Deputy Editor Freyja Elwood in conversation with UEA(SU) Officer Aaron Campbell: “I’m proud to be authentic even if that goes against what society would expect me to be”

For this issue of Concrete, I was given the opportunity to speak to Aaron Campbell, the welfare, community, and diversity officer at the Student Union (SU). He shared his insights on his time at UEA, Black History Month and his hopes for the future.

Day-to-day, Aaron describes his role as: “Taking care of people, looking out for students, making sure that students are having the best experience possible and making sure that they feel supported, safe, and comfortable on campus.”

When asked about his working hours to complete such a demanding role, he replies: “Weeks can be as many hours as I need to work which can be quite a few, I personally don’t mind it because we have such a good support network here.” He explains more goes into the role than face value: “There is so much we do in terms of governance, democracy, laws, bi-laws, people managing. We sit in meetings about planning, health and safety, security. But also, how much [the university] value officer input because they need that student input, they need to know what students are thinking and feeling.”

Alongside all this, Aaron has been carrying out his manifesto pledges.

A plan to remove over-generalised terms in discussions of race is a high priority: “Terms like POC and BAME are what we call over-generalising terms. What we have to understand is the Black issues are completely separate from Asian issues, and the difference in Asian experience like East Asian and South Asian lived experiences are completely different… We’ve had some good progress, in a lot of [UEA] documentation we are now phasing out those terms.” 

He recalls when UEA put out a statement regarding the racist abuse received by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after the EURO 2020 final, “They used BAME in their initial statement I had a sit-down discussion where I said I don’t think that’s appropriate. It’s a black person issue and we got that statement changed.”

Representing and listening to the concerns of commuting, placement, and off-campus students is also on the agenda for Aaron, he plans to set up “Working groups to listen to [their] issues. Because of the nature of commuting and off-campus students, I don’t know whether that’ll be a physical group or online group, or service that people can report, so I need to accommodate for that accordingly.”

Keen to also provide “support and resources” Aaron plans to use the “Eradicate Hate” campaign to enable broader staff training: “So, Eradiate Hate, was launched just before COVID so it hasn’t launched as well as we would’ve liked it to, we are looking into relaunching it and addressing [the campaigns aims]. In the SU we are currently addressing how we train our staff.” When asked whether this would include students working at the bar and other SU outlets, Aaron responded “Everybody. I want to hold sessions about things like microaggressions that anyone can come to.”

October is Black History Month, and Aaron is involved in the organisation and promotion of events on campus. Discussing this year’s nationwide theme of “Proud To Be” Aaron said: “I am proud to be authentic, I’m proud of my lived experience, I’m proud of every aspect of me, growing up you’re taught to hide things not to portray certain things, not be certain things because it can conflict with what society sees your identity to be. People look at me and say as a black man you’re expected to be XYZ and so I’m proud to be authentic even if that goes against what society would expect me to be.” Aaron’s favourite theme in Black history? “I would say how vital black history and gay history are together I think about Marsha P Johnson and how much a pride was attested to a black woman. Also, Martin Luther King’s right-hand man, Bayard Rustin, was openly gay. There’s so many of points of history that people don’t know.”

The conversation turns to Aaron’s personal experience at the university as a black man. He recalls a situation in his first year at Sportsnight. “I was out with the basketball team both the men and the women’s teams were there and there were some guys in the middle moshing, which is fine, but the girls were uncomfortable that they were getting pushed around and I stepped in front of the girls to provide a little support. This one guy kept continually bumping into me and it got to this point where I turned around and I said excuse me and he continued, and I asked him again could he please stop and he said, “What you gunna do about it n-word,” to which I will put my hands up and say I didn’t have the best response… When I tried to explain the situation to security it was “emotions are high, everybody’s drunk” instead of saying “I’m sorry you’ve been a victim of racial hate crime,” I understand that there was violence but that shouldn’t disregard someone experience.”

He continues, citing the incident as one of the most explicit examples, but also noting more insidious incidents that have occurred, particularly on his course Computing and Graphic Design: “I’ve had a lot experiences of microaggressions there, from comments about my hair to “You’re going to work with that group are you,” because it’s a group of black people, and yes well it’s my friends and yes I’m going to work with them, but it’s the assumption that we are just going to work together and people don’t see a problem with that.”  

