We Decolonize VUB (WDV) is a project created and run by students, and has emerged as one of this semester’s rare success stories from within the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. De Moeial spoke with Latifah Abdou and Juliana Huitaca, two pioneering members of the project, to ask how We Decolonize VUB came to be, what it entails, and where the project is headed.
Text: Filip Lismont
Image: Andreas Lorrain
Last January, Master student in European and International Governance Latifah Abdou was asked by the University Centre for Development Cooperation (UCOS) to spearhead the creation of a new project on decolonization from within the VUB. After reaching out to several like minded students and student organisations, a working group of nine students would serve as the backbone of WDV and its conception.
COVID-19 and all its implications delayed the launch of We Decolonize VUB to September. But even though there are still significant barriers to the development of WDV, it has not stopped the project from growing. WDV is created with the understanding that it will evolve. But currently, it is supported by three core pillars: a safe space, a library, and an array of social events.
The first of these pillars, the library, was “the starting point of the project” according to Latifah. We Decolonize VUB repurposes one of the old student accommodation buildings on the Etterbeek campus of the VUB, giving the project “a physical dimension, a place where people can immerse themselves and engage with decolonization on their own terms”. The library boasts a thoughtfully curated collection of works on decolonization, colonialism, racism and anti-racism, but also includes authors of colour or with a migration background who do not necessarily write about such topics. According to Latifah: “It’s important to realise that authors of colour or with a migration background do not only produce literature on colonialism or racism.”
“We’ve had participating students mention their relief at having an opportunity to discuss sensitive topics, since they did not feel they could do so at home.” – Juliana Huitaca
This active inclusion of previously underrepresented authors also addresses the influence of gatekeeping in academia. Academic institutions are built on a historical archive of literature or documentation, and these collections are often inherently western in source and bias. This limited perspective of the world is then reproduced within academic or institutional circles, forming a biased foundation for subsequent research and thinking. Latifah laments that “in most western academic institutions these have been predominantly white male gatekeepers, who are in turn inspired and influenced by other white males. Ninety percent of what we ‘know’ is founded on knowledge based or produced in six percent of the world. That needs to change if we want a correct conception of that world.” WDV shines a light on the everyday life of those who are underrepresented. “To show they have their own memories, their own history, their own practices. We want to promote discourse on and awareness of the aspects of everyday life that are currently missing from decolonization based interpretation and thinking. Including a diversity of subjective lenses as a way to remove prejudice and racist attitudes.” The occurrence of biased gatekeeping is not new knowledge, but it is difficult to correct such a longstanding imbalance. And WDV is working towards deconstructing this dynamic by drawing awareness to it and tipping the scales of representation through the library as well as the events pillar.
Safe Spaces and Events
We Decolonize VUB’s library may be the starting point of the initiative, but it is certainly not the end. And within the functions of the library we see the other two pillars emerge. The physical location of the library aims to serve as a safe space for those who want to learn or talk about matters such as decolonization and anti-racism. And the events pillar of WDV equally strives to provide safe spaces for those wanting to discuss loaded topics and share their own experiences. Juliana notes that “some participating students mention their relief at having an opportunity to discuss sensitive topics, since they did not feel they could do so at home.” It is for these people that WDV looks to provide platforms for discussion and learning, and it is the same people who will help form the future of WDV by manner of participation and contribution.
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The events pillar looks to tap into existing forms of engagement as well as create new ones. Latifah remarks that “Since not everyone is interested in literature, we wanted to engage people via different channels.” And while the Events pillar has been restricted to digital engagement thus far, Latifah says that the intention is to branch out from the Etterbeek campus when possible. “It’s important that we don’t isolate the thought process and narrow it down to the campus, which would imply more of an academic approach. Part of avoiding these limitations is being connected with the city, and the idea is to have events in places like Cafe Congo and Passa Porta or have events in the Latin American House. We want to engage more with the city of Brussels and connect with everyday life.”
Sharpening the lens
It is not the concrete intention of We Decolonize VUB to define decolonization or to develop an intricate plan that others must follow. The point is rather to empower those who’s view on decolonization should be heard, expose problematic consequences of colonialism, and stimulate engagement. Juliana expresses that the goal is to “explore the decolonization of everyday life, understanding how and where colonial influences manifest in everyday experiences, and how these experiences can inform an effective method of decolonization.” It is difficult to pinpoint what an effective mode of decolonization might be, but it starts with the acknowledgement that decolonization is necessary. Enacting change is the end goal, but exposing the consequences of lingering colonial dynamics is a prerequisite for changing them. One example briefly mentioned relates to the standardization of the medical world according to western research, whereby underlying medical issues specific to non-western race anatomies are not taken into account in medical practice and research.
“We are creating at the same time as we are experiencing” – Juliana Huitaca
We Decolonize VUB cannot teach everyone exactly how they should decolonize, but it can help people engage with the topic and provide channels through which students as well as staff can get involved, learn more about decolonization and its history, and eventually apply this knowledge in their daily lives. Latifah makes it especially clear that “decolonization is not merely a practice, it is a lens through which to view the world.” And WDV is looking to help expand the vision of those willing to engage.
