Activism, Critique, Publications, Testimonials

Closing the BARC Circle: Passings, Crossings, Diffraction, Flows

Water passes through rocks, sculpting a narrow terrain through the impassable. Rivulets emerge and come together, one by one, each seeking the sea. BARC was started as a project for building anti-racist business management scholar-activism. We emerged in 2017 as part of the wider formation of the Decolonizing Alliance, a community of scholars of colour, global majorities, and white allies. The manifestation of BARC, as a container for action, represented a breach of the established, individualised way of practicing scholarship in our field, a forging together of scholarship and activism, as well as a conscious continuation of the practices of loving and caring among women of colour.

Inspired by a lineage of anti-racist scholar-activists who made our project thinkable and speakable, we formed with the intention of educating ourselves and each other about the possibilities and potentials of an anti-racist classroom. We did so with the knowledge that we ourselves had been conditioned into structurally racist pedagogical frameworks and dynamics and that we had much unlearning to do in order to build a space that looked unlike anything we had ever known. Led by the questions: What do we want to see? And, How do we want to feel? we developed innovative, creative methods including writing, gaming, art, and drama; and collaborated with artists and activists whenever we were able. Each step was negotiated together with awkwardness, tenderness, trepidation and delight. We spent a year honing our skills, creating our tools, practicing our craft, and delivering more #barcworkshops at other universities, to initiate or spark the conversations around anti-racism and decolonising that staff and students of colour, and white allies, knew needed to happen, but didn’t feel able to lead on their own. 

Some of this work involved learning from our mistakes. These took many forms and failings came often; as such, we had to learn on our feet. This is a written reflection of the years leading up to and since our inaugural workshop in October 2018. We write this to archive and bear witness again to our growth and changing form. 

These reflections offer us a moment of stillness, 
in still water
a retelling that is tenuous 
though seems contained for now. 

History is always threatening to burst 
to flood the edges of the present, 
shaping new horizons 
or receding from consciousness. 
Its elements transform 
only to fade with the light
of the sun. 

As we archive the passing of four years, we note the time. We add ink to memory.

How BARC Ltd. limited BARC

To make it possible for us to be compensated for our work in higher education, university systems and processes required us to formalise our organisation by establishing ourselves as a limited company. Because of the functional norms of white capitalist governance structures, universities in the UK do not partner with charities or grassroots organisations, nor do they donate money to causes. We never felt comfortable about this move as it jarred with our collective methodology grounded in generating community resources, and we did not meet the requirements to form as a community interest corporation. We did, however, recognise that the labour of women of colour is too often expected or even demanded for free, as well as appropriated, so we sought to protect the value we were creating and offering. We also saw the opportunity to redirect funding from institutions to students of colour and the antiracist work that they wished to develop. 

More generally, the narrowness of the university processes that we encountered served as a prototypical example of how UK universities are fiercely closed off from knowledge and practice that is outside of marketised or business sectors. Recognizing only ventures that work towards a pro-profit paradigm reinforces the logic that universities are primarily financial entities whose business model relies on selling services to student-consumers. So long as universities operate in a competitive environment governed by these logics, they are hostile to the possibilities of mutual ecologies of gain and growth.

Our first two-day workshop sold out and requests started to come in from members of further universities seeking advice, workshops, training, and research. We accepted a handful of these commissions. Some of these projects were positive and resulted in the production of resources that have been influential in the sector, such as the Student Journey Game, and other elements of our work that we released for free on our website. Such collaborations brought us into contact with new and dynamic communities of academics and students working on decolonisation, and drew us closer to incredible artists of colour, all of whom we were privileged to meet, connect with, learn from and with.

The Ltd. structure drove our work in an entirely different direction from our starting intentions. This occurred despite efforts to the contrary: we wrote a constitution that outlined our core purposes, working methodology, and prevented any member from receiving direct financial benefit from the collective labour of BARC. We committed to channeling all profits towards funding student activism and subsequent anti-racist workshops. The company format required that one of us be named as Director and thus shoulder the not insignificant labour of tax reporting and associated risks of liabilities and debts. To enable the process, this responsibility was taken up generously by one of our members, and aspects of the labour that could be shared were distributed, but we had no desire or capacity for this status to continue indefinitely.

We negotiated making time and space for BARC work within and between our paid employed roles, and in the interstices of the white university more generally. One of our members was on research leave for the first half of 2019, and used the time that she was not conducting research to serve as BARC’s de facto operations and finance manager. There were periods where much of the work was unfairly left to a few members. As such, the demands of BARC workshops stretched, and even exceeded, the capacity of those of us on the ground in a damaging and unsustainable way. We were exhausted, and the tensions began to pull us apart from one another until we became resentful, critical and even suspicious of each other’s efforts. Our engagements with each other began to fragment.

BARC is Transforming

In the summer of 2019 we worked as part of the Decolonizing Alliance to challenge the Eurocentrism and white supremacy of the International Critical Management Studies 2019 conference, picking up the thread of dissent that had emerged in 2017. That same summer, as BARC, we held a second Organising for Liberation workshop in Leeds. There, our way of working inadvertently caused harm to some Black and people of colour participants; we reflected deeply and took on board this critique while feeling pushed to our own edges. 