Does he think the university did enough after the murder of George Floyd?

“No. I think well so I wrote a letter to the university a year and a half ago now due to the lack of their responsiveness. I think it had been two weeks or so [since the murder of George Floyd] and I’d heard nothing from my university. And it was shattering because I held my university in that high an esteem, and as a black person I felt so unsupported. I wrote that letter at 11pm at night out of sheer passion and upset and I posted it expecting nothing to come from it and I woke up to retweets and comments and the outpouring of support from students and staff alike. There were so many staff who were like “you are so right.” Part of the problem as well was I, like so many black people were emotionally and physically drained, and to be telling the university what we wanted them to do, when all I wanted was for everything to stop for a period of time. And so, I would have loved to see the university be more proactive and provide more support and show that they’re providing support. I wasn’t in the SU at that time, and I wasn’t part of the university in terms of the inner workings, I didn’t understand certain things – all I was aware of was “I’m black student and I don’t feel supported by my university right now.”

He follows up: “The experience I’ve had in past a year and a half has been a lot more positive for the university. They have been actively trying to dismantle elements of institutional racism. Institutional racism isn’t going to disappear in a day. They’re bringing more lived experience into groups, they’re saying, “You’re in this group but you don’t have to be, but we want you here and we want you to share your experience if you feel comfortable,” and I think they will continue in that direction. I think more work can be done to bring in people from a wider background, I think more can be done to reach out to those members of the community who don’t engage with the university or the SU as much. Because the honest truth is there is a contingency of students who love to be involved but that is only a small percentage of students, there is a large contingency of black students who don’t engage with the SU or haven’t until now. I’ve been working hard to reach out to say I really want your help because you provide a different voice.”

When asked whether universities are institutionally racist, the answer is resounding:

“Yes. Yes without a doubt. Without remorse. I was in a meeting with the Vice Chancellor and I was speaking about institutional racism. It’s the structures put in place by white people that disbenefit those from other communities… The majority of Vice Chancellors are white males, because of that structure it is harder for people who are non-white, in general, to break into the higher levels which means that needs to be addressed. Sometimes it is sheer ignorance, it’s not even being aware of issues because your team are white men. They’re not realising what’s happening lower down. It’s a top-down thing, it trickles into every facet of businesses and life. It is literally about how we fund/pay people. We have a gender pay gap, but we also have a race pay gap. It covers so many different areas.”

Now that Aaron is in the SU, the responses and statements will involve him. Recent times have seen a rise in tensions between Israel and Palestine. UEA has seen the Instagram account known as @DecoloniseUEA call for the university to replace the IHRA definition with the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism, and UEA Jewish Society releasing a counterstatement in support of the IHRA definition. “I think the first step is to listen to everybody’s lived experience who is directly affected by this situation, which we’ve been trying to do. Having meetings, being available, being ready to listen to people if they have queries or an issue. I will put my hands up and say I’m not Jewish or Palestinian or Israeli. I don’t want to give an opinion, it’s not my place… It’s a very complicated situation and I hope what we can do is show students that we are willing to listen and that we show we want the best for every student.”

Now life is returning back to normal, on a personal note Aaron is looking forward to “Getting back to basketball and the nights out in general just being around people,” but regarding his role, he is most looking forward to getting to know people: “I’m a people person. I hate sitting behind my desk if I can avoid sitting behind my desk I will…COVID has been such a difficult time for everybody. And now being able to part of two sets of first years and be part of that foundational element for them and really getting in to help them have an amazing experience, what I had prior to COVID. I will treasure the two and a half years before COVID, they were so amazing. I loved it. I could sit here all day and tell you about all the great times that I’ve had. I just want everyone to have an experience better than that. Making at least somewhat of difference, leaving the place better than I found it. That’s the sign of a good job.”

To contact Aaron about this interview or any other enquiries, he can be reached at his officer email:

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Freyja Elwood

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October 2021
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