Remi Joseph-Salisbury
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Working in service
Accountability, usefulness, and accessibility

Chapter 2 considers the notion of ‘working in service’ to communities of resistance and to anti-racism. Tracing these ideas through the work of Ambalavaner Sivanandan and Patricia Hill Collins, among others, the chapter argues that ‘in service’ provides an anchoring, or radical reorientation, that can guide anti-racist scholar-activist praxis. Showing that working in service to anti-racism pushes against the dominant logics of the neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university, the chapter considers how the notion of working in service impacts upon questions of accountability, usefulness, and the accessibility and reach of anti-racist scholar-activist work.

Through the concerns of participants, the previous chapter began to show that anti-racist scholar-activism describes a form of praxis that is characteristically distinct from traditional approaches to working in academia. Building on these foundations, this chapter looks more closely at what governs, and therefore distinguishes, anti-racist scholar-activism. By drawing upon Sivanandan's notion of working in service, 1 we show how the orientation of those engaged in anti-racist scholar-activism is fundamentally shaped by a commitment to communities of resistance. 2 The in service orientation is a counter-hegemonic one, often bristling against the neoliberal technologies of the contemporary university – technologies that see academics come under pressure to orientate their work to performance metrics like the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF). As we intimated in the Introduction, whilst at first glance non-academic Impact under the REF could be seen to overlap with and even encourage or enable scholar-activism, we show the cross-over of institutionalised Impact with anti-racist scholar-activism to be both superficial and fleeting. Rather, working in service to anti-racism requires a long-standing, genuine embeddedness that only comes from a deep grounding within communities of resistance.

We begin this chapter by offering a theorisation of working in service. This is important not only because it is little developed as a concept in relation to scholar-activism but because it lays the foundations both for the rest of this chapter and for the rest of the book. Building upon these foundations, we consider three elements to working in service: questions of accountability (are anti-racist scholar-activists accountable, and if so, to whom?); usefulness (is our work useful, and if so, to whom?); and accessibility and reach (is our work accessible and reachable, and if so, to whom?) In each of these sections, we conceptualise the notion of working in service as a counter-hegemonic principle. In doing so, we argue that the notion of working in service should be conceptualised as a fundamental orientation of anti-racist scholar-activism.

Theorising in service

The notion of servicing appears in the work of Ambalavaner Sivanandan who, as we suggested in the book's Introduction, is a key figure in the history of anti-racism in Britain (and beyond). Having been part of a takeover that promised to ensure the organisation played an active role in anti-racist resistance, Sivanandan directed the radical think tank, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), for forty years. 3 Under his directorship (1973–2013), the IRR adopted more radical and structurally focused understandings of race and racism that were always contextualised by imperialism and colonialism. 4 As he described in reflections on his vision for the IRR:

there was a plethora of grassroots, community movements at the time (unlike now, alas) that we could serve. If we could not be at the barricades in the fight for racial justice, we could, at least, be servitors in that cause. We could do research that spoke to the issues and problems confronting Black communities. We could be a servicing station. We could put gas in the tanks of Black and Third World peoples on their way to liberation. That, in any case, was our pious hope. 5

Although he was referring specifically to the orientation of the IRR, and was never a university-based academic himself, 6 what Sivanandan offers is a radical orientation that we show throughout this book to be central to anti-racist scholar-activism. Indeed, he foregrounds the ‘bottom-up’ nature of anti-racist scholar-activism – that is, the proximity to and embeddedness in struggle that we identified in the Introduction as a key tenet. He also points to how this orientation enables research that can be put to use within anti-racist movements and thus shuns the relegation of communities of colour to the category of victim – a category that can be deeply depoliticising – in favour of recognising that a dialectic exists between domination and resistance. 7 It is to capture the agentic nature of marginalised communities that Sivanandan uses the term communities of resistance, a term we deploy throughout this book. 8 In this sense, the in service orientation offers a hopeful outlook that casts scholarship as performing an important (supporting) role both in the communities and groups we organise within, and in wider liberation struggles.

