Shakira Martin is the first woman from an African-Caribbean background to become president of the National Union of Students (NUS), and the second to have not studied at a University. Coming from humble beginnings, Martin is a single, working mother who left home at 16. She finished her schooling with a GCSE in Religious Studies, and after a rough start, she returned to school and became an activist for students, middle-class women, and women of color.
There has been recent talk about the rising number of disadvantaged kids attending prestigious universities. Martin, however, does not feel that those statistics reflect the reality of the situation for poor youth in any country. She says, “I find that very disrespectful. God save the minister that comes to me and says: ‘Shakira, widening participation has gone up in university.’ Um, excuse me? How many of those [students] are staying in university, how many are getting firsts at university, how many of those are going into quality jobs? Not enough, is the implication.”
Martin boldly singled out two of the UK’s most elite schools, Oxford and Cambridge, exclaiming, “Oxbridge, get a proper strategy to get more BME [black and minority ethnic] students in your institutions. It’s just not good enough. People like me, I would never think I could get to those type of universities.”
The new president’s overall goal is to promote discussion and implement change regarding mental health, sexual health, student debt, and much more.
“The terminology of feminism is a very middle-class terminology. What we need to do is start breaking down the terminologies that represent people, but they don’t even know that it represents them,” she says. Martin says that without her current position, there are things she simply wouldn’t understand. She states, “There are a lot of things we shouldn’t assume that people already know. We are very elitist.”
She is right about that. Terms like feminism and intersectionality have become buzzwords in our current popular culture movement. While bringing these terms into the mainstream has the potential to educate people, it also inherently lessens their power. The more people hear about something, the greater the chance of that something being misinterpreted. Furthermore, when we talk about intersectionality, we usually think of it as a synonym for inclusiveness of women of all races and sexualities. We forget about class. We leave struggling women behind. Martin is trying to change that.
Today, designers like Dior think that it is okay to sell a t-shirt with the words “We Should All Be Feminists” emblazoned on the front while its retail price is over $700. So by that standard, should we also all be rich? Most women cannot afford to spend that much money on clothes, so why are they trying to put a price on feminism?
“I am NUS president now,” Martin says. “If I don’t use this opportunity and try to make the most of it – when I leave here, I will be Shakira Nobody, and nobody will care about me. This job brings a certain social capital that I will never have when I am back in my community.”
Women like Martin are at the forefront of their movements and are shedding light on the side of feminism that often goes unseen.
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