Seun Twins has now completed her first year as Durham Students’ Union President. In an exclusive interview, Twins reflected on her time in the role. She spoke about the SU’s contentious relationship with college common rooms, the restoration of confidence in Durham democracy, and the progress of her ‘Decolonise Durham’ policy. She expressed optimism when considering her plans for her second term.
Reflection on her first term
Twins claimed that she did not manage to achieve all of the policies in her first manifesto partly because of the limitations that the pandemic forced upon her: “A lot of [the policies] were human stuff, I needed to see flesh and bones to do it, it could not have operated in a digital space.”
Face-to-face interaction was just one component. Twins also reflected on the gulf between lofty expectations and the tougher reality of the role: “You romanticise what you can do when you are a student leader, and then when you become a student leader, you realise that a lot of it is give and take.
“You have to be institutionalised in order to understand the institution. But you have to keep your revolutionary spirit, so it’s a weird liminal space you occupy when you are a President.”
Despite these challenges, Twins contended that she has promoted important discussions: “I have been responsible for a different type of attitude change in Durham… the start of a grander conversation about culture [and] social justice.” She suggested that this is exemplified in her work spearheading the ‘Decolonise Durham’ campaign.
“I don’t think we’ve had such open conversations about student behaviour, values, attitudes, conduct on this scale and I do think that has been the centre of a lot of my work… when people talk about culture in Durham it is synonymised with Seun Twins.”
When asked whether the 14 point-plan in her re-election manifesto was overly ambitious, given that she is yet to fulfil all of her first term goals, Twins is defensive: “I don’t think anything is overly ambitious because if I can’t do it, somebody else should do it.
“It doesn’t mean they’re not good points”, she continues, “it just means that I couldn’t do it at the time.”
“I hope to God that I’m not the ‘be all and end all’ of change at Durham, I really do, because I’m only one human and after 5 o’clock I turn off my laptop and I watch Big Bang Theory and I make a crumpet.”
Twins also considered the image she has carved for herself as an important part of her first term, as the first black woman to hold the role.
“[When] I started this job, oh 1000%, I saw that people had racialised me, and sexualised me, or perceived me in a way that ‘oh this is a working-class black woman.’
“I have got this weird confidence that I just don’t really see how people treat me because I see myself as right most of the time.”
Twins said she has never experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ or felt inadequate during her time as President, though she often felt the need to “code-switch in the first three months, had to diminish myself a lot, not dominate the room.”
This feeling was in part due to the RON debacle, when the SU disqualified the votes for RON in the 2020 officer elections, despite the campaign winning the most votes in each election: “I’m synonymised with an institution that [students] have issues with, that had nothing to do with me at the time… There’s bare people that were very anti-me at the beginning cause of RON or because I’m black.”
However, eventually, she felt that acting sheepishly was “such a waste. I felt it was very performative, so I just made a decision in November… to be like ‘I’m so sorry, I’m not going to deny that I’m competent, because I’m so competent that I actually have the answer, so let me just say it.’
“I think I got a lot of respect from that… I’d rather be prickly to some people, but they can’t deny that I’m good at this job.”
Relationship with Common Rooms
Another achievement Twins believes has characterised her first term is how she has “[repaired] a lot of the broken relationships between student leaders.”
Despite the RON debacle, she claimed that she has prioritised managing this breakdown of student democracy in her first term which has allowed her to have “open conversations” with common room presidents. She adds that the endorsements she received from MCR and JCR leaders, and union reps during her re-election campaign is evidence that this relationship is on its way to repair, although “[she is] not saying that all those problems are solved.”
However, the proportion of common room representatives on Assembly was decreased from 35% to 22% after the Democracy Review. When asked whether this will harm the SU’s relationship with common rooms, Seun rebutted the suggestion forcefully: “the Democracy Review is just how representation is structured within the Union’s democratic spaces, it doesn’t restrict what I do as President.
“I think where one door is restructured it doesn’t mean that other spaces cannot be widened.”
Next year, Seun wishes to investigate new ways to allow common rooms to be heard and to begin “an education piece on student consultation versus student representation. A lot of [SU democracy] is not ‘okay: you’ve got five representatives therefore you’ve got 50% representation’. That is very prescriptive.
