Establishing and holding on to anti-racist space in the University of Manchester: The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre

Language for describing Black, Asian, ethnic minority, refugee and migrant communities often changes and is frequently contested.  In this piece, we will use the term Global Majority or racially minoritised where we need to refer to Black, Asian, ethnic minority, refugee and migrant communities collectively. We will describe specific communities wherever we can. 

Image shows the RACE Centre desk which reads “Welcome to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre”in large writing. Smaller text reads "our collections have books, oral histories, photographs, local studies, archival documents, and more"
The RACE Centre Reception Desk based in Manchester Central Library

Who we are

The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE (Race, Archives and Community Engagement) Centre is a specialist library and archive focusing on the experiences and stories of Black, Asian, global majority, refugee and migrant communities. We are part of the University of Manchester Library but based in Manchester Central Library. 

We work very closely with our sister organisation, the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust to a shared vision and mission:

Our vision is an inclusive, equally represented and racially just society. 


Our mission is to make Black, Asian and ethnic minority history, heritage and culture more visible, supporting excellence in research and learning through ethical and inclusive practice.


We describe our values and guiding principles as follows:


We work collaboratively and respectfully with others. This means doing things ‘with people’ not ‘to people’.


We take a lead in challenging inequality, discrimination and bias.


We work courageously to uncover, record and collect marginal histories, by providing a safe space for discussion.


The RACE Centre was founded in 1999 by Lou Kushnick, Professor of Sociology at the University of Manchester. His vision was for a collection that would not only have huge research value, but also be instrumental in celebrating cultures and combating racism. The University funds the RACE Centre allowing us to employ a Collections Engagement Officer, a Library Manager and a Library Assistant and contributes to the role of our Director. The Education Trust was then founded in 2001 as an independent charity, enabling us to do more community-based /focused work and this is where much of our community engagement, active collecting and project work takes place. 

Since our inception, we’ve been working on centering Global Majority experiences and histories, and decolonising narratives around race, racism and migration. Historically, this was about documenting experiences and histories from communities whose stories were actively marginalised, suppressed or ignored. More recent examples include ensuring contributing to the University of Manchester History PGCE course, supporting trainees to feel confident teaching in anti-racist and inclusive ways.

Naturally, we wanted to write a blog supporting the individual and collective activism of the Decolonise UoM Campaign. This has been a hard blog to write – there is so much work to be done and so much to be said. We are a small and stretched team and even writing short blogs can be hard to fit in around our core work. However, it has been interesting to reflect on the ways in which our work supports the work of the Decolonise UoM Manifesto. 


Working towards a more diverse student body that reflects Manchester’s communities

It’s crucial that an institute that sits at the heart of Manchester and contributes to so much of the city’s life reflects the city’s population. Otherwise, how can the University truly claim to be of or for the community? 

The reasons why our University isn’t representative are complex and layered, and there are no quick and easy answers to this issue. Regardless, the RACE Centre is committed to supporting young racially-minoritised people to see the University as a place for them, to find their place on the campus and to have a rewarding experience here.

We believe in starting early by working with educators in schools and informal settings giving them tools to enthuse their students, build their confidence and encourage them to see academic study, whether at University of Manchester or elsewhere, as attractive. Although our ability to work with educators is determined by our resources, we are working on a joined-up approach and using our voice within the University to take a similar approach. 

To this end, we recently commissioned respected historian Linford Sweeney to deliver ‘Black History is World History’ sessions in partner High Schools (and hope to run a similar South Asian History course in the future). These sessions aim to plug some of the holes in the National Curriculum, and to enable young people to learn about inclusive histories, as well as to enthuse and inspire teachers.

We recently contributed to the PGCE History course, supporting them to think about decolonising curriculum teaching. Introducing our archive and library collections to the trainee teachers means that when they start working in schools, they know of a set of resources that they can draw on to teach in anti-racist ways, centering global majority histories and perspectives.  


Image shows a round badge with words "fight racism" around the perimeter with the Black Power fist in the centre
Anti-Racist Badge from the RACE Centre Archives


Supporting under-represented students’ engagement, attainment and prospects

We are also concerned about the experiences that Black, Brown and ethnic minority students have once they arrive on campus (physical or digital). 

It is crucial that students of Global Majority heritage see themselves, their heritage and experiences reflected in their courses and the University workforce, and we are working with colleagues on initiatives to ensure this. The library and archive workforce, for example, is particularly un-representative when it comes to race, with a disproportionately white workforce, nationally: we are challenging this by recruiting trainee archivists from under-represented backgrounds; we support them through their archive training and give them hands-on experience. We are keen to share our approach to diversifying the workforce within the Library, as well as with the wider University. 

We also work with academic colleagues to develop courses and course content that centres the experiences, perspectives and history of global majority communities. We do this through a range of ways: by bringing in relevant archive records, by seeking opportunities for communities to participate and speak for themselves, as experts; and by supporting the design and development of new courses with anti-colonial and anti-racist perspectives. 

Like other colleagues, we are concerned about the Award gap (the difference between white students and Black, Asian and ethnic minority students being awarded a 1st or 2.1-degree classification). We know that the contributory factors to this gap are many and complex but through these activities (and of course, many other areas of work) we will continue to work hard to support the University to close the current Award gaps – in particular, the notable gap between Black and White students, 19/20 data shows that Black student's attainment is 11.4% lower than White students.

A comfortable and safe space

Although it feels sad to write about our library space at the start of our third national lockdown, I want to highlight our library space. Despite being part of the University of Manchester Library, we are actually based in Manchester Central Library. We have our own space in the Lower Ground Floor of the library which anyone can use at any time when the library is open. The choice of location is deliberate: we want to be accessible to everyone, not just the University community. 

