What does it mean to organise a Critical Conference?

by Azeezat Johnson

Delivered on Friday 19th June, at CREN Conference 2015

It’s a genuine pleasure to welcome you to the White Rose Critical Race and Ethnicities Network Conference. CREN was set up by postgraduate research students in the universities of Leeds, York and Sheffield as we have been looking for these conversations about critical race and ethnicities up here in the North, and it is so heartening to see how many people have come together because of an interest in these conversations and so thank you already for that.

CREN is a project that makes me think of the work many different Black feminists have spoken of regarding dedicating your words and actions towards creating the kind of world you want to live in. I guess that’s how I connect with it from where I stand as a Black feminist. All of us that have been working on the committee of CREN and volunteering on this day came to be involved with CREN from our different perspectives but with a similar concern. We were looking for critical spaces that tried to speak to the inequalities we see in the world not through a dispassionate theoretical framework but through critical active work. We believe that the problems discussed within privatised academic walls have real and urgent consequences that need to be tackled both within and outside of these institutions.

This network has been an opportunity for us to face these concerns head on. Working with any group of people is rewarding but hard, especially when trying to organise in a way that reflects our denunciation of any one leader and recognises the importance in communicating across different experiences and research interests. Trying to do this through a non-hierarchical framework also connects us to many other groups within and outside of academia that are facing these same problems – how can we think about challenging the dominance of the few over the many not just in terms of larger structural inequalities but through our everyday practice? It requires a lot of difficult communication about how to create a critical space that comes from a collective imagining, and realising that being part of a new movement means that there is no blueprint or leader telling you what to do – there is no petition to be signed or post to re-share that means you have done your part and can rest easy. We all need to do the work needed to achieve this new way of thinking, and the CREN ethos is as much about sharing academic knowledge as it is about challenging the privileging of some forms of thinking over others and keeping academic thought inaccessible to those who are not situated within these boundaries. We hope that this comes through throughout this whole day.

Although we look forward to this space as a critical learning opportunity, we ask that the language used is accessible, supportive and aiming to build up our understandings within this field. We look forward to thoughtful discussions and ask that no individual/individuals monopolize the discussion as this is meant to be an opportunity to engage with a variety of views.

I would like to raise awareness about the different donation cans that we have placed in the by the registration desk and lunch tables. Although this conference is completely free we are also raising funds for The University of Sheffield Gaza scholarship. The University of Sheffield Palestinian Society have successfully lobbied the University of Sheffield to provide a tuition fee waiver for a student from Gaza. However, they still need to raise funds to cover the maintenance costs of the student who will be coming to study, and it would be good for a conference that was created by people who have the privilege to exist and engage with this space to donate whatever they can to help others access this knowledge as well.

This is a really happy (and also honestly, stressful) time for us partly because of the excitement we’ve felt in creating this day but also because we get to start this day with an example of how connections within these critical spaces are vital and re-energizing. Unfortunately, Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman had to withdraw his keynote appearance at our conference and although his contributions will be sorely missed, it also enabled us to truly appreciate the support that Kehinde Andrews and China Mills were able to offer through helping us organise this opening discussion on what it means to be a critical academic. For us, this was another opportunity to feel part of a larger academic community that are looking to challenge dominant forms of knowledge production, and for that alone, we would like to thank both of you.

So what does it mean to create spaces and work as someone who critiques systems of inequality and challenges dominant forms of knowledge production? For us, this conference has been a learning curve because we have tried to combine our skills and critical theoretical knowledge into physically reclaiming these academic spaces on this day. We have tried to imagine the kind of inclusive and accessible academic spaces that we would like to exist within and work from there to challenge the borders that are often put up between academic and activist work or academic and student roles.

But this has been challenging precisely because we are still attempting to do this work from within the frameworks set up by the institutions that we are based within. Although we can rename the toilets for the day and hire different equipment to improve ‘access’ the very design of these buildings assumes the predominance of specific ‘able’ bodies to move through these spaces with ease, re-establishing the able-bodied, white, middle-class cis, heterosexual male as the unmarked centre and any other people as deviances from this.

Even when thinking of the funding provided, there are limitations imposed on how you hope to construct these spaces and the continuous privileging of those bodies who have the capital (in terms of academic connections, finance and so on) to attend these events in the first place. Although from the beginning we knew that we wanted this conference to be free, there needed to be much more consideration about how entrance to these events is negotiated long before the actual event through factoring in costs for childcare, access to crèche facilities at the conference, travel, and so on. All of these factors are constructed as obstacles to participating within these events, events that claim to be a space for the sharing of knowledge, ignoring how the few without these considerations are the ones who predominantly gain access to these spaces.

So how are these needs balanced when organising the critical opportunities for knowledge development? Our existence within these institutions requires us to form these connections in order to survive – if not for those connections, the reality of institutions that have historically and continuously supported mass oppression would make our experiences of isolation and demoralisation seem individualistic rather than something that can help us launch a collective challenge against oppression. And in order to launch this challenge we need to be creating more of these spaces wherever we are based so that we can learn from one another and begin to imagine tackling oppression wherever it exists. We need to think about what it means to be a critical academic and create critical spaces that at times fall suspect to the privileging of the same unmarked bodies who can afford to participate in these spaces. But we cannot shy away from these limitations by presenting them as minor problems or use the neo-liberal logic of pitting one ‘group’ against another by stating that there is only so much money to go around anyways. Instead we think about these occasions of failure and ask the question again: what is our role as critical academics and activists, and how are we going to be able to create spaces that move in the direction of the world we would like to ideally be a part of.

So although we hope you enjoy this day and the many terrific presentations included, we also hope to think critically about the construction of this day in and of itself, and welcome constructive feedback and discussions so that we can all think more about how to improve organising these types of critical and collaborative events in the future.

That’s where we’ve arrived at in terms of the framing of this conference and our thinking behind inviting Kehinde Andrews and China Mills to kick off this open discussion about what it means to create ‘critical’ spaces and be a ‘critical’ academic. We hope that this discussion will be used to frame the conversations and presentations to follow and would like to thank Kehinde and China (again) for their support with setting this event up.

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