By David Egube
Scarce of any excitement or sense of community, my first year was drier than the Sahara. That didn’t particularly bother me. I remember clearly my response to a few of those who advertised their societies hoping for my attendance:
“I just wanna get my degree and go.”
Still, the number of Black friends I had and the number of digits on a single fully-formed hand were tragically equal, even outside of my course. It was important for me to know people who looked like me and shared common ground. There were approximately 15,000 students at the time and I don’t think such people made up for 1% of that population.
I’m talking about people who understood, without question, what it’s like to wear my skin. It’s not too farfetched to express that there’s a pseudo-telepathic connection between members of marginalised communities. And this young undergraduate from South East London strongly desired that connection upon entering university: but not just any flimsy connection. I wanted dialogue; conversation and expression.
But where could I find that?
As a teetotaling introvert who was strongly adverse to standard uni-student culture of clubbing and raving – but who was also either uninformed about, or uncomfortable with, other social spaces – there wasn’t much of an opportunity to connect with others on a deeper level and on my own terms. Surrey’s African & Caribbean Society (ACS) was the closest thing to a sense of belonging but, apart from the Meet & Greets, all the events thrown were off-limits to my type of character.
And that pretty much wraps up the pitiful story of my first year. But everything went left in year two. Or should I say “right”?
One day, midway through second year, the new ACS started to become conversational. They snatched up little old inconspicuous me and threw me on a panel among 6 others for a very introductory, engaging and entertaining discussion about university life. They branded the event “Chit Chat”. It was pure vibes; real heartening stuff. It seemed like the very thing I gave up searching for in my first year was finally manifesting: a sense of community.
No sooner was that utterly destroyed by the event’s sequel in the following semester.
That year’s ACS President tasked the panellists with brainstorming healthy questions to use for the second Chit Chat. This was suddenly scrapped at the last minute and substituted by the idea to give the audience full autonomy to ask the questions.
Reader, I tell you, they could not be more stupid.
Upon the barrage of questions dangling within the intellectual range of “do Nigerians or Ghanaians have the better jollof rice?” and “do boys like when girls wear weave?”, I was left irate. I locked eyes with the previous President of the ACS who reigned the year before, also seated on the panel. We shared disgust. We shared disappointment. That was the last of Chit Chat.
Suddenly, “I just wanna get my degree and go” wasn’t the motto anymore. It was “we need to show that there’s more to Black people than this”.
There were conversations to be had. There were issues in our society to address. There was trauma and other mental health troubles we internalised and never had opportunities to express. Yet, the only times we would finally come together, we would solely use for bottom-barrel behaviour and entertainment? Absolutely despicable. I wasn’t having it. I wasn’t living for it. To add fuel to flame, this was around the time BKChat came out – a further stimulant of ragtag and fruitless conversation in our community.
Was that it? Was entertainment our only dimension? Was there not more to us than dressing our wounds with games, drinks and humour? At that point, I realised I’d been waiting for someone to bring the very solution which would satisfy what I wanted when, really and truly, I needed to bring the change I wanted to see myself.
The library was my spot. Gentrified as it has become today, it was the prime platform for conversation and connection for many back in my day. Level 4 was where it all happened and Level 4 was where the idea of hosting a Black forum for informal yet fruitful debate and discussion was birthed. My passion for the idea was contagious and, soon enough, rubbed off on the individuals who would soon form the first generation #WOKESurrey team, one of whom would give it the name “#WOKEThursdays”.
The idea behind #WOKEThursdays; it wasn’t a meeting place for a bunch of egotistical Black intellects to compete in knowledge, but a place for those seeking knowledge they didn’t have, expressing thoughts and opinions in open-floor conversation and embracing a community of people just like them. And, of course, it ran every Thursday.
We launched our first session three weeks ahead of that idea, scrupulously planning in that time. Not an established society yet, we had to make do with one of Manor Park’s common rooms. Still, we had an exceptional pilot session. We’d discuss six different topics pertaining to the Black community in three whole hours and people would still stick around with the energy to continue the conversation even beyond that, even when the team and I would have to go home ourselves.
Nowadays, we cover half as many topics in half the amount of time. I’m convinced that my cohort were conversational addicts back in the day. Our sessions left a sweet addictive taste on the tongues of many.
The turnout of the first session was just over 30. The second, 50. Have you ever tried fitting over 50 human bodies in a Manor Park common room? It was so congested; everyone was squashed up against each other. No space to walk, difficult for people to enter and exit. I was probably inhaling what the next man exhaled. All for the sake of conversation. As beautiful as that was, we realised we needed a greater space. And my trusted teammate who was a member of the Student Union at the time landed us in Lecture Theatre J from then onwards.
The growth in LTJ was amazing. Every session we grew in numbers as word of #WOKEThursdays spread around campus. By our tenth and final official session of that academic year, we had a room full of 110 people in a circle listening to each other and applauding each and every point a speaker made. A sensational atmosphere in sweeter times.
That was the legacy my team and I left on the Black community of Surrey. A space for all, regardless of creed, colour and interest, to come together and bond with each other through conversation, being entertained and enlightened by the expression of others and finding solutions to key social issues. The testimonies I heard were from those who were not only triggered to think differently having gained new perspectives, but also of those who were happy to find something of a family and a real sense of community through what #WOKEThursdays offered.
I passed the mantle to the 2nd generation team as I went off on my placement year; it was in that year that #WOKEThursdays was rebranded to #WOKESurrey and was ratified as an official society. It was also then that I started working on establishing the parent organisation #WOKEWeekly and championed its way into collaborating with organisations and societies from a variety of universities beyond Surrey.
As I write, the 5th generation of #WOKESurrey are about to grip the reins. They aim to bring back the 1st generation spirit that burned within my team and the communal vibe that was very much a by-product of such a fire. I trust them to ensure that the intellectual range amongst the Black community is very much sustained through the conversation #WOKESurrey stimulates.
I also trust them to ensure that young undergraduates who come in with the same desire I had will not have to search far to find what it is they’re looking for.
David Egube is a Computer Science graduate from the University of Surrey.