Q&A with Mia Mazzocchi and Zara Julal-Rowe
Two students who challenged their school to diversify their curriculum with fantastic results.
Last month Sludge Magazine had the pleasure of being present at Derby City Council's Heads of History event. History teachers from various schools across the city met to discuss ways of diversifying the history curriculum, in light of the widespread calls for education reform in the wake of last year's widespread Black Lives Matter protests. The day included talks from a myriad of speakers. This included teachers who shared what they had been doing in their own lessons. Stuart Lawrence, brother of Stephen Lawrence who was murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993 - the handling of the case precipitated the Macpherson inquiry which deemed the Metropolitan Police as being institutionally racist. Kyle Hudson, one of Derby's Prevent Officers, shared findings from a public survey about how people would like to see their curriculum change. Perhaps most impressive was the contribution of Mia Mazzocchi. Mia is a former student of Landau Forte College Derby, where the event was convened. Alongside her friend and collaborator Zara Julal-Rowe (who was not present for the event due to university commitments), Mia had challenged her school to do a better job of teaching Black history. Citing a frustration I suspect most Black students face in the U.K., Mia explained her sense of othering brought about by her racial identity only being taught about through the prism of slavery. As well as the affects it had on her as a Black student. The past few years has seen the emergence of a generation with the confidence and proactivity to demand change and Mia and Zara are no different. Unsatisfied with the status quo they shared their concerns with the school, who to their credit were receptive. The results have been fantastic. As Mia proudly shared in her presentation, one student who was a staunch "white lives matter" proponent changed his stance to "Black Lives Matter". Even this small victory points to how malleable young people's minds are when given new information. It should serve as evidence of two things.That it is always worth trying to do better and that young people will continue to liberate us if we empower them to do so. We were lucky enough to speak to these future leaders about their pride, passion and proclivity for getting things done.
So you guys went to school in Derby together. What's Derby like and what was it like being educated there?
Zara and I didn’t really interact during our time at Landau in secondary school. It was only really during the first lockdown and the tragedy of George Floyd that brought us together and since then we have formed this really special team dynamic. The best way for me to describe Derby would be ‘a starting point’. What I mean by that is not many people know where Derby is or what there is to do there. It’s nothing like London or Manchester but it’s definitely home to many people filled with potential and the ability to thrive. Derby isn’t necessarily the most diverse or exciting place on the planet however, it’s the people you meet and friends you make at school that make Derby a little unique. Having been educated at Landau for the past 7 years, I believe I’ve had a completely different education experience from students from other schools. Landau is very small for a secondary school so teachers and students knew everyone which sometimes made going to school a little more enjoyable.
Derby is quite a quiet city with some diversity, this meant our school had quite a few kids from different backgrounds and cultures hence why I moved to Landau Forte in year 9 for this experience. However, despite our school being in the centre of the city, the school's staff and teachers lacked diversity and the cultural knowledge needed to educate children within our backgrounds. This made school life hard to fit in amongst some of the teachers and students at our school as a Black student.
Throughout primary and secondary school what did you think was lacking in terms of Black history?
I don’t recall being taught Black history in primary school, that’s probably why I witnessed too many incidents of micro aggressions or just pure racism from kids during primary school. There were hardly any Black kids at my primary school, which not only made it harder to ‘fit’ in but I recall an incident with a Black girl in my class when her braid had fallen out and the other (non Black) kids picked it up and started making fun of her for it. Or when (non Black) kids didn’t want to play with the Black kids because their ‘skin was too dark’. During secondary school, Black history was extremely poor. A few sessions watching a video about slavery and that was called ‘Black history’? The class learned nothing in depth and was only ‘taught’ about slavery, nothing more nothing less and it didn’t help that the teachers barely knew/understood the topic from a more personal level as they were all white. Where was Black history before slavery? Or life as a Black person in the UK? It’s all part of history and still continuing, so why wasn’t it being taught in continuous sessions that lasted longer than Black history month?
I don't remember being taught Black history in primary school, but I do remember ignorance from other students and teachers. During primary school I felt as if the history of where Black people come from (e.g., evolution and migration) is skipped/ disregarded from the curriculum, I found the racism and ignorance I experienced was from the students not understanding why Black people look different from white people or why there is only one Black person in the whole school.
In secondary school the Black history was missing from the Black history. What I mean by this is that our curriculum and text books failed to educate people on how Africa was before slavery, as if it was always a poor continent before we were enslaved and then went back to a poor country after 'slavery was abolished' I believe this is done to remove guilt of how the British took what was once a highly rich and cultivated country and turned African into one where most villages don’t have access to clean water, or education etc evident through our text books and geography lessons.
How old were you both when you decided to ask the school to improve the curriculum and what made you feel that it needed to improve?
