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Pleasure Activism and Open Letters: In Conversation with Common Ground

Image: A drawing of the Radcliffe Camera toppling over on a pile of bones. A red figure stands in front of it, saying “Welcome to the greatest university in the world!” while a crowd of onlookers watches.

This article is the first in an ongoing series, Conversations with Change-Makers

I spoke to some of the organisers at Common Ground Oxford to learn more about their work, systemic racism in Oxford, and the founding ideals of their organisation. 

Current students at Oxford will be familiar with the Rhodes Must Fall protests that took place in the city earlier this year, leading to the formation of an independent commission to examine the future status of Cecil Rhodes’ statue. What they may not know is that this ‘success’ comes on the back of a wave of protests that took place in 2016, following the initial growth of the movement in South Africa. While these protests failed in the sense that the statue remained, they were the birth of Common Ground, one of Oxford’s most prominent activist organisations.

Common Ground define themselves as “a student-led movement that sets out to examine Oxford’s colonial past, in the context of present-day inequalities of racism and class.” The organisers highlighted the difference between erasing imperial legacy and investigating it, a distinction that has perhaps become more significant in light of right-wing criticisms of this kind of work. 

The organisers highlighted the difference between erasing imperial legacy and investigating it, a distinction that has perhaps become more significant in light of right-wing criticisms of this kind of work.

Common Ground was formed on the principle of ‘pleasure activism,’ an approach to activism that acknowledges the constant struggle and burnout that activists may face and aims to create a “sustainable” approach which is “not quite as soul-crushing” as some activism can be. This approach finds its basis in Audre Lorde’s writing, and has been taken further by Adrienne M. Brown, author of Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. A quote from this interview with Brown sums up this approach to activism well; “Making justice and liberation the most pleasurable experiences we can have. […] Pleasure gets lost under the weight of oppression, and it is liberatory work to reclaim it.”

Activist burnout has featured in several recent articles, particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. When I asked the organisers how they personally avoid burnout, they highlighted the importance of having “a strong network of colleagues and people that you really trust” to support your work. Common Ground is organised non-hierarchically, and so there is a culture of delegation and sharing of work that helps their activists avoid burning out.  

Two ongoing initiatives that fit into this vision of pleasure activism are Common Ground Journal and Melanin. Common Ground Journal, while operated fairly separately from the central group, exists as a text-based space in which both student and community activists can come together and discuss central issues in both non-fiction and fiction formats. It was a response to the need to discuss issues such as racial inequality in a non-academic space within Oxford in a way that was more accessible than academic journals, which cater primarily to the academic side of the city. The journal is published on a yearly basis, and there have been four issues published so far. 

Fundamentally, sympathy does not equate to a commitment to structural change, or doing the work that is necessary to combat injustice. 

A quote that stuck out in the first issue of Common Ground Journal was “sympathy [is] useless,” written in the context of the first set of Rhodes Must Fall protests in Oxford. We discussed this issue in some depth, and the organisers drew my attention to several key issues that exist with sympathy: firstly, sympathy does not equate to active work, secondly, that sympathy is often rendered in response to images of gore around POC bodies, a position that black and brown people should not have to be in for action to take place, and thirdly, that sympathy is often fleeting. Fundamentally, sympathy does not equate to a commitment to structural change, or doing the work that is necessary to combat injustice. 

While Common Ground Journal exists to hold the university to account and discuss existing injustices, Melanin. operates primarily to focus on “[creating] solutions, and uplifting POC [voices].” While they host a discussion group, its main purpose is to create a nurturing space where people can discuss “navigating and managing” the issues that face POC within Oxford. In a similar way, their newsletter focuses on creating room for a range of different perspectives around these problems, in a way that prioritises ongoing intersectionality, such as in pieces focusing on the LGBTQ+ community.

A central tenet of Common Ground is building links with pre-existing activist work being done within the city, particularly with ‘town’ rather than student organisations. One of the organisers highlighted the importance of acknowledging that “community activists have been doing the work and putting the hours in for a lot longer than we do while we’re at university,” and so are often able to work on more long-term projects that student activists.  

Working with the community, then, becomes an essential way of both using pre-existing expertise and acknowledging the hold that the university has over many civilians’ lives. One of the community organisations that they highlight is Anti-Racist City, set up by city councillor Shaista Aziz and including “residents, teachers, trade unionists, writers, artists, campaigners, City and County Councillors.” Common Ground’s approach to working with organisations such as Anti-Racist City focuses primarily on running events in collaboration with them, bringing publicity to their work, and communicating with them to get an idea of what’s happening in the city. 

“Traditionally, activism is about, among other things, demonstrating collective strength and collective opposition.”

The pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities for Common Ground. One of the organisers pointed out that “traditionally, activism is about, among other things, demonstrating collective strength and collective opposition,” which can be significantly harder to achieve in a virtual set-up. Still, their open letter calling Oxford to uphold anti-racist values has recieved over 10,500 signatures from members of the university to date. In the experience of these organisers, most open letters will receive around 500 signatures, so to see this kind of support is rare. 

The open letter also provided the opportunity for signatories to comment, facilitating discussion; as one of the organisers put it, the open letter makes it clear that “there is no such thing as a homogenous POC experience in Oxford.” The letter forms an example of the power of working with the local community, and several of the demands posited in it reflect those of the community, such as forming a ‘representative committee’ of staff, students and community members to consult about the changes it needs to make. 

However, change is not necessarily a given. The organisers highlighted a worrying trend in the University’s past response to activism; that it takes until it is “too embarrassing to refuse” for change to happen. When attempting to solve problems, then, Common Ground put an emphasis on making transparent the injustices within the university in order to create continuous pressure in a public way. 

Common Ground put an emphasis on making transparent the injustices within the university in order to create continuous pressure in a public way. 

Over the next year, Common Ground are hoping to hold the university to account in the commitments it made in its response to their open letter, and to push them further; “there were lots of areas in which the university showed promise, but also dodged the demands presented in the open letter.” They also hold an annual symposium presenting speakers, music and arts initiatives such as poetry readings; although this year’s was cancelled due to Covid, the organisers are hoping to hold one next summer. Common Ground highlights the importance of allowing its members to drive the direction of their activism, and so their events and priorities are often informed by the interests of the members and ongoing events in Oxford.  

Common Ground hold open meetings every Sunday at 5pm during term time, and have a slack channel that you can join to get involved with what they do. Melanin. have a community Facebook group that is also open to all. 

Image: CMS

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