Our library is an important space, both physically and symbolically. It’s a place where people with Global Majority heritage see their experiences and history reflected, which is valuable and affirmative whatever you are reading or studying. It’s a space that has been clearly and deliberately carved out. It’s also a space that we offer to community groups that we are working with, as an accessible central venue where they can work on recording, exploring and sharing their heritage. 

Right now, no-one can visit or use the space, but it’s important to underline that this space exists and that we welcome University students who may feel a visible minority on the campus. When we finally do re-open, we look forward to offering some activities, such as decolonial reading groups, as well as offering the use of our meeting room to campaigns such as Decolonise UoM to use for meetings and activities.  

In the meantime, we’re trying to maintain a digital space. Through our work on the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust website we seek to create a comfortable and safe space online. We are keen to open up this space and welcome collaborations, contributions and blogs from students of all disciplines. This is your space, please feel welcome. 

Centering Black, Brown and global majority history, perspective and knowledge

Black, Brown and ethnic minority people’s lives, knowledge, histories and experiences, are often marginalised, ignored or de-valued. They are often absent from academic study, or at best, subjects of scrutiny and research: Othered and seldom allowed to speak for themselves. 

We push back against this. Our archives document the lives and histories of Black, Brown and ethnic minority people, in many cases in their own words and researched and collected by themselves. We often work with community organisations to support the development of their own heritage projects, allowing them to define what aspects of their histories are explored and documented. Our library collection, whilst including traditional academic titles, also includes books, magazines, reports and so on created by the communities we work with and their organisations.   

Whilst this is important in itself, we work hard to put these collections to work – to use them to centre Black, Brown, global majority perspectives within the University (and beyond). This is sometimes through the work we do with academics, supporting teaching and learning. Last year, for example, we worked with a group of Film Studies students. We opened our archives to them, allowing them to see the richness and diversity of the stories within. We then introduced the students to some of the community organisations we work with, so they and the students could work together on films that tell their stories, through their eyes. This resulted in a set of films which bring less-known histories and stories to life, told in collaboration with their subjects rather than through more voyeuristic processes that sometimes leave people feeling powerless and exploited. 


Working ethically with Manchester’s Black, Brown, ethnic minority, refugee and migrant communities

There are many valuable collections held within the University, but what is unique about our approach is that we act as a bridge between the University and communities. This is far more than simply holding a list of community organisations and contacts, it’s about how we work with them. 

This means that we understand the challenges they work with (now more than ever) and work with them on their terms. We make sure that collaborative work benefits them as well as the University, and that their priorities are supported. We keep our relationships alive and do our best to support community partners in their activities, rather than focusing on what they can do for us. 

We seek to share these skills and experience within the University, supporting researchers to build the principles of ethical work with communities into their research. 


Looking ahead: a long way to go

In 2020  the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd (and no doubt many others, whose deaths weren’t seen or documented) showed that Black lives still didn’t matter, as did -  closer to home - the tasering of Desmond Ziggy Mombeyarara, in front of his child, and the outcome of the inquest into Shukri Abdi’s death. COVID-19 hit Black people disproportionately hard, as well as those of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and mixed heritage. #BlackLivesMatter protests caused ripple effects that lead to the removing of statues and the debate around the legacy of colonialism, Empire and the transatlantic slave trade moving centre-stage. Whilst this was invigorating in some ways, it was deeply worrying to see the public reaction and discourse: it seems that we are a nation pulling in very different directions at times. 

At the RACE Centre and Education Trust we find ourselves in an interesting position. 
We are pleased that the value of our collections is recognised by housing them in the Library Special Collections and the University of Manchester funding represents vital core support, but it isn’t enough to meet the demands we face internally and externally. 

We have noticed an increased interest in using our collections and expertise to improve the way the University works with diverse histories, experiences and communities. We are increasingly being approached by mainstream cultural organisations for support and guidance on issues of diversity, representation and community engagement. 

We feel there is room to use our experience and unique position (being both part of and separate from the University and cultural sector, with strong community relationships) and to share our practice. However, given our stretched resources it’s hard to find the capacity for this work and we still have the day-to-day work of managing an archive and library (we currently have no core archivist). And more than anything, our duty is to serve the communities that have entrusted us with their experiences, histories and memories. 

Within the University we’ve seen some very positive moves. We’ve been approached by and worked with academics who are determined to teach in decolonial ways and have been able to put our archives and library collections to work here (though our distance from our collections under COVID-19 has proved challenging). We have supported colleagues in the University Library to examine practice and think about how to move away from Eurocentric epistemologies and ontologies, towards supporting multiple perspectives and alternative types of knowledge. 

However, we have concerns about some of the discussions within and beyond academia. One issue is the conflation of work on equality, diversity and inclusion with decolonising. The two are different but at times have been used interchangeably. This may be due to a lack of understanding about the different agendas, and we would welcome space for all staff to explore these areas of work fully. 

We are also concerned that in the rush to publicly denounce racism and support the Black Lives Matter movement, many heartfelt public statements and commitments to end institutional racism were made. This is of course positive, but we would like to see organisations matching their statements with an honest and unflinching analysis of their current practice and clear plans for bringing about the change they have publicly committed to. 

Despite this, we need to be realistic and pragmatic. Many of the stories in our archives demonstrate that bringing about change requires, above all, persistence and tenacity, stamina and resilience, and a strategic vision. We cannot possess all of those individually, but we may have them collectively. We at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre hope we can support all decolonising movements to keep pushing forward.


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