During the last tumultuous year, the echoes of the Black Lives Matter movement found intense resonance within the UdK. Primarily it was the students who collectivized to speak up about the injustices in their study environment and beyond. Sarah Naira Herfurth and Dalís Pacheco, two of the students who have been working laboriously on the demands and strategies for a proper engagement with intersectional anti-discrimination work at the university, talked to us about their work and the progress so far.
The interview was conducted in December 2020. It is a follow-up to our latest podcast episode, in which Dalís Pacheco presents the statement she wrote and recorded in July 2020 based on the students’ demands, and as a reflection on the responses to the related conversations in the university.
Sarah Naira Herfurth studies Architecture at the UdK as well as African Art History at the FU Berlin. She is active in various student groups, always pursuing approaches pertaining to intersectionality, diversity, and anti-discrimination. At present, she is an active member of I.D.A, StuPa, the Committee for Intercultural Diversity, Anti-Discrimination and Empowerment, and the AG Critical Diversity. Until recently, she functioned as the student representative at AStA’s Anti-Discrimination and Intercultural Affairs Department. Furthermore, she was involved in policy matters within the Klasse Klima and the AG Klima. In the department of architecture, she is a member of the student council. She initiated the AG Intersectional Anti-Discrimination with the aim to gather all UdK student-led initiatives working on the same matter in order to draw up a cohesive strategy, including a list of demands addressed to the UdK administration.
Dalís Pacheco is an interdisciplinary artist and student from Peru, based in Berlin, pursuing her degree at the UdK Medienhaus. She is an active member of Interflugs, StuPa, the Committee for Intercultural Diversity, Anti-Discrimination and Empowerment, as well as the AG Intersectional Anti-Discrimination.
Can you tell us about the context in which your statement was created?
We have been part of the StuPa since 2019 and progressively working around anti-discrimination topics. When the Black Lives Matter movement started this year, we felt the need to say something openly, to show solidarity, and call for awareness, also of the local issues. We presented another previous statement in the StuPa meeting in July 2020 that the UdK president attended. We asked some questions to understand how the university was positioning itself around this topic.
After that first approach, we realized how we needed to structure our work to see some progress. That first statement brought many student initiatives together, but we recognized that it was difficult to work due to the lack of bridges between us, there are different group initiatives as well as personal efforts from different faculties and generations. That is how the AG Intersectional Anti-Discrimination started – as an emergency group for initiatives such as Interflugs, I.D.A, AStA, and the student councils to communicate better. It is becoming a meeting ground, a network, and a community to channel our ideas, concerns, feelings, and to support each other. But, on the other hand, we realized that the StuPa is a space that is not very accessible to everyone due to its language barriers and the need for some political and bureaucratic knowledge to understand the dynamics, and that also requires time and dedication. This keeps many students apart from being more active in student politics or from being truly represented. This was one of the main reasons to create the AG – to work as an accessible space open to all students whenever they need it, and for them to feel supported to start regular dialogues, share concerns and proposals, and learn collectively. Therefore the StuPa members could better represent the actual student body in their diversity.
When this was happening, we came together and wrote the demands for intersectional anti-discrimination in the UdK, and for its presentation, this statement was created.
SARAH NAIRA HERFURTH
From experience, when talking about everyday and systemic discrimination, oftentimes the entire issue gets downplayed. To prevent that, we began our meetings with the head of the university by reading out statements. Through the statement, we wanted to, firstly, establish a common basis and, secondly, make clear that there are some things that are simply non-negotiable.
How was the statement received so far? Were there any developments in terms of what you demanded back in summer?
These expressions were created to generate some awareness and empathy before we started the discussion. There is a lot of emotional weight behind this work which needs to be acknowledged in the conversation about solutions. For us, it was also important to summarize our thoughts and feelings and express our position. To start with a clear path.
