obviously there is no practice or precedent to inform decisions. I have had to understand that, whilst people do need to do better and be better, most people are trying their best and not acting with malicious intent. I have been caught in a catch-22 of existential questions and I know that not everyone can be satisfied but I have learnt that people appreciate transparency more than resolution, so that is what I have tried to do.
Lauren: Do you feel that, as a woman, you have faced any particular challenges in your role that men may not have experienced?
Seun: One hundred percent. My womanhood intersects with my blackness and lower working class background, so I have had to work hard since being an undergrad to be taken more seriously. This is especially the case when meeting with university staff on salaries of £300,000 a year as I have to bring an element of gravitas, that men don’t have to, in order for people to listen to what I am saying. Particularly online, I can see people’s eyes and attention deteriorate when I begin speaking and so I have to command the room in ways I wouldn’t have to if I didn’t start at such a disadvantage. I have also been scrutinised online a lot more than any other president. There are certain photos that I would not post online anymore, and I have definitely become more reclusive on social media, not because I am afraid, but because I don’t want to have to deal with the conversation that I know will come out of it. I tend to wear plain clothes and restrict how I style my hair as I don’t want to attract any more attention. There has been so much disgusting language thrown at me online which wouldn’t happen if I didn’t look like I do. Being the first black female president, I have to put my body out on a grenade so that it will be easier for the second person to do and they won’t have to go through all of these things that I have experienced.
Lauren: Many former female SU presidents have spoken out about issues of sexism and harassment. For example, Megan Croll called out senior university staff for misogyny and intimidation, trying to control what she ate, wore and said. Your predecessor Kate McIntosh also claimed that she faced gendered harassment. What is your opinion on this and what does the university need to do to prevent this?
Seun: When conducting the culture commission this year, sexual harassment and violence were repeatedly flagged up as the primary thing to tackle within the university. There are so many policies that the university should put in place, many of which they are doing, and it is great – I must give credit to Ewan Swift in welfare and liberation as he does an amazing job on that front. But I think we have this weird paternalistic belief that the university will be our liberator for things so systemic, such as sexual violence, when a lot of it is perpetrated by our cohort itself. The people that act in this way come to Durham with a sense of entitlement and power to use our space to disrespect others, and there is a definite correlation between their behaviour at university and what they do when they leave. Of course we need as much policy change as we can to mitigate this behaviour, but to combat sexual harassment and misogyny it is a cultural change that is needed the most. The online world is very controversial in this way. By turning to social media with frustrations – such as those surrounding the time lag of the sexual misconduct policy – a violent and unsafe space can arise. However, the sentiment can also be very powerful, putting pressure on peers and the university cohort with collective action to show that such behaviour will not be tolerated. So, it is not to say that the policy shouldn’t be there, but it needs to be in alignment with a cultural reassessment. There is only so much that the university can do, but there is so much more that the SU and student activists can do.
Lauren: Do you think that females in leadership roles need to have a thicker skin and be prepared to face misogyny?
Seun: I don’t think that womxn necessarily need a thicker skin, I think that it is more about a pain threshold. My tolerance is very high due to my intersectionality, meaning that I am not just seen as the ‘angry woman’, but the ‘angry black woman’. This absolutely should not be the case, but it is the reality which we live in. Womxn shouldn’t have to be prepared to face this, but it is about knowing what hills you want to die on, and if this is one of them then fight in collaboration with others to have your voice heard.
Lauren: What would your advice be to female students wanting to take leadership roles within the university or their future careers?
Seun: Womxn need to help more womxn in public. When you are the only female in a room it is hard to have the gravitas to stand up to micro-aggressions and misogyny, but when others are with you, it is easier to have sorority in that space. It is like a battleground or a warzone where it is important to have an arsenal of other powerful womxn behind you, as these militaristic metaphors really do describe what it is like to face up to the patriarchy. You can’t do it on your own, you have to prioritise your mental health over your feminism as you can’t be a good feminist activist if you are not well, safe and sane. Before I knew this, I would just keep pushing myself onto the next campaign – but this is very serious and many womxn activists fall victim to this severe burnout. You need to know that you are not on your own. Rest, breaks and radical self-care are really important to recharge and fill your esteem up before you start your fight again.
Lauren: Which womxn have inspired you, either in history or politics today?
Seun: First of all, Kate McIntosh, who I consider a close friend now. She broke down so many barriers that mean that I can exist in the space that I do today. Also, Sam Johnson-Audini, our previous undergrad academic officer – they were excellent. In terms of history, they would all be womxn of colour or political theorists such as Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde or Judith Butler. I am inspired by womxn like Michelle Obama, who are unapologetically vocal in such an elegant way, but are also not afraid to be masculine when they need to.
Finally, I would just like to add that Durham is changing and it is really important that we don’t let this change die with 2020. Obviously, last year was huge for social justice activism, both on a global scale and with our internal issues in Durham. Covid-fatigue comes with the risk of forgetting or marginalising these problems, so when we are liberated from this pandemic, we have to pick up the work where we left off. I hope that whoever takes positions of power next year will really value all the work that the SU has done because we have found a way to be productive in a pandemic, and I hope that people do accept that.
Conducted by Lauren Shale, Social Director