Decolonising education: In conversation with Melz

Melz Owusu speaks to Ruby Fatimilehin about founding The Free Black University, Black activism and decolonising education.

Leeds alumni Melz Owusu has raised over £126,000 in their campaign to create the Free Black University. They aim to create an educational space which serves as a hub for radical and transformative knowledge production and which centres the wellbeing and healing of the Black community.

Melz, who is a former sabbatical officer at the Leeds University Union, firmly believes that education should be free, anti-colonial, and accessible to all. Once established, the Free Black university will provide radical Black books to the community, deliver open-access online lectures, create a transformational publication, and establish a mental health service for Black students.

Our Equality and Diversity Associate Ruby Fatimilehin spoke to Melz about their vision for the Free Black University and the educational possibilities this space will generate.

Ruby: What led to the creation of the Free Black University? Were there any particular experiences that compelled you to create this space?

Melz: I started doing decolonial work when I was at Leeds. The time spent fighting with the institution was difficult for my mental health in terms of being able to peacefully do my degree. We continually put Black students, students of colour, queer students into positions where we have to lobby the institution against something that the institution is founded on. The extent to which you can decolonise a colonial institution is extremely limited. After doing that for the past six years in Leeds, across the UK, and in different countries, I recognised that there needs to be a different approach to understanding how the decolonial movement can move forward. That’s how the Free Black University came about. How can
we create an anti-colonial, queer, radical space outside of the institution? How can we recentre, what I believe the purpose of education should be, which is to transform self and through that transform the world.

Ruby: What do you think are the advantages of creating the Free Black University instead of attempting to decolonise and restructure established universities?

Melz: It takes away from all the free labour that marginalised students do for the university. It stops that power imbalance. It gives the people the power. There are not that many Black-led organisations across the UK, let alone a radical, queer organisation that is using a Black queer feminist lens that aims to exist within the higher education space. It’s unheard of, but
with that comes the potential to imagine, to create. In the process of creating a Free Black University, we’re continually imagining new possibilities. How we can learn, how we can grow, how we can change the world.

Ruby: What do you want to achieve with the Free Black University? What is your vision for this educational space?

Melz: The vision is to change the world. The vision is to create a space, which first and foremost, is for Black people. For Black students, for Black activists, for Black people who want to learn, who want to engage with other people. Creating a space for the community; that’s first and foremost. It’s also a space that is meant to incubate radical knowledge production. To create a foundation from which people feel empowered, impassioned, creative. Within the current institutions, so many of us dim our voices, so many of us don’t even know what books to start reading to push the boundaries. The Free Black University is a space which is meant to encourage people to push the boundaries. It’s not about, is my
supervisor going like this? Am I going to pass this? I limited my voice in order to pass exams many, many, many times because that’s what is necessary within traditional institutions. So, what happens when that necessity is taken away and people are truly engaging with knowledge? We create knowledge that is meant to take us into the future.

Ruby: As of today, the Free Black University GoFundMe had reached £126,415. How does it feel to have received such overwhelming support? Do you think that the events of the past year have contributed to your fundraising success?

Melz: It’s incredible. It’s the radical redistribution of wealth and it’s just the start. It’s a lot of money but in terms of creating an organisation, we need to get so much more, and we will get so much more. Of course, timing has a lot to do with it. There has been a lot going on this year with coronavirus, with George Floyd, with the Black Lives Matter movement. I think it has allowed people to recognise, who wouldn’t otherwise have recognised, that we’re not going to change the world by doing very small, incremental things. There needs to be radical Black-led organisations to push us into what’s next.

Ruby: Are there any individuals or groups who have been critical of the Free Black University? Why do you think they have reacted this way?

Melz: I think it’s the lack of imagination and the lack of desiring more. I’m a young person, I’m of this new generation and I haven’t become jaded by the institution in the way that a lot of people have become jaded. I think that people get scared. Sometimes we can become so accustomed to our own subjugation, to our own oppression that the idea of exploring liberation becomes terrifying. Too often we limit ourselves and we limit our imagination. We try and be safe within this Western world, but everything is crumbling around us. What are we building in place of that? We need to create our own things.

Ruby: How do you feel about starting your PhD in epistemic justice at the University of Cambridge this October? Are you apprehensive about the challenges of studying at one of the most exclusive and elitist universities in the world?

Melz: I was the only person to go to a Russell Group university from my high school. I went to a very underprivileged, underperforming high school. To be now going to Cambridge, recognising that, in terms of this Western system, any of us can do anything within it. We can master this system. But once we’ve mastered this Western system, how do we disrupt it? How do we tear it apart from its core? How do we make it crumble? My intention in going to Cambridge isn’t to become part of the institution. It’s to be in the institution but not of the institution. I take my work as fugitive study. What can I gain from that institution that’s going to further the cause of Black liberation? They’re paying for me to study for three years! Think about the possibilities for Black liberation.

Ruby: Could you tell me about your time at the University of Leeds? What were some of your biggest achievements and what lessons did you learn?

Melz: I enjoyed my time at Leeds a lot. I started doing a lot of activism and decolonial work. One of the things that spurred me into doing that was the deep, deep lack that existed within my degree. I studied philosophy and politics, and in my entire philosophy degree, three years, three whole years, I did not once read somebody who wasn’t White. I would find myself going to write my essays and I’d have to forget things that I knew to be true within my physical body, within the world, in order to pass that degree. It didn’t make any sense to me. It takes a level of cognitive dissonance; you have to separate yourself from the person who was going to write that exam. It’s a fracturing of the Self. Mentally, it’s incredibly, incredibly harmful. I couldn’t move within that discipline. I felt I needed to change it and that’s what I want to do with the Free Black University.

Ruby: How do you think universities have changed after the Why is My Curriculum White campaign? Do you think they have changed?

Melz: They’ve changed in terms of rhetoric. They’ve changed how they speak. They’ve changed how they engage with issues of race. However, they’re still colonial institutions. They have managed to institutionalise decoloniality and change what decoloniality means to diversity work and diversity work doesn’t change anything apart from making us part of the
system we’re trying to disrupt. Yeah, they’ve changed. They’re able to have a more of a conversation across the higher education sector. It’s not a conversation they were having at all 10 years ago. But that change that needs to happen? We haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg.

Ruby: What is the most important thing that universities can be doing to dismantle institutional racism and create a safe learning environment for Black students?

Melz: Funding projects like the Free Black University. We believe that each university across the UK should give us a yearly 50K donation, which is less than two undergraduate degrees, to support Black students in radical ways. Universities need to recognise the direct mental health support that will be given to Black students across the country but also the fact that
the content of Black student’s degrees can literally cause that mental distress. It can be so harmful not seeing yourself, not seeing your people, not seeing what resonates with your soul in your degree course. That’s why it’s so important to create resources for students which universities currently can’t produce because there’s such a lack of Black staff
members and a lack of knowledge within that space. We’re collectively bringing together Black people across the country and across the world to start producing radical knowledge. So supporting and Free Black University financially is definitely key.

Melz is holding an event called Radical Possibilities of Change at the union as part of Black History Month. The event will take place on the 21 st of October and will be held over Zoom.

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Header image credit: The Guardian