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27th January 2017

Interview: Naa Acquah — General Secretary

Our Editor-in-Chief chats to Naa Acquah before her final semester working as General Secretary in the Students’ Union, discussing recent controversies within the NUS, the changes she has overseen on campus, and her hopes for the future of the Union

Naa Acquah has been the General Secretary of the University of Manchester Students’ Union for two academic years now, and as she begins her final semester in the role we sat down with her to discuss current events in student politics and to ask her how she thinks her time at the Union has gone.

We started by chatting about what she was up to currently, and I had the feeling that this question could have easily taken up the whole interview. Aside from attending meetings with the board of governors and others, Naa spoke about being busy organising for student money week, the part-time jobs fair, the Give it a Go North fair, a student manifesto asking students what they want to see from their mayor, a mayoral hustings and also strongly encouraging students to register to vote.

With so much on her plate, Naa seemed to struggle to pin down what her biggest achievement was during her two years, but settled on the work she has done around engaging with North campus, saying that until she came into the role “it was kind of ignored and neglected and we had no relationships there really,” but she was happy that “we’ve now got North campus society that we fund and they’re so passionate about doing things.”

She also claimed that some of biggest achievements have been behind the scenes, with the Union’s future strategy: “I’m really sort of proud of how I think they’re going to propel the Union in the next four [or] five years, so long after I’m gone.”

The room the interview was held in was half taken over by brown paper bags full of treats and information leaflets from the Students’ Union to be handed out by Naa to students in the library, an example of attempts to engage with students across campus. With low voter turnouts in elections and the current controversies surrounding the NUS, these kind of initiatives are more important than ever.

Naa admitted during the interview that there’s “a lot of great work that’s happening” but that “it’s not being communicated”; instead, “people focus on the negative things, because writing an article about, for example, the rent strikes and getting students money back from their terrible housing, that’s one article, everyone goes yay, and it goes down, but negative things are always going to be played out a lot more.”

She added that how she’s communicated some things has been a regret of hers from her two years in the role, explaining that sometimes she thinks she should have “just shut her mouth” about certain issues.

The issue with this is that the negatives are not small matters, as Naa said herself: “The NUS is going to go through a really really hard time, it has been doing so for the past [few] years,” ranging from institutional racism, anti-Semitism, criticisms of the no-platforming policy, the NUS Vice-President working against the President, and calls by some students in light of these controversies to disaffiliate from the Union.

To really get to the heart of these issues we would have needed a lot longer than the half hour interview, but we managed to touch on a few of the controversies to gather her views on them.

We began with the ongoing criticism of student politics’ policies of safe spaces and no-platforming, which many have slammed as examples of the generation snowflake phenomenon. The University of Manchester Students’ Union infamously no-platformed Milo Yiannopoulos and Julie Bindel; I put it to Naa whether she honestly still believed this was the right decision, and that perhaps the controversy actually gave them more of a platform — adding that with the likes of Donald Trump now in the White House it was time to start engaging with those we disagreed with.

Naa jumped in to stress she has “always said we should engage with people” arguing that, “the only people who have ever not spoken here are those two people in the whole time, and so in that time there’s been at least a thousand people speaking this year… so it is literally like a drop in the ocean.”

She added that “there have been loads of people who have been controversial who have come here, that I’ve been like personally, ‘oh I wouldn’t bother’, but that debate happens”. She gave the example of the recent passing of BDS in the Union’s senate which she said was “hugely controversial, but I don’t think we shied away from that topic being debated”.

On the subject of banning speakers Naa admitted one her biggest regrets was the motion brought to senate to ban Donald Trump. Naa reflected on how the situation “turned into such a huge thing” with days spent talking to the media, and “feeding off phone calls from old ladies saying ‘don’t do it’”, arguing that it would have been worth not going through in the first place.

Responding specifically to the term ‘Generation Snowflake’, she said she thought the term was “a bit unfair because what I think is happening, is people are really passionate about things and they’re passionate about things that are happening in their day to day life.”  An example she gave of this was the newly implemented ‘Working Class Officer’, which she defended from critics who have said it is more evidence of Generation Snowflake in action, instead arguing it is simply students responding to “something that’s happening in their lives, something that they can physically change and do something about”, adding she ultimately believes “we should limit people to be able to make the change that they see fit.”

