King’s College London Student Union (KCLSU) launched its Dismantle King’s Colonial Legacy (K.C.L.) campaign earlier this semester, alongside an open letter with four demands for King’s leadership. Roar Student Life Correspondent Ansel Bayly sat down with the campaign leads to discuss the changes they want to see and their plans for the next year.
Sara Osman Saeed, KCLSU VP for Education (Arts & Sciences), and Martina Chen, VP for Welfare & Community, are leading the Dismantle K.C.L. campaign this year. They worked with a number of societies across the College to release the open letter to King’s leadership.
“From the beginning of this campaign, what was really important to Sara and I is that this was a co-production with students”, Chen stated.
“We wanted every student group to have a say in this campaign and make it feel like this is by the students, for the students.”
Both leaders of Dismantle K.C.L. are critical of King’s work on decolonisation. Osman Saeed suggests that culture wars may be preventing King’s from pursuing the campaign’s agenda:
“They don’t want to make anybody disappointed that is on that side of the fence of the culture war, so they’re kind of feeding into it. At the same time they’re neglecting the students who have been calling for years for antiracism. They want to keep up appearances.”
Meanwhile Chen describes what they see as a potentially “performative” culture:
“King’s loves to talk about how they have so many documents and policies talking about committing to race equality and how inclusivity is one of the key principles for their vision 2029… they put out statements about the George Floyd murder in 2020, but we’ve not seen any actions or commitments being made. When we see all these words but not followed by any actions, it feels like empty words.”
In light of this perceived inaction, Dismantle K.C.L.’s open letter listed four demands: acknowledge and investigate King’s colonial history, improve the experiences of radicalised and marginalised students and staff, build a global, critically reflective curriculum, and reflect on King’s global impact.
Acknowledge & investigate King’s colonial history
Research has suggested that around 10% of the donors founding King’s were slave owners. Osman Saeed compares the university’s progress in analysing its history with that of other universities:
“The Universities of Glasgow, Manchester and Cambridge all have some type of centralised research on the front page of their websites, telling the public ‘this our university, this is our history, we’re not proud of it but it’s here for you to see.’ I don’t see any of that with King’s, it’s all hush-hush and only people who are interested in it know about it.”
Chen says that pushing King’s to “commit to acknowledge its own colonial past” is a central primary goal to build on.
“Once we have that commitment, we can work to reaching long-term goals.”
Improve the experiences of racialised and marginalised students and staff
Chen sees “very real implications” of this past in experiences at King’s today. They add, “If we think about it, university continues to be a very white, cis, hetero, male dominated space, whilst people of colour, women, LGBT and disabled students continue to be marginalised and others in these spaces.”
“There’s also issues of racial profiling, and the racialised and gendered division of labour. If you think, ‘who are the people who are teaching us and who are the service staff?’, there’s clearly a quite racialised division of work.”
Osman Saeed says her experiences at King’s today pushed her to start the campaign:
“I knew that I wanted to have decolonisation as part of my manifesto, because obviously, as a black student, you see the attainment gap, all the systemic racism that happens within an institution like King’s and across the country.”
Build a global, critically reflective curriculum
Dismantle K.C.L. are pushing curriculum change as a key facet of decolonisation. Osman Saeed points to the King’s Decolonising Working Group, which the campaign intend to restart this year:
“The working group was quite successful in decolonising the curriculum. They had a coalition of students and staff from different faculties doing work with King’s on how to decolonise different departments. They did a lot of this work already, but it didn’t finish because King’s didn’t pay enough attention to the people doing this work and they didn’t get paid for their time.”
Chen, who was part of the working group last year, adds:
“Staff and students put a lot of time and effort into these issues, looking at the attainment gap, putting on educational events, data and surveys.”
“They fought for a long time to get any recognition from King’s, like trying to get a space on the King’s website. They had meetings with management at King’s but it never resulted in anything.”
Reflect on King’s global impact
“As well as looking at King’s colonial past and present, how students and staff of colour are treated, looking at King’s global impact and their neo-colonial future.” Osman Saeed says, “There’s a lot of concern among students about King’s investments, where they’re going, and whether they’re actually ethical.”
Osman Saeed continues, “With global conflicts that have happened in the world, they leave themselves open to speculation, they’re not clear about where the money is going. So that’s another one of our demands, to have King’s acknowledge this neocolonial complicity”.
Both leads believe there is strong support for decolonisation. Chen notes, ““decolonisation is something a lot of students are really passionate about and want to see King’s commit to. It’s one of those issues that has been coming up year after year after year.”
However, they are aware of barriers to student engagement. Osman Saeed says, “Student engagement is quite low because everyone has a lot going on in their lives, they might not want to join a society specifically about antiracism”, but she encourages any involvement “just being there, making your voice heard, writing about it, talking about it.”
They both see the role of Dismantle K.C.L. as a uniting force for decolonisation. Chen asserts, “by uniting different groups and centring the voices of the marginalised and the othered, we can build a united front and put pressure on King’s to change.”