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Reflections of an advocate for social justice...

22 Jun 2020 | Barbara Becnel Barbara Becnel is an African American PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, who is part of the Advance HE project ‘Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations’ funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). The fullness of her professional, social advocacy and lived-experience history especially equips her with the expertise and insight to contribute to the successful implementation of this important project. She will co-host our webinar 'Critical Conversations on Racism', 25 June.


For seventeen years, in the capacity of Executive Director, I led a large non-profit social services agency in northern California. The organization administered programs for a low-income community whose residents were overwhelmingly black. But the county government that supplied this community’s basic healthcare was primarily white and considered to be racist and uncaring. As recently as the early 1990s, a black person had been lynched in this county. No surprise, then, that the black community did not trust this county government. But such lack of trust caused black people from that neighbourhood to resist interacting with county workers, thus depriving themselves of healthcare they truly needed. So, I wrote a grant proposal after forming a collaborative with the county government, which placed the community and me in the leadership role of a twelve-person group. We ultimately got the funding for a five-year multimillion-dollar grant that allowed us to engage in dialog and exercises to build trust, respect and camaraderie between that black community and a white-dominated county government.

As a social justice activist, I organized an international media campaign to try to prevent a judicial execution of a reformed black gang leader, who had co-authored (with me) nine award-winning anti-gang and anti-drugs books for youth. I was quite successful in orchestrating a local, national and global debate about the death penalty and whether a black man is worthy of redemption. Unfortunately, I failed in saving this former street gangster’s life.

During the Occupy Wall Street era, I organized an Occupy San Quentin rally in front of San Quentin State Prison, which houses California’s death chamber and is where the black gang leader discussed above was executed. Nine hundred people attended the event and it garnered widespread television and print news media coverage.

As the President of a regional black women’s political organization, I organized a protest of mostly middle-aged and senior black women at a City Council meeting to support a minority Latinx population that had been racially maligned by a sitting black City Council member. I also co-founded an organization of black and Latina women, who came together to share, cry and heal, as we candidly exchanged the hurtful stereotypical beliefs that we had about each other based on race. This group met for two and a half years. Consequently, we now claim sisterhood with each other and have provided our ‘sisters’ all manner of support – political and personal – in the years that have followed.

Lived Experience

While in undergraduate school in New York, majoring in Economics and Mathematics, I won a Harvard Summer School Scholarship. I was permitted to enroll in up to three courses. I decided to drop out of one of them – an international economics class – after I was literally confronted by a white male professor upon my sitting down on the first day of the semester: ‘What are you doing here? Are you going to be able to do this work?’ Shocked, I looked around and noticed that I was the only black person in the room. I mumbled something, sat through that one session and never returned. These days, I am a PhD student whose research involves an historical critique of racism and its impact on black urban gangsterism.

I am a woman of colour with a painful lived experience of racial harassment at the university level – and I have experienced racism in my business pursuits. I have a great deal of expertise managing groups, seeking solutions for race-related problems, as well as generating media and public awareness for provocative issues and circumstances. I am confident that I can well serve the Short Life Expert Steering Group in the development of a racial harassment awareness campaign.

Join our webinar, Critical Conversations on Racism14:30 – 15:30 Thursday 25 June 2020.

The webinar will be led by and Barbara and Khadija Mohammed, Senior Lecturer, University of the West of Scotland, .

Advance HE is developing a suite of evidence-based resources in a project titled, Tackling racism on campus: Raising awareness and creating the conditions for confident conversations.

This project is funded by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and led by an expert group of EDI practitioners, academics, tertiary education staff and students.

The resources are designed for staff and students in Scottish colleges and universities so that they have access to tools that support conversations about race and racism and whiteness. The steering group directing the project on behalf of the Scottish Funding Council was established in February 2020, formed of EDI specialists, university and college staff, students and SFC and Advance HE representatives. Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader in Early Years from the University of the West of Scotland, Khadija Mohammed is the appointed Chair.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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