I was 17, sat in my bedroom during lockdown and was reading and watching the news about George Floyd and honestly, it terrified me. Seeing the response online from the police, random people in comments, the ‘Black out Tuesday’, it made me question how much progression society had made on racial profiling and racism in general. I also saw people from my year/school having discussions between what was ‘right and wrong’ with the BLM protests and debating how important the BLM movement really was and it made me feel overwhelmed and overall upset. Not only was I upset about the imagery and statements I was seeing online but also from my own school, which was the motivation behind me requesting a change within Black history curriculum.
I was 17 when I asked my school to show their support towards the BLM movement. I had always felt that the coverage and support of Black issues and achievements needed to be heard and seen, during the 2020 BLM protest I witnessed my school send out newsletters covering most things in our society and school, however all aspects of BLM were missing from these newsletters. This made me feel angry, as if our school was ignoring the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the injustice of Black lives within the systems. I felt as if this was the time to make sure that all Black students had a voice and are being heard and it was up to me and Mia to make this happen.
What was your school's reaction to you challenging them to improve the curriculum and what were the reactions of the other students?
My head teacher was extremely supportive from the very beginning, giving Zara and I full control and providing us with the resources to achieve our goals for the school. We immediately began working on professional posters to hang around the school, working with the humanities department and beginning the creation of our version of what Black history lessons/topics should look like. Zara and I met with other Black students within our school who were keen and excited to help with the progression of our work and add their input, which was amazing to see as Zara and I really wanted Black students to feel heard and properly listened to. One of the history teachers at Landau had noticed positive changes within one student in particular who didn’t understand the BLM protest who now has changed their view and understands the reality of racism and its presence today.
Our head teacher Ms Branning was very open and supportive to the issues and changes we wanted to make in our school, which would hopefully reflect positively on other schools and ignorant people. Our head teacher gave us full control over what we wanted to see happen. After a few meetings we were introduced to the history department of our school to help make these changes happen. Our history teachers, Miss Cain and Miss Clapp, were also very open to the change of the curriculum and their own behaviour of approaching the black history lessons to be more sensitive and informative to all students. A lot of Black students were happy that Mia and I were making these changes and wanted to get involved too, especially during Black history month, however due to covid it made some of our plans impossible to happen how we would have liked them to be delivered. The history teacher delivering the changed curriculum had noticed that one of the students who didn't understand the whole concept of BLM had now changed his views and was a lot more sensitive to other black students and their experiences. This is one of the biggest reactions I think Mia and I wanted to see within our school as it makes other Black students a lot more comfortable in their learning environment because school is supposed to be a place where all students feel heard and understood. I (we) hope that a lot of Black students feel a lot more comfortable now compared to before the changed curriculum within a school where they are the minority.
Do you feel more confident to challenge the status quo as you get older due to this experience?
I definitely feel more confident to speak out about things I care about. I have been able to experience first hand how much power my voice has and how much change can come from just creating an open discussion. I would have never imagined that Zara and I to have impacted our school the way we did. Not only Landau but externally as well, presenting to teachers from all over Derby about our new curriculum, presenting in front of Stuart Lawrence, talking to other Black people within Derby city council, giving presentations to the public about our achievements and the change we are implementing. Being able to change the opinions of one person would have meant so much to Zara and I however, we have accomplished so much more which has just increased my self confidence by 100%.
I was very surprised to see how easy and fast change can be made in our school if we just ask for help and have the plans to make this happen, a lot of adults have the power to make this change happen and simply choose not to unless they are told to ether by pressure and/or guilt. So yes, I have gained confidence due to this experience and have gone on to challenge people’s ignorant opinions because of this. For example, in June 2021 Mia and I shared our work at an exhibition in Belper, at the end of our presentation there were so many people who wanted to change and educate themselves.
What improvements do you think we'll see in society if curriculums improve?
I think that if the curriculums improve, there will be a better understanding from non-black people of the daily struggles black people face. A better understanding of the real history of Britain and the suffering and pain that comes from that part of history. A more open discussion and understanding of white privilege. More awareness of micro aggressions ranging from someone locking their car doors as a black person walks past, to a non black person asking to touch a black person’s hair. If the curriculums change, then black people will feel more heard and listened to, more understood and less like an afterthought in society.
I think we will see an improvement of how non-Black people interact with Black people, I think these lessons and the change in our curriculum will educate people and influence them to be cautious of their micro-aggressions. It will also bring to light how their parent’s racist opinions are harmful and hurtful to Black people, and that it is ok not to share these views and challenge them if it is safe to do so. Especially if this curriculum is taught in primary schools and the younger years of secondary schools, there will be a new norm of how being racist to Black people and laughing at Black people because we looked different from them isn’t funny and that it is hate, and it is harmful to the development of young people. We will hopefully notice more conversations about what we can do to change the injustice in the world not only between black people but Black and white people together.
Lastly, what are your plans for the future?
Currently, I am studying fashion management at university so I would like to see where that takes me but for the most part, I just want to experience as many different things in life as I can and always putting my happiness at the forefront of everything I do.
As I am currently in my first year of university studying Interior design, I plan to get fully settled into my course and then start to join like-minded people to support BLM within my university.
Article and photography by Martyn Ewoma
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