Equal Voices in the Room
Issue 1

What if in 5 years the white, western, middle class, native tongue speaking male is not our image of the academic, and he is not overrepresented amongst invited speakers, lecturers, and reading lists? What if the student body is formed by even measures of white, black, brown, and othered bodies? Which practices make this a farfetched scenario and how do existing practices within the college exclude the Other and promote the One?
During the past year we found ourselves in rooms where two or three people out of a group dominated or outmanoeuvred the rest of the assembly, regardless of its size. This happened in lectures, crits, seminars, group decisions, and casual social spaces. Usually, these people would share traits. White. Western. Middle class. Native English-speaking. Though RCA’s student body is diverse, this was not always reflected in the sharing of space, soundscapes, and discourse. This recurring experience seems to follow certain patterns. Students, teachers, and heads of programmes seem to promote
those who are quickest to respond – the ones with rhetorical advantages or simply, native English speakers. Conversely we also had positive experiences of discussions and crits when they were facilitated by someone with awareness of the dynamics in the group and able to encourage or make space for those people who may not be the first to speak.

This situation is not particular to RCA; it is one we have encountered in other schools, universities, workplaces, and social situations. We observe that dynamics are talked about, but often, away from the group, after teaching sessions/lectures. We began to ask whether we could bring these reflections back to the classrooms for scrutiny and discussion. As places of learning and experimentation, they allow for exploration of some of the fundamental ways in which we relate to each other.
Equal Voices in the Room was a result of this contemplation. Last year, together with fifteen students and staff members, we used different methods to explore this alienation, looking at what was happening
and why. We borrowed processes used in activist movements such as Occupy, and took guidance from the Seeds of Change handbooks[1] our own experiences working as part of co-operative organisations, experiences in body centred practices, as well as Jo Freeman’s article The Tyranny of Structurelessness. In particular, Freeman’s emphasis on articulating
group power dynamics was particularly helpful. Freeman writes, ‘For everyone to have the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its activities the structure must be explicit, not implicit’[2]. Using different tasks, we
sought practical means that facilitate
collective learning. We offered an open invitation to students and staff members to attend, with the explicit aim of addressing this as a group regardless of individual position or paid responsibility.
We carry these workshops into this academic year. Our goal is for one of these workshops to take place on every course in the school. We are also training those interested in facilitating their own workshops later this year.

As students, we have the power to shift the culture of learning through challenging and enacting new practices.
Whilst we are not able to dismantle all types of privileges, we can question the processes that reinforce inequality. In doing so, we hope that academia and social practices will look different in the near future. A more inclusive and empowering environment that will allow for rich and diverse discussions.

[1] https://seedsforchange.org.uk/resources

[2] http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.html The Tyranny of Structurelessness
Jo Freeman

          Alexandra Parry + Cicilia Ostholm

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