Around that time the student protest #exitracismUdK at the Rundgang 2020 happened and 50 reports collected from students who experienced racist discrimination at the university were released. Our demands were presented there as well. I had the feeling that a lot of people were not really understanding what we were talking about and why with such urgency. We end up needing to explain systemic racism over and over again.
I guess the official reaction was meant to be careful but avoided some in-depth subjects. There is some small progress but we are still waiting for a concrete response. The reception among the students has been positive, many identified with it and were glad that we could finally speak about it out loud. Others would like to learn more about it.
SARAH NAIRA HERFURTH
During the summer, the topics of anti-discrimination in the university started getting more and more attention. The demands and the statements, the #exitracismUdK action, articles in the magazine Eigenart, the hanging of banners on the UdK facade, discussions inside and outside of classes, the growing networks of students and teachers, and last but not least, the media presence of BLM have all led to it. Now, we need to be careful about these topics not being brought up just because they were momentarily fashionable but that they are dealt with in a serious and sustainable manner.
Our list of demands has had an impact. Thanks to great efforts by the International Office, three anti-racism workshops for the academic staff were offered. All of these workshops were fully booked. Perhaps it is worthwhile noting that the majority of the teaching staff that registered for these workshops were predominantly from the “Mittelbau” and women*. Another positive outlook is that German courses will become less expensive. We have been told that the steep price of around 700 EUR will be decreased to a smaller triple-digit range. To us, that still is too expensive. German courses should be free and part of the core course catalog. Only then can UdK students actively and diligently pursue their academic pathway without having to fear the loss of their visa and residence permit. in comparison, an equivalent course at the Humboldt University in Berlin costs 40 EUR. It is vital that the UdK adapts its German language course structures to the conditions upon enrollment in order to prevent discrimination based on origin and class. It needs to focus on creating more equal opportunities for its students.
How do you feel about all of this now, having a few months’ distance and more mental and emotional space to process everything? Have you felt the need to expand this list of demands?
SARAH NAIRA HERFURTH
There are definitely things missing on the list of demands. We are currently discussing whether we should put them in a new structure and make priorities. To give an example, we are thinking of expanding the topic of accessibility for people with visual and acoustic impairments. In addition, we are considering requesting the realization of a prayer room.
To come to your first part of the question, in the past year a lot has happened. Worldwide, in Germany, in Berlin, on an institutional level at the UdK, as well as on an individual. I’m thinking of February 19, the Hanau shootings, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many more victims of racist police brutality around the world, the atrocities committed against the Armenians during the Azeri-Armenian war, the attack on LGBTQIA+ rights in Brazil, the heatwave in Siberia, the fires in the Amazon and Australia, the explosion in Beirut, the US exit from the WHO, the abortion ban in Poland, the “Querdenker” demonstrations in Berlin, the house clearance of Liebigstraße 34 in Berlin, and unfortunately the list could go on. All these occurrences have in common that they amplify the suppression of the already marginalized. It might feel far-fetched but there is a direct connection between these developments and the work we do in the AG Intersectional Anti-Discrimination. We think it’s important to draw attention to these social conflicts and injustices that are undeniably rooted in discrimination. So during our meetings, as in our statements, we address these incidents. It is not rare that our members are personally affected by these developments. I, therefore, believe that the arts and thus also the UdK should act as a catalyst and seismograph, drawing attention to these injustices.
But with all worries I also see hope. I’m thinking of the many great, important, and progressive movements and achievements connected to all this. These include the Black Lives Matter movement, the protests in Belarus, Peru, and Poland, the #endsars movement in Nigeria, the newly introduced first German state Anti-Discrimination Law (Berliner Landes-Antidiskriminierungsgesetz), the mobile anti-discrimination app for Berlin (AnDi), the #exitracismUdK demonstration, the UdK declaration of the climate emergency, the UdK signing the declaration of Die Vielen, the gradual implementation of toilets for all genders at the UdK, and the options “diverse” and “not specified” in all forms, certificates, and statistics of the UdK Berlin, to name a few. Here we shouldn’t forget that most of these accomplishments were initiated from the bottom up.