We grappled with the issues that had accumulated within our collective. Some of these came from external demands, and others from a lack of dialogue or disagreements in strategy and politics amongst members. We did this on a retreat that we had intentionally planned for such purposes, while sharing space with primarily white, queer and feminist business and management colleagues interested in ‘Writing Differently’.

During our retreat, we explored our collective ancestry – as teachers, designers, builders, poets, and cooks – that drive us in this work. We unveiled and examined the shadow selves that both distract us from, and also inform, the ways in which we work. We read tarot cards that gave us insight into the roles that each of us play within the collective, and came to an overall decision to deepen and channel our efforts, and to simply do less

We came to two important, and connected, realisations: first, that the reason we had felt such discomfort at incorporating into a business was that this formation was simply not an appropriate container for our work, and second, for us to continue, we had to reconfigure, both in terms of our membership and our incorporated status as a limited company. As we were strained by the normative capitalistic structures of an incorporated business, so too were we strained by the capitalistic structures of the neoliberal, white Western academy. Whilst we had made efforts to build caring practices, we began to realise too late that other elements in our patterns of work and interaction had bred exhaustion and resentment. Despite our reflexivity, we were drawn into default patterns of organising that are designed to facilitate career-building and publication-chasing. We sped up trying to keep up with a pace set for us by these structures. In our haste, we sacrificed having difficult political conversations with each other; when we slowed down enough for these conversations to finally emerge, one member left the collective.

When energy encounters an obstacle or a barrier, it changes direction – this is known as diffraction. There were some issues and tensions between us that remained unresolved, things that we encountered again following the retreat, in processes of writing collaboratively and taking decisions about next steps. Our fracturing was deep and the process of diffraction had begun. Nonetheless, we attempted in the moment to consolidate our learnings thus far in writing. Our many hours of conversations, deliberations, and debates were distilled into a resolution statement which we wrote, members contributing line by line, on the train as we left:

BARC is an international collective of women of colour scholar activists. We aim to build anti-racist pedagogic communities of students and university workers through sustained collective organizing, collaboration and radical thinking. Our practice is led by our commitments to critical theory, intersectional feminisms and decolonizing frameworks.

BARC is transforming. In the past two years we have built spaces for communities of colour to learn from our own truths how to resist white supremacy. We have taught each other, as we were teaching others, how to bring about a future we wish to inhabit. At times, we have felt moments of liberation in ways that have affirmed the necessity for changing the way we relate to each other in higher education. We heard this echoed throughout the responses to our work. Because we recognise that this liberatory mode of being is inherently difficult to sustain in white patriarchal capitalist higher education structures, we have made a political decision to morph into the next most elegant (brown, 2017) manifestation of the spirit of the collective. We are and will continue responding to the calls we are currently heeding. We are committed to our own healing, ancestral healing, and personal and political liberation, which for us means actively and creatively shaping the possibilities emergent from the trajectories curtailed by imperialist colonialism and neo-colonialism (Gopal, 2019). In this travel through time, we take forward the skills we have developed and the bonds of kinship we have grown.

To do so, we are taking some key decisions: we are winding down our limited company, and will no longer be taking commissions to train white staff. We believe this form of work needs to be undertaken by those who currently uphold white structures and only in pursuit of change at an institutional level. While we will retain and maintain resources on our website and social media, we refuse the additional emotional labour expended to combat or soothe white ignorance, guilt and fragility. We also refuse the labour of fighting intersectional capitalist structures that devalue, commodify and deny rightful compensation for our work.

At the same time, this experience brought into relief the magic we each bring to the table and what that means for what we make together. We laid out all our cards. We became foils for each other, allowing us to sharpen our vision of what the collective could be and what collective work can do. This vision includes walking directly into the unknown, building a reality that has not before been seen. BARC will continue to be a container for action, a shaper of change, a changer of worlds, recognising throughout that pleasure is a measure of freedom (brown 2017, 2019). We are committing to transformation as a practice of liberation.

Directly after our retreat, as part of the Decolonizing Alliance, we enacted multiple interventions at the European Group of Organisation Studies Conference (EGOS) 2019. We hosted a DA social event to bring together anti-racist business and management scholars, especially those of colour, challenged white supremacy that surprised us when it appeared in one of EGOS’ first streams explicitly on race and racism, confronted EGOS leadership at the AGM and lifted up, in a banner drop, the memory of the Latin American-European Management and Organisation Studies (LAEMOS) Conference, support for which had been unceremoniously withdrawn by EGOS board without membership consultation. The risky, politically complex, and concentrated scholar-activism of the summer left us spent, and afterwards, we kept to our intentions and slowed down BARC work substantially. 

