On books, music, South London, learning Swahili at SOAS, studying Māori & Indigenous Land Law at the University Of Waikato, racism and the importance of The Black Curriculum.
George Orwell once wrote, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” While events of the last month, triggered by the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have seen people from all walks of life come together to address institutional and generational racism, our own understanding of Black British history has remained limited at best. Lavinya Stennett, CEO and founder of The Black Curriculum, is on a mission to correct that for future generations, steadfast in her belief that education is crucial in helping combat the cultural normalisation of racism; from overt prejudice to subconscious bias and everyday micro-aggressions.
“I’m quite overwhelmed to be honest”, she says as we start chatting on Thursday evening after another hectic day of meetings and video calls, “the last few weeks have been pretty crazy.” Lavinya herself was born in West Norwood in South London to Jamaican parents and went to school in Brixton, where she excelled at music and history — two of her biggest passions, alongside reading and writing. “I actually had the best childhood”, she recalls with a smile, “I had my library, the play centre around the corner, my local church. It was just really quiet and everyone kinda knew each other from the main high road, it was a real community.”
“I was really into books too”, she continues, “I wouldn’t say I was a book nerd but if I had a book, I’d be lost in it. Creating stories was a big one, I was into writing a lot, but also just creating stuff … putting two things together to make a new thing. In some ways, that’s what The Black Curriculum is, an amalgamation of all my different interests all together.”
“I wouldn’t say I was a book nerd but if I had a book, I’d be lost in it. Creating stories was a big one, I was into writing a lot, but also just creating stuff … putting two things together to make a new thing. In some ways, that’s what The Black Curriculum is, an amalgamation of all my different interests all together.”
At school in Brixton, she pursued these interests with enthusiasm but also found music to be a constant source of inspiration and enjoyment too. She learned to played the drums from a young age and continues to sing to this day. “I loved music”, she says thoughtfully. “Gospel was always played around the house growing up. The Clark Sisters, Don Moen … and then as I got older I was playing a lot more funk. Stevie Wonder and loads of old school influences. At school as well, all my best experiences were in my music classes because I just felt like I was listened to and I had a chance to express myself. Big up Mr Owusu, he really encouraged everyone to believe in themselves. History and Geography were passions too but they were just … dry. The stuff I was learning was interesting but it was delivered in such a dull way. It was monotonous, the teachers would carry the same monotone voices throughout the lessons. It was just so dry.”
Still only 23, Lavinya’s journey to first setting out and establishing The Black Curriculum a little over 12 months ago was inspired, in part, to her degree. She studied African Studies at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies) in London, although it wasn’t her first choice — “I complained about my history lessons being dry but I guess I still wanted to continue along that really linear path” — instead preferring to study Law & Anthropology at LSE (London School Of Economics). She was on holiday in Kenya with her family when she was notified of her results. “I didn’t get into LSE”, she explains, “..and I was like ‘ah what am I am gonna do’? I was crying and just rushing around trying to work out what my options were. I logged onto UCAS and had to look through the clearing section and SOAS was literally the only university. I didn’t feel like it was me at all but it was either I go there or go to Kent and I ain’t going to Kent. I chose African Studies in the end because I felt like I had one shot to learn about my history.”
“I chose African Studies in the end because I felt like I had one shot to learn about my history.”
That decision would ultimately change her life. A complex degree covering a vast subject matter — “there were so many different parts to it, it was like a jigsaw coming together” — Lavinya quickly realised she’d not been given the chance to access any of this knowledge growing up. “I’d been dumbed down”, she says affirmatively. “Reckoning with that was quite uncomfortable but also quite comforting at the same time because there were other people around me who didn’t know much about it either. Everyone on that course was focused on learning and bettering themselves as best they could.”
She also decided to take on a language — “I’ve been learning Swahili for the last four years” — and throughout her time at SOAS, Lavinya’s degree saw her focus on not only African languages and dialects, but cultures and histories, each of which would open her eyes as to how much she still had learn. The catalyst for starting The Black Curriculum proper would come after graduating from SOAS however, on a trip to New Zealand.
“I remember it well”, she says warmly. “I went to New Zealand for three months, which wasn’t as part of my degree at SOAS but it came through the network the university had with other universities. One of my lecturers let me know about a scholarship opportunity and I was like ‘okay cool’! I applied and thankfully I have neighbours from New Zealand who helped me with the application process, which made everything run smoothly. I got it, headed out there and it was just so bliss.”
Lavinya travelled to study Māori & Indigenous Land Law, which saw her immerse herself in Māori culture, cosmology and history at Waikato University in Hamilton on New Zealand’s north island. “It was like another world”, she says, reflecting with a beaming smile. “I was able to build really strong links with people who had a really good knowledge of the history of colonialism and their own history as well, which is even more important. They introduced that to me, too. I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m fluent in Māori but I was learning words and certain phrases, I learned how to do The Haka. Everything I picked up was to do with their heritage and I just thought that in itself was amazing. The fact that they own their history is so powerful and that was reflected at university level, everything ran so deep. The lecturers were Māori too. It wasn’t white people coming in to teach Māori history, it was them teaching you their own history. I thought to myself, ‘this is it’. I mentioned before about my own history lessons being dull, but this felt so real, so intimate. The lecturers would walk you through their life stories and I’d leave feeling so connected to what I was learning about. It made me realise this is what we needed back in the UK. We need a Black Curriculum that allows us to have and share in our histories and also the history of colonialism too. I felt so empowered in New Zealand … like if I’d had something similar growing up, I don’t even think I’d even be here doing what I’m doing. That realisation was definitely the tipping point.”
“The lecturers would walk you through their life stories and I’d leave feeling so connected to what I was learning about. It made me realise this is what we needed back in the UK.“
Established alongside close friends Bethany Thompson and Lisa Kennedy at the turn of 2019, Lavinya set out The Black Curriculum with big ambitions to inspire and educate young people both in and out of schools. She applied for a small government grant, which has funded the whole operation to this point, and has since been inundated with support, donations and mainstream exposure since the murder of George Floyd and the global visibility of the Black Lives Mater movement. “I remember writing out exactly what I wanted to do in one of my lecture halls”, she explains, “so I moved back to London and applied for a grant to setup The Black Curriculum. And now we’re here.”
“To execute a vision, you need people, you need teams”, she continues, “and we had a sense of community pretty early on. I remember someone at university had a WhatsApp group for black women setup and we were just talking about our ambitions one day and she said she had a passion for education and I’d mentioned I’d wanted to setup a black curriculum. We connected from there and she mentioned her friend was also interested in doing something similar. They were called Bethany and Lisa, and they rode with me for about six months, doing focus groups and trying to extend the team. We managed to build a small community and bring in freelancers and let people know that this is what we stood for and this what we wanted to do. With that belief from us, other people bought into it. I remember a teacher reaching out straight away after hearing me speak at an out-of-school talk I did. She came up to me and was like ‘you’re coming to my school in September’ and it actually ended up happening in September. That willingness from other people to get involved and be part of it and build is what it’s all about.”
“I remember a teacher reaching out straight away after hearing me speak at an out-of-school talk I did. She came up to me and was like ‘you’re coming to my school in September’ and it actually ended up happening in September. That willingness from other people to get involved and be part of it and build is what it’s all about.”
Local schools may have been an obvious entry point for Lavinya and her team to start at, but schools have so far proved difficult to access and engage; “If you want to run a company, don’t make schools your main client”, she says with a smirk. Alongside Bethany and Lisa, Lavinya spent months emailing schools across London — “a lot of people were getting back to us like, who are you?”— but two schools did get in touch and were key in providing The Black Curriculum with early backing and momentum.
With the subject of Black British History being so vast, Lavinya also noted that schools were often sceptical about what the curriculum actually promised; what was it going to teach children and young people? “Before we’d even got topics down, I knew that this curriculum would have to empowering”, she explains. “I also had this idea of building a sense of identity for young people in mind as a starting point. With the team, we’d then think about the most important themes that spoke to us. It was a little bit biased as all three of us are Jamaican (laughs) so we were like, we’ve gotta put sound-system culture in there and a history of Reggae and Calypso music, the art forms that have influenced British music to this day. I’d also done a lot of research around ecology for more dissertation and I feel like so many issues and injustices we face with the environment can be linked to racism so that was something else we felt we needed to incorporate. Also, when people say things like “oh you’re not British”, I feel like that can distance you from the land and a sense of belonging. Like when we talk about identity and belonging, what are we talking about? Belonging to the land, belonging to the things that people of African descent put blood, sweat and tears into building. The bricks, the asphalt, the things that helped form the land of Britain. Having a module that addresses land and the environment was therefore really important to us.”
“..when people say things like “oh you’re not British”, I feel like that can distance you from the land and a sense of belonging. Like when we talk about identity and belonging, what are we talking about? Belonging to the land, belonging to the things that people of African descent put blood, sweat and tears into building. The bricks, the asphalt, the things that helped form the land of Britain.”
There are also further modules on migration, politics and the legal system — “we can’t keep teaching history without linking it to what’s happening now” — with more to be developed and delivered as the team expands. The main takeaway for Lavinya though is making sure that the history the curriculum does teach is one that connects with those being taught; history that has a purpose, history that can join the dots between students’ everyday experiences and their past. “We’re actually seeing young people actually respond to what we’re delivering”, she says powerfully. “It’s inspiring them to go away and think and learn more about things … and I’m not telling them to do that, they’re doing it, which is amazing.” Classroom reactions have also been overwhelmingly positive, from teachers and fellow educators alike, despite only being visible in select schools for the last nine months. “At the end of each session we’ve delivered, I’d say 99.9% of the children leave feeling excited and energised by it”, Lavinya says, “and that shows how necessary it is for us to keep doing this work.”
Said work was also emboldened by the release of The Black Curriculum Report in January, which, authored by Dr Jason Arday and edited by Lavinya, Bethany and Lisa, explored the systematic ommittance of Black British History from history syllabuses across the UK; “seeing that out in the world made everything feel real”, Lavinya beams. That would ultimately light the touch paper for their #TBH365 campaign, which has been launched with a view to pushing for national curriculum reform via direct action. Through encouraging people to write to Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson MP, via an email template on their website, recording videos of support and donating to the Black Curriculum team, Lavinya hopes that they will be listened to. “We secured a meeting with the head of the curriculum team at the Department of Education and we wanted to introduce them to The Black Curriculum”, she explains. “They were really receptive but they said to us that they couldn’t support what we were doing without the support of the ministers, particularly Gavin Williamson, so everything we’re doing now is like phase two of that conversation. We need that support.”
That call for support has ultimately been amplified by the global Black Lives Matter movement over the last month following the murder of George Floyd, which has seen a huge upsurge in interest and support in what Lavinya and her team have been working on. “We’re in a period of grieving”, says Lavinya. “In the UK we’ve seen a lot of people, especially black people, die from coronavirus and even I’ve had two family members in hospital with it. So I feel like people have witnessed a lot of death this year and we’ve been worrying for a long time now. To then watch someone die on camera from a place of isolation, where we’re disconnected from ourselves and our communities, was just too much. This wasn’t a shooting either. Police in America are associated with guns and killing people and that’s become what we expect, but this was different. Because we had to watch the life force literally drain out of George Floyd while a police officer basically stood on his neck, it evokes a totally different feeling. I think it opened people’s eyes to the gravity of what’s been going on.”
The protests that followed in the UK may have since encouraged dialogue and a period of societal self-reflection over the last four weeks, but much of it has been reactionary concedes Lavinya. “I feel like it’s made us understand the issues better, but I don’t think we’re now at a place where to have a healthy dialogue about black lives and racism. I’m not just talking about London either, because I’m surrounded by people who understand my work and share my views, but what about the people who don’t? There’s now riots, people are still saying ignorant things and even some of my friends have been saying that in their white workplaces, there’s been a bit of push back about Black Lives Matter. How are we supposed to move forward if people aren’t on the same page? I feel like people’s ears are open but I don’t think we’re at a place of fully fledged change … yet.”
“I think people understand racism to be individual, very extreme actions”, she continues. “You chuck a banana at a black person, you’re racist. You say the N word, you’re racist. That has nothing to do with unconscious bias or the way people privilege or centre themselves above other people. That to me is equally as racist and damaging. It’s the ideology of superiority that was born in the 18th century and it’s still clearly very much alive today. Without people realising or understanding that trajectory, you’re lost. And that’s why I believe education to be so important.”
“I think people understand racism to be individual, very extreme actions”, she continues. “You chuck a banana at a black person, you’re racist. You say the N word, you’re racist. That has nothing to do with unconscious bias or the way people privilege or centre themselves above other people.”
With that sentiment still very much at the forefront of our conversation, we begin to wind down. “I think I’m just gonna go and have a sleep now”, Lavinya says with stretching her arms above her head, clearly exhausted after another energy-sapping week. Looking back at what she and her small team have achieved in a little over 12 months is astonishing and now, with the world’s media glare fixed on agents of change like her own, she seems intent on seizing the opportunity. If rolled-out nationwide, The Black Curriculum would represent seismic change in the UK and is clearly the type of tangible, long-term reform society needs to really come to terms with racism — and just how deep it runs. They say there’s no time like the present, but from speaking to Lavinya, it’s clear that there’s no time like the past either. “We’ve got to understand our history to understand our future”, she concludes. And it’s difficult to say fairer than that.
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