Anti-discrimination work at the UdK is mostly done by students affected by different and intersecting forms of discrimination. This is the unfortunate situation we are in. After the turmoil of 2020, all of us working on anti-discrimination badly needed a break. We are studying during a pandemic. At the same time, we are affected by social and environmental injustices on different levels. We are trying to bring these issues forward in the university context. Simultaneously, we have to prove that these issues concern us all. All of this is draining. This is why one of our most pressing demands is the establishment of a professional anti-discrimination body with external experts following an intersectional approach. Anti-discriminatory matters should no longer depend on the students’ capacity. We are hopeful that, following the January 2021 meeting with the head of the university, we will generate common goals and solutions.
I am trying to trace the feelings that arose at that moment. I think I have learned a lot since then and feel more confident to talk further. But I am also very exhausted. For example, I have been doing this work and being present in many actions from afar and thanks to the internet. Around that time I was under strict lockdown and facing other complications for survival for around seven months in South America where the current pandemic hit tragically.
I also ask myself why we needed to wait until now. These issues in general have been happening for so long and were so normalized. This year it was just clear that we cannot avoid them anymore. We talk about things this way not to exaggerate, but because it has been ignored for so long and we don’t have any more patience. It is currently all connected to a lot of issues that are happening globally. And still, there are people being able to ignore these things or treating them as if they were not important when it really concerns us all. For some, this is just an interesting topic, talking about racism or discrimination is like picking up a book from the library and leaving it aside when they get bored. But for others, that is not possible, it’s a matter of existence.
It is work that, as art students, we’re not prepared for and we do not receive support to be able to continue doing it sustainably. It goes over hours, non-stop, and it is not paid. Something also to acknowledge is that there are a lot of people currently behind the anti-discrimination work, in student politics but also each one from their disciplines and initiatives and that there were people before us doing this work and paving the path for us, and hopefully there will be others in the future.
And of course, the list of demands will need adjustments while we move forward. After I read the testimonies in the student’s protest during the Rundgang and talked to some of the people involved, I was shocked. And yet, until now there have been no reparations. No one asked how they or we were dealing with this. It is a lot of emotional work, mostly for those who are also affected by it. This problem is rooted in the society here and everywhere and the struggle doesn’t aim to victimize anyone. It is about respect and requires holding accountable those who are in power to change things.
SARAH NAIRA HERFURTH
Here we are also thinking of the Berlin Senate. In our demands we refer to the Berlin Landesantidiskriminierungsgesetz and the Gleichbehandlungsgesetz, which state that 1. discrimination has to be recognized, 2. active action against it needs to happen, 3. the awareness of these problems needs to be strengthened, 4. measures and strategies need to be developed, and 5. programs for those affected need to be established. We want what is defined in these legislative papers to get carried out in practice. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. This is the situation in and outside the UdK.
How should the university and generally society respond to the fact that the anti-discrimination efforts involve much more than what people can see and that there is a lot of invisible labor going on?
SARAH NAIRA HERFURTH
In an academic setting, people typically want numbers to prove something. With discrimination, there are no numbers. Hence, we need policy-oriented research. If you look at the performance reports from the UdK, it’s apparent how things have been looked at. In the last UdK “Leistungsbericht 2018” it becomes clear that there is only a distinction between “women” and “foreigners”. Thus, there is close to no evidence of an intersectional approach. In addition, the category “foreigner” raises questions. And just having the category “women” is evidently insufficient. Our data needs to be looked at much more profoundly. We need this data to prove the persisting lack of representation of marginalized groups at the UdK.