Documentation

We supported the efforts of one of our members to host an anti-racist conference at her institution in October 2019, an international event that drew hundreds of student activists and scholars alike. Shortly after this event she experienced a severe burnout and was signed off from work for 6 weeks: a consequence of the accumulation of racial stress, institutional bullying, and lack of support within our own working practices. However, the sense that this kind of work was becoming unsustainable preceded this burnout. At the conference, we began the process of distributing the remainder of our profits to student anti-racist projects via the BARC Bank initiative. In early March 2020, as COVID-19 hit, we facilitated what was to become the final #BARCworkshop. This last gathering was for friends, colleagues and students at the University of Kent Canterbury where they were also marking and celebrating the end of a period of intense organising within the institution, and going through their own process of transformation. Not even a week later, we joined the rest of the world in entering into COVID19 lockdown, the start of an ongoing pandemic period which was to radically affect relational norms at a species level. This was followed soon after by Summer 2020’s revolutionary Movement for Black Lives, an international amplification and re-positioning of the Black Lives Matter movement that in 2013 marked a beginning for the contemporary period of anti-racist activism. This 2020 rupture both opened up new opportunities for anti-racist scholar-activism as well as instigated intensified waves of white supremacist violence and epistemic carcerality.

We watched in horror as conservative, authoritarian and fascist governments around the world failed to take appropriate action on the pandemic, such that illness and deaths accelerated at exponential rates. Amidst such grief and loss, with interpersonal activity on an indefinite pause, we wished to continue doing meaningful anti-racist work that was more playful, creative, and less demanding. As such, we decided to employ a brilliant student legal scholar from the Australian National University, Niroshnee Ranjan, as an intern from the end of 2020 to Spring 2021, to work closely with us to document the detail of our practice and learnings from the previous three years of work in the wonderful BARC Workshop Guide. In this document we explicitly spelled out the manner in which we were able, in a replicable, adaptable way, to build anti-racist classrooms in university settings. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to work with Niroshnee, who inspired us with her own student scholar-activist collective, Coalition for Anti-Racism at ANU (COAR). Throughout our time with BARC, it was these types of intergenerational collaborations and partnerships that pushed our thinking and practice most.

Diffraction

Our diffraction continued like this: other than engaging in the process of winding down our limited company, and delivering a couple of online #BARCworkshops (one for the rescheduled SCOS 2021 and a research pop-up for another member’s institution), on the whole we ended our collective working efforts, each of us enduring the pandemic and its manifold challenges in our own respective bubbles: Bristol, London, Nottingham, Sydney. We set an out of office message for our email account: BARC is on hiatus. We disseminated instead our workshop guide and a recording and resources from a groundbreaking Decolonizing Alliance webinar on Decolonizing the Business School. We made personal choices about what the future would hold, and further diffraction occurred; we said goodbye to another member and hello to one member’s first child, born just after Christmas 2021. Some of us made inroads in our individual institutions, building community and redistributing resources as our practice dictates, and navigating, uncomfortably, the inherent limitations of white governance structures. Separately, though connected, we prioritised our well being through leave taking: stress leave, medical leave, parental leave, and compassionate leave.

Over this long hiatus, it became plain to see: our belonging to the collective transformed us, but our relationships to it, and to each other, had changed. BARC, the collective entity, the vehicle, the container for action, now no longer exists. We will retain the website as an archive but do not plan to maintain it nor pay for its upkeep, and will change our email auto-responder to reflect the same. We will continue to seek knowledge and pleasure by engaging with the Twitter account through which we have connected with a vibrant, transdisciplinary, international anti-racist higher education community. We come together in September 2022 to present one final time for the University of Birmingham Business School Teaching and Learning Conference, to tell our story and to ask the following questions: where were you in 2018, and will you now do what is necessary to respond to our call?

Although we are at the close of this chapter of our journeys as anti-racist business and management scholar-activists, we recognise that others are at different stages in theirs. We thank all those who contributed to our development and encourage others to learn from our story and build on our published outputs rather than reinvent the wheel. As before, we suggest collective listening and reflection to determine a course of anti-racist action, ensuring that people of colour are in positions of power with appropriate recompense – enabled to lead, without having to do all of the work. 

Closing the Circle

  • This is on-going work, because white power will reconfigure and work against anti-racist efforts – we need to continue being vigilant.
  • We continue to un/learn because knowledge is structured by power.
  • Feeling close to your edge / feeling pushed are welcome reactions to this work, you have been working in a principled space.
  • Your students are the academy – they hold the reins of change

These thoughts with which we closed all of our workshops remain true: our work is ongoing as individuals and as a wider anti-racist community. We continue to learn and unlearn through seeking the edges between what we know and the unknown, we meditate on the feelings of comfort and discomfort in ourselves and others; we believe in and value students not just as customers or consumers of the university, but as its lifeblood and purpose. We are inspired by them, seek to support them through partnership, and are led by their vibrancy and radical will.

The energy we, with our community, concentrated in the container that was BARC was generative, life-giving, and vital – and it has not disappeared. Rather, recalling Lorde’s exhortation that self-care is an act of political warfare, it lives on in our continued practices of care for self and others. At this critical juncture where racial capitalist catastrophe and crises surround us, we can still see solutions on the horizon. We remain full of the love, radicality and generosity that forms the heart of an anti-racist, queer feminist of colour liberation praxis. As we recommit to transformation as a practice of liberation, we continue to trust in this and the ancestral lineage as our guide.

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