“There’s advocacy, there’s consultation, there’s representation, there’s so many ways to do democracy.”
Furthermore, Seun emphasised that the reduction of common room representation is not a top-down action since more than a thousand students took part in the Democracy Review: “It was the sum of their decisions that created this decision rather than the SU decreeing or declaring… it’s 20,000 people who could or could not have made that decision.”
Moreover, though the Democracy Review found that 80% of students were more closely affiliated with their common rooms than the SU, Seun believes that the importance of this statistic is overemphasised.
“I don’t know why everyone is so pessimistic about that. That really frustrated me as well because it’s your college: your college by definition is a ready-made community of access. It’s supposed to be a family.”
The Camden-raised President said “that’s like asking me what do you love more, your nuclear family or Camden council? I am obviously going to say my family!”
Twins claimed that the Union and common roles contribute towards the Durham student experience in two distinct and separate ways, and regrets that “the way [the question] was presented was very zero-sum.
“The Union is a representative body. The common rooms don’t function that way. They are there to create a family, they are there to create a welfare unit, a point of contact.”
Twins was sanguine about the SU’s democracy after the RON debacle: “I do not think [the RON campaign] was exclusively or singularly about lack of democracy. I think there were many reasons why people voted RON: a lot of them were populism; a lot of it was racism; a lot of it was democracy; a lot of it was legitimate.”
She said that students demanded a refinement in democracy through the RON campaign and that she is proud to have reacted to this set-back by involving herself in the Democracy Review, spearheaded by Anna Marshall, the outgoing Opportunities Officer, over the past year. She hopes students “appreciate the scale of [the Democracy Review] and respect that it is situated very seriously.”
Twins suggests that democracy does not start and end during election periods, nor does the Democracy Review close the door on Durham’s struggle to get students’ voices heard.
Democracy is “not a final destination,” Twins said, “you don’t wake up democratic after doing ABC; it is the pursuit of democracy [that is important].”
Vision for her upcoming term
Seun expressed the hope that students will want different things outside of the pandemic and will strive for social enterprise and have a more collectivist outlook. She hopes students become “more politicised, more revolutionary in terms of environmental policy, in terms of the social role of their university, in terms of engaging with the local community as well.
“I don’t want to be a pandemic president – no, not at all! I would like to be a president with a student population who want to enact change, like believe in collectivism, and then me advocate on behalf of that.
“I think we’ve prioritised a lot of what Durham Uni students want, but I think now it’s thinking a bit bigger than that: what is best for the city? The university is the city, so what do we do there?”
In terms of social enterprise, Seun wishes to revolutionise the Durham student experience: “I don’t think that our curriculum, or even the education that takes place outside of the classroom, arms us with the tools to be the best global citizens that we can be.
“The standard of entry into Durham is so high already… so if we’ve already acknowledged that we’re just a privileged bunch of students, then we need to figure out how to subvert that privilege, so we use it for good and I don’t think we are there yet.
“We’ve got all this untapped potential that we’re very satisfied with not utilizing for the greater good of humanity.”
Seun drew close attention to environmental sustainability, and decolonising, and queering the curriculum, however, said that “it’s more than just making a curriculum ‘woke’. To me, if we know that out of 20,000 students, the core demographic are going to end up being successful and pursue excellence then we have a civic and social responsibility to make sure these people are empathetic, are informed about the world.
“We’ve identified that Durham students are excellent, so where do we go from there? Let’s channel this excellence into productivity.
“I think we really rely on our brand: yeah, we’re really smart and we’re really privileged, that’s great, but what are you going to do with that energy? Well, you should set up a social enterprise.”
Seun identifies Durham Islamic Society as exemplifying students’ capacity for social enterprise because of the society’s food drive during Ramadan: “It’s a whole pandemic and their fasting and they’ve got their degrees to do, and they gave out thousands of meals to the local community. That is excellent work, that should have got national coverage.
“Why don’t we get local investors to invest [in societies] so it can be social enterprise that is linked to the University, so it increases the University’s brand but also teaches students how to equip themselves with global citizenry?
“I have got these very romantic views about what I want Durham to be like and I think another term’s going to help me put it to paper.”
“I do love Durham, I’m just critical about it because I love it so much.”
Image: Durham University