One of the main questions driving us is: how accessible and inclusive is our university, and to whom? To whom is access denied, willingly or unwillingly? If you ask me, the UdK is a place where predominantly people with a privileged background study. Most of the UdK students come from academic and higher-than-average income families. This is interesting because the UdK does not implement a grade point average. Unlike in many other universities, one doesn’t need a certain grade for most courses. Even a high school diploma isn’t an essential requirement for most of the programs at the UdK. This theoretically means that the UdK is open to people without a specific educational background, and is open to people from the so-called working class. However, it comes to show that the socio-cultural backgrounds of the UdK students are less diverse than those of the TU Berlin, for example.
To make our university more equitable, we are proposing several measures. These include awareness training for members of big decision-making committees, such as admission or appointment committees. Another measure we are suggesting is a permanent seat for a qualified anti-discrimination expert in each committee, similar to the equal opportunities officer, the “Frauenbeauftrage”.
There are many things left out of sight. I think what happens is that there is a feeling of being democratic and treating everyone the same when we are in fact not all the same. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and realities, which is very positive but needs to be treated accordingly. I think this is because the university avoids the emotional level which is impossible to go around. That’s why it is so uncomfortable and difficult – it hurts to acknowledge that they have been part of this dynamic that negatively affects some people or leaves some behind. When talking about anti-racism/discrimination, some people can even take it very personally and react defensively or aggressively. Constantly dealing with indifference or denial makes the work heavier. Instead, the university should be more receptive, engaging, and open to solutions. We need to change the way we perceive everything. We need to leave behind the colonial structure that we drag to this very day. The healing process will never start if we are not going to the roots of it.
Exactly. Students will mirror these social dynamics further in life and it’s important that people and institutions learn how they are part of the problem. Based on your experiences and observations, what is the role of an art university in the shaping of society in the anti-racist, anti-discriminatory direction? Why is it important that the university prioritizes this kind of work?
SARAH NAIRA HERFURTH
There is a beautiful clip where Nina Simone talks about the artist’s duty. I think it is transferable to the role of the university, especially the art university, and more precisely to the UdK as one of the largest art schools in Europe. Simone says that the artist’s duty is to reflect on the times in which we live. We all should know what’s happening right now and has been going on for so many years. We shouldn’t look away any longer. We need to not only reflect on the times we live in, but think of measures, strategies, and solutions on how to make education, its access, its methods, and its contents more equitable and inclusive.
I agree that social dynamics in learning environments reflect later in society. This was the reason we were so interested in doing this work inside the university. If we are not able to make at least some progress here, how can we expect the progress to happen outside? It was nice to see that many joined this initiative, but there are many who don’t care. When we criticize the university it sounds like we hate it, when in fact this comes from a place of care for it. We know how important those spaces are. We just want to protect people from experiencing harm and make sure that the unfair things we personally experienced or heard of don’t happen anymore.
Having more sincere diversity in the university, meaning content (curriculum) and who represents it, is crucial. If you are only learning one side of history, it is difficult to understand your position in it. We are all connected and the things that happen here have an impact somewhere else. This is something we’re also seeing during this pandemic more clearly. Having a wider and inclusive approach is how empathy could grow and organically these topics would make more sense. It is often mistaken that discrimination is an issue of people who experience it. Instead, we need to see what causes it and, when it’s the whole system, what can we do about it.
I don’t think we will be able to change the university or society that fast. It’s a long way, but just knowing how things work, what our position is, what we could do about it, and how we could support our communities really makes a change. The consciousness is empowering. To know each other, to work together towards a collective dream and share among us, gives us the knowledge we didn’t have before, and this alone is for me super valuable. To be able to recognize it and name it also helps to release some weight that has been historically put on some of us and which doesn’t really belong to us. How many times have we felt isolated, powerless, and insecure because it is how the system works. We will eventually leave the university and stop doing this work in this way, but the awareness and openness to keep learning will remain with us and reflect later on how we function professionally.
Experiencing discrimination or being discriminated against systematically distracts us from the reason we are here in the first place – to learn, to create, and to exchange our feelings and ideas. And that would not be possible without setting some ground rules first.