Whilst the notion of working in service is most often associated with Sivanandan, the sentiment is present too in the work of others we might think of as influencing the anti-racist scholar-activist tradition. It is, for example, implicit in the thought of the Martiniquais anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon, who declared that ‘we are nothing on earth if we are not in the first place the slaves of a cause, the cause of the people, the cause of justice and liberty’. 9 Much like Sivanandan, Fanon encourages us to take up a productive orientation, one that is dedicated not simply to understanding but to changing the social world as we know it. We are, Fanon urges, to work in service to an anti-racist cause. The Guyanese anti-colonialist Walter Rodney spoke more explicitly of working in service. He contended:

If we [the petit bourgeois intellectuals] have a role, it has to do with the shift of the initiative into the hands of workers and peasants and then for a change we begin to serve those classes. Because mostly we have been serving other classes anyhow. Mostly we have been serving the capitalist class. So for a change, we may begin to service the working people, service the working class. 10

For Rodney, working in service to ‘the working class’ is counter-hegemonic. It signals an orientation that breaks with the norm under racial capitalism. To adopt this orientation, the petit bourgeois intellectual must relinquish the social and material rewards they acquire through their servicing of the capitalist class, and instead allow the needs of working-class communities to set the agenda. 11 It is in a similar vein that the Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins describes intellectual activism as ‘the myriad ways in which people place the power of their ideas in service to social justice’. 12 Thus, key to working in service is the notion that academics should use their power against, rather than in support of, the ideologies, institutions, structures, and systems that maintain the status quo. In this rendering, in service sits at the very core of anti-racist scholar-activism, serving as an important anchor point for our praxes.

The counter-hegemony of the in service orientation of anti-racist scholar-activism becomes more apparent still when viewed in the context of, or in contrast to, the neoliberal university. As we discussed in the book's Introduction, the neoliberalisation of higher education (HE) has engendered conditions in which academics work under increasing pressure to fulfil the demands of a high-stakes metric and audit culture. Most notably in the UK context, academics are required to meet publication quotas and engage in quantifiable, self-confident forms of non-academic Impact as part of the REF, 13 or else face repercussions in terms of job security and/or progression. These metrics operate as State-funded technologies of neoliberalism, 14 and are afforded a tremendous amount of power to dictate labour in HE and thus secure neoliberal hegemony. 15 It is against this backdrop that, by allying with communities of resistance and operating in service to anti-racism (which, as far as possible, involves an eschewing of neoliberal imperatives), anti-racist scholar-activist praxes can be considered counter-hegemonic. As we discuss in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, it is also against this backdrop that anti-racist scholar-activists frequently rub against those adopting traditional approaches to scholarship in the contemporary university, such that they form mutually antagonistic relationships.

There is another way in which the notion of working in service to anti-racism is counter-hegemonic too, and it lies at the nexus between scholar-activists and the wider activist communities within which they organise. Whilst problems can arise from unequal power relationships when academics (and the ‘petit bourgeoisie’ more broadly) involve themselves in activism, 16 working in service implies an attempted break with hierarchies that elevate academics within social movements. It marks an approach that is critical of, as Liz Fekete puts it, the ‘academic voice that tends to lead and not serve’. 17 As Huerta elucidates, scholar-activism ‘means being a bridge between these asymmetric spaces: institutions of higher education and racialized/working-class communities. It means for the former, with its privileged members, to serve the latter – not vice versa, as is the norm.’  18 Reflecting a similar sentiment to Rodney above, Steven Osuna argues – in his instructive development of Amílcar Cabral's concept of class suicide – that to become transformative agents, those of us working in the academy must ‘break free from the chains of the neoliberal university and struggle with the people’. 19 This might involve relinquishing our class positions, our power and privilege, as Cabral conceived, or it might involve using that power and privilege to exploit the contradictions of the university and ‘struggle with and for aggrieved, oppressed and exploited communities’. 20 In this light, the notion of service ensures that our work is orientated to and for anti-racism, rather than for our individual publishing or career interests. 21

The praxes of working in service

The idea of working in service to anti-racism as a counter-hegemonic orientation ran through the accounts of many of our participants, some of whom were directly influenced by Sivanandan. Alison (white, mid-career), for example, attributed the inspiration for her own praxis – ‘working in service to social movements’ – to Sivanandan's aforementioned framing of the IRR. There were echoes too in the account of Amele, who explained: ‘I'm committed to a certain kind of politics, and I do what I can within my means to service those politics.’ Oliver – an established Black academic who we met in the last chapter – also made clear that he saw his orientation as being in service to the community. As he explained:

I'm an academic and scholar but actually, I'm a public intellectual, which means I'm owned by the community and there to service the community. I'm a public intellectual who happens to have access to a range of resources through the academy.