One of the other criticisms of the new working class officers however, has been that it patronises rather than helps working class students. Naa disagreed with this claim completely, arguing that “it’s there to make sure the voices of working class people are always embedded.” She added that it had been discussed whether it could be called ‘Widening Participation Officer’, but believed ”that wouldn’t have the same ‘zing’.”

We then moved on to discuss the current controversy surrounding NUS politics, the revelation that Richard Brooks, Vice President of the NUS was revealed by an undercover investigation to be plotting against the President of the NUS. Brooks openly admitted after the exposé that he “organises against what [he] thinks to be an ineffectual and damaging Presidency for Students’ Unions”. I asked Naa whether this revelation made her fearful for the future of the NUS and it was here that she admitted that the “NUS is going to go through a really really hard time”.

Despite this she argued that “people have the right to organise, people have slates and campaign teams of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s how politics works.” However, she said that “we should always try and hold some sort of decency around it and try and be good to people, and not try to slam them, bully them or harass them”, something she admitted happened on both sides. This is something she lamented isolated people from the NUS, and was something that seriously needed addressing, but confessed “it is difficult because people are passionate”.

Another division which has arisen within the NUS has surrounded the Black Students Campaign and their calls for a review into institutional racism, which was finally released at the end of last year, but not before a mass walkout by black students in protest of its delayed release. The report found the “NUS as an employer has seriously failed to support Black staff”, and our Exec team released a statement saying it was “time for the student movement to take a critical look inwards, and do better”.   When asked about whether this review would result in real action, Naa highlighted plans to introduce a senior management position similar to universities directors of equality and diversity to oversee these changes.

Despite this though she said the only way things would really change would be through a complete overhaul of the current culture. Naa spoke of how throughout her whole life no one had ever judged her politics: “No one assumed what my politics were by looking at me, they would ask me questions, the one thing that’s strange about the NUS is people assume your politics by your race so, you’re on the black students campaign so therefore you must be left wing, and you’re just not left wing, you’re probably hard-left.” Naa remained hopeful however that as a result of the review, the “culture change can happen” and “will make a big difference”.

One of the criticisms of this report however, was the lack of investigation into the issue of anti-Semitism within the movement, despite a Home Affairs Select committee concluding the NUS failed to take the issue seriously. As Naa had mentioned earlier, the Students’ Union has recently backed BDS in senate, despite many Jewish students voicing their concerns on the night of the vote, so I asked Naa how far she accepted that anti-Semitism was an issue within student politics and whether she accepted the claim that it has not been taken seriously.

Naa immediately jumped in to stress she “100 per cent accepted” that it was an issue, but argued that she believed it was being taken seriously. She stressed she has “spoken with students”, and has a “good dialogue with them”. She added that she believes there’s “some work happening now on the experiences of Jewish students on campus, within NUS and UJS.”

However she admitted that it’s really difficult issue to tackle: “We are in my mind straddling two things, of issues of politics and all the political sphere and things that people are really passions for people, and making sure that we don’t cross into having political views about a group or a state and putting those views on individuals because they are from a certain religion, that’s really difficult and it’s something that we’ve got to constantly remind ourselves not to do.”

Facing all of these controversies it is perhaps not surprising that some students are very anti-NUS, or rather simply apathetic towards it. A petition was started last term to disaffiliate our Union from the NUS, and at universities such as Durham anti-NUS candidates have been elected as NUS delegates as just a few examples student opposition to the movement.

However, according to Naa it is all down to a lack of communication: “I’ve been in it and seen what is happening, all the things that people say, ‘why are they not concentrating on housing, why are they not lobbying the government’, it’s happening. It’s absolutely huge, it’s happening and unfortunately some of the more personal things overshadow a lot of the great work that’s happening and I think that’s the problem, it’s not being communicated”.

Perhaps this is true, but we must admit that when an institution is criticised for anti-Semitism, racism, factionalism, censoring debates and much more, it may take some time, and a lot of powerful communication, before the headlines start to change.

Finally, as Naa enters into her final semester as General Secretary the search for her replacement has begun, with students currently able to put themselves forward to stand in the elections. To conclude our interview I asked Naa why she thought students should stand to be on the Exec team; she affirms that “this role has completely transformed my life”.

Watch Fuse TV’s video of this interview here.

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