Decolonization is not a new phenomenon, and the tackling of colonialism and its consequences is not a centralised practice, neither should it be. Through its pillars, WDV looks to promote awareness of the histories of colonialism and decolonization in all their different forms and applications, and highlight the consequences of this history for people of colour and those with a migration background. Doing so is already an act of decolonisation, but the finish line is not yet in sight. There is not yet an ideal form of decolonization, and Juliana wants to make sure people understand that WDV is “still trying to find our map, because we do not claim to have the recipe for success in decolonization processes or that we have a specific goal to be achieved by next year. We are creating at the same time as we are experiencing.”
The VUB is We Decolonize VUB’s point of departure. But WDV is actively trying to stay away from an academic approach in terms of clarifying concepts and centralising definitions, Juliana clarifies this by mentioning that “the way we intend to enact change is very far from being only academic. It’s really focused on the students, the personnel and the professors.” And regardless of whether WDV is conceived in an academic setting, academia is not their focus.
Latifah stresses that “it is important to acknowledge that academic institutions feed and cement colonial practices and thought processes, but it is not our goal to look at curriculums and suggest changes. However, I do hope that fixing that imbalance in representation and perception will eventually affect what curriculums look like; affect how the professor’s give their classes, affect how the staff at the VUB is treated and hopefully even affect the composition of it’s staff.”
The challenges of cooperation
For WDV, finding the balance between cooperation and self-determination has been a constant challenge. “UCOS (Universitair Centrum voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, red.) remains our supervising body. And we’re in contact with each other, but we as a working group have a lot of freedom in how we approach and develop the project.” Latifah says that by keeping the working group and participants central in shaping the project, WDV looks to maintain their bottom-up approach. But cooperating with other projects, collectives and institutional branches remains a big part of the project.
“Where is Patrice Lumumba’s square? Which power dynamics and interests decided its location? Where did the money come from to create all these parks here in Brussels? The answers to these questions are directly linked to colonisation.” – Latifah Abdou
Emerging in close proximity to WDV is the new Equality Atelier of the VUB, the result of VUB’s drive to help address racism and discrimination. “The core difference between WDV and the Equality Team – which organises the Atelier – is that the latter is institutional and top-down, while WDV is committed to a bottom-up, student-led approach that actively keeps affected groups at the centre of decision making and discussions. We do cooperate, although it was initially quite difficult to work together because our goals were different. The Equality Atelier wants to raise awareness on racism, while WDV wants to address the consequences of racism and offer relief to the students affected by them. We do not want to have a debate on what racism is and what it means in Belgium. We want to tackle it” As time went by however, this relationship changed. The Equality Team eventually positioned themselves as the “the spider in the web connecting different projects and initiatives. Rather than claiming a controlling, supervisory role, they transitioned to a more facilitating approach focussed on reinforcing existing projects and making new ones possible.”
Black Lives Matter
Shortly after the initial start of the project creation in February, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in the US city of Minneapolis, eventually resulting in a global wave of protests and activism that rallied under the flag of Black Lives Matter. WDV is, however, not intent on aligning itself with other activist currents. “Black Lives Matter is a movement that specifically stemmed from the issue of police brutality disproportionately affecting the Afro-American community in the USA.” As the movement grew nationally as well as internationally, its scope expanded as well. The movement eventually shifted away from the focus on police brutality, and started to encompass a broader call for awareness to issues concerning racism, anti-racism and, eventually, decolonization.
The widespread occurrence and publicity of taking down colonial statues seemed the main symbol of decolonization, but Latifah says that “removing statues is not even one percent of what decolonization entails. We are actually against taking down statues, because this might give the impression that their removal is effective decolonization.” In order to bring awareness to the colonial elements in public space, WDV is looking to organise colonial walking tours in Brussels. “And then it’s not only about statues, but also about street names. Where is Patrice Lumumba’s square? Which power dynamics and interests decided its location? Where did the money come from to create all these parks here in Brussels? The answers to these questions are directly linked to colonization.”
“We talk about decolonization as a global phenomenon, because more than seventy percent of the world has been colonised at some point.” – Latifah Abdou
“We are supportive of everything happening around Black Lives Matter and think it is necessary. But we want to talk about decolonization in the broader sense, being sensitive to different contexts and their needs. We also talk about North Africa, the Arab region and South America as the first colonized continent. We talk about decolonization as a global phenomenon, because more than seventy percent of the world has been colonized at some point.” The varying angles from which WDV approaches decolonization is in fact one of its most important dynamics. “The diversity of our working group gives it a lot of added value.” Within a relatively small core of nine students, the working group boasts insights from four different continents, bringing a welcome variation in opinions and experiences of decolonization to the mix.
What now, what next?
We Decolonize VUB is eagerly waiting to apply all that has been worked on over the past year. The library on the Etterbeek campus has continued to grow and will finally be able to share its contents as well as act as a platform for discussion and expression. There will again be physical events on campus as well as across the city of Brussels. The best is yet to come from the WDV project. But until then, there are still plenty of ways to get in touch or get engaged with the initiative. We Decolonize VUB remains active on Facebook and Instagram by posting reading and watching tips, highlighting relevant events and staying available to those with questions to ask or experiences to share.