Here, Oliver situates himself firmly as being ‘in but not of’ the university, as Harney and Moten would put it. 22 As we began to suggest in the Introduction, we borrow this phrase from them to invoke a praxis that – underpinned by a fierce critique of the university – is subversive, oppositional, and counter-hegemonic. It gets at the idea that scholar-activists may be employed by the university and may reap some of the benefits that follow from such employment but their priorities lie elsewhere, in the communities of resistance that they organise within. In this regard, there is clear convergence between Harney and Moten's notion of ‘in but not of’, 23 Osuna's aforementioned formulation of Cabral's class suicide, 24 and the orientation of working in service. Put another way, to work in service as a scholar-activist requires that we adopt the position of being ‘in but not of’ the university, which in turn enables us to put our class privileges to work for the benefit of communities of resistance.

It is telling that when Oliver reflects on the service he offers to the community, he speaks of the resources he is able to access, rather than the knowledge he might bring as an academic. Indeed, working in service should not be understood to imply that there is an intellectual deficit in activist movements that needs to be filled by the institutionalised knowledge of the academy. As Oliver intimates, and as we show – particularly in the next chapter – the role of anti-racist scholar-activists is often less about knowledge production (though this can sometimes be important), and more about exploiting the contradictions of the academy and/or leveraging (often material) resources and institutionalised power to bolster resistance movements.

Before moving on with the rest of this chapter, there is one vital point that we want to make with regard to the idea of working in service. Whilst we hold that working in service is generally a useful orientation – one that participants invoked explicitly and implicitly, and a guiding principle in our own work – it must come with a degree of criticality and reflexivity. There needs to be careful consideration of who or what we are working in service to. As Alison reasoned, we have to question the ‘assumption that your politics and your ideas align so neatly with that social movement that therefore you would work unquestionably in service’. In reality, she explained, consideration needs to be given to the role and practices of those groups because ‘you're working out whether you're sharing those [values]’.

Talking about an instance where he felt a community campaigner's approach worked against anti-racism, Elroy – an established Black academic – offered reflections that echo Alison's:

I guess that taught me to just be a little more hesitant about who you get into bed with, who you fight with. That's being in service to. Here is my role. This is what I can do. This is what I can contribute. This is my research. But, for me, it's being careful about how deep we go in there.

Both Alison and Elroy show that the notion of working in service cannot operate without parameters. If a group with whom one is working starts to engage in a politics that is regressive and moves against one's anti-racist aims, we ought to be critical enough not to work in service to those ideas. Although this might seem an obvious point, it is nevertheless an important one. It is a point that is necessary to make because reflexivity over the relative power we have as academics can, in some cases, lead us to become overly deferential to non-academic movements and the activists within them, and this can blunt our criticality. As Laura Pulido explains, ‘among progressives there is a deeply entrenched narrative that confers a nebulous moral authority upon nonelites’. 25 When working with community groups or movements, our political positions may temporarily align on specific issues but it cannot be assumed that that alignment is limitless. That alignment may not extend to other (related) issues, just as it may not last over a period of time. Movements are dynamic, heterogeneous entities that can often obscure internal differences. They are, as Zygmunt Bauman puts it, cloakroom communities that are ‘put together, temporarily, around a shared focus’. 26 In this regard, it is important to continually revisit the question of whether or not we should remain in service to a particular group or movement.

In our own work as members of the Northern Police Monitoring Project, we have at times worked in collaboration with other anti-racist groups and activists. Whilst we have shared a commitment to tