striking at the intersections: how to not oppress your friends

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Artwork from the ‘Art in the time of Black Power’ exhibit by Emory Douglas

‘Intersectionality’ refers to the structural oppression individuals experience from the overlap of various social identities, such as gender, race, class, sexuality and disability. While the term was only coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, we know that intersectionality has always existed. Historical examples of struggle often always originates from those that are the least privileged in society. 

Rent strikes have a history that stands outside as well as inside of campus borders. It’s a tool that’s been used to advance the economic rights of working class and black activists - the latter especially within the ‘Black Power’/ Civil Rights movements, where housing struggles were used to fight against structural racism and black poverty. Since the beginning, housing struggles were fought by the least privileged, whose oppressions intersected across multiple social identities. Intersecting oppressions, and hence intersectional responses, have always been a core part of rent strikes.

An unfair housing system affects all of us. But those that are most affected by an unfair housing system will be those most oppressed. Overarching the unfair housing system are capitalist and patriarchal systems of oppression which profit from targeting those at the bottom. That’s why it’s both morally and strategically crucial to put the voices of marginalize people at the centre of every campaign. 

Hence we need to ‘strike at the intersections’ on campuses. The student body is obviously made up of many different people from different backgrounds, of which can drastically affect the experience they have of university accommodation. Such differences could be that BAME students can have higher dropout rates, or that students with disabilities struggle to find their housing unlivable due to their conditions. It’s important to recognise these differences so you can manoeuvre your demands as to unite everyone under the same campaign.

So, having intersectionality at the heart of your housing campaigns is crucial. In fact, having intersectionality at the heart of ANY campaign is crucial. 

How we can make our campaigns more accessible and intersectional and put marginalised voices at the centre of everything we do

Ask yourself: 

  • Who is in your activist circles? And who is not? 

  • Is there a hierarchy of power? Who are those positions of power (both elected and non-elected)? 

  • Who is organising? Who is talking? 

Challenging the system must begin with challenging the structures in your own activist circles. 

Some tips: 

  • Pronouns: Make your campaigns and organising groups more inclusive for different gender identities by simply making sure everyone’s preferred pronouns (e.g. she/her) are stated and known at the beginning of every meeting.

  • Language: When campaigning within a University campus, it can be so easy to overuse complicated academic language, but we should aim to make the language used in our organising as accessible as possible!

  • Liberation Officers: Have elected liberation officers in your campaigning/organising team!  This means holding elections for and electing individuals who belong to a certain group (e.g. the LGBT+ community) and their role will be to run campaigns and meetings aimed to facilitate liberation within your team. Of course, not all your positions may be filled but stay committed to having those roles fulfilled as they are significant!

  • Woman and Non-Binary Co-Chair position: Political organising spaces are nearly always led by men or heavily occupied by men, so some political parties and groups often have all-women shortlists at elections or reserve a leadership space for a woman or a non-binary person. This can be helpful in encouraging women and non-binary people to take upon leadership roles and enable a different voice into the organising diaolgue. 

  • Reaching outside your circles: Similarly, political organising spaces, especially at University, are nearly always led by white people or heavily occupied by white people. So, to have the voices and representation of people of colour, consider reaching out to other societies on campus, such as Friends of Palestine Society. 

  • Reaching out to community projects and groups: Another great way to reach out to different kinds of people is to extend and reach out to local community projects or groups. We have already witnessed this happen successfully as University students and local community groups integrate to work towards a common goal; for example, the ‘Up the Elephant’ project!

  • Think about meeting times and places: Students who have part time jobs, commute and have caring responsibilities might not be able to make meetings during the evening or not on campus. Try doing meetings at 12 for instance, or change up the times every few weeks. 

  • Demands: Make demands according to how people are affected by the housing system (that will likely mean going beyond the ‘Cut The Rent’ demand and include how students experience halls with their peers, disability access, working conditions for the service staff in halls, and so on). And of course, make sure you have a variety of different people contributing to what demands are being formulated. Sussex Cut The Rent centred many of their demands around the issues faced by different groups of the student body. They demanded that the proportion of accommodation flats accessible to their students reflect the number of students they accept with disabilities, along with any requests for adaptations of rooms be paid by the university. They also asked that the University change their definition of a student with disabilities to one provided by the SU officer for students with disabilities and the surveys that go out at the end of the year also look into possible cases of systematic discrimination by looking at the identity of those who answered said survey.

  • Students’ Union (SU): Utilise the resources of your Students’ Union! Many SUs will have liberation officers - reach out to them and see if you can collaborate in any kind of way to maximise your exposure to liberation groups. Alternatively, you can do other things with your SU such as organising an intersectionality workshop in order to educate other students about the importance of it.

  • National resources: Utilise the resources of national student organisations! We at RENT STRIKE are more than happy to help in any way we can.  Other national student organisations that emphasise on liberation and intersectionality include the National Union of Students (NUS) and People & Planet! Get in contact with them should you require more guidance or advice. 

  • Inspiration from other campaigns: Draw inspiration from other campaigns that have been successful in making intersectionality key in their campaigns. Examples include the various campaigns ran by IWGB Union (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain) and the Goldsmith’s Anti-Racism Action (GARA).

Obviously rent cuts are something that will universally help students, some more than others depending on their economic background. Thus, focussing on these aspects of student identity can make the campaign not only populist but also reach out to others who may look to other campaigns to represent them, something which could split the student body.

One thing to be wary of in these circumstances is that the university may try to divide your campaign to neglect or only support these demands around student identity. It is important to make sure at the beginning of the campaign that all demands are seen as equal whether they centre on class, identity or disability as we only succeed as a body if all of us are lifted together.

Use differences as a point to unite and grow, not to be divided and weakened. Have a campaign that reflects these differences and use it to form a consensus all students can get behind, and to make sure that all are seen equal when it comes to negotiations.

This list is, of course, not exhaustive of all the different ways we can make sure our political spaces are intersectional but they are the right steps forward! If you have any you would like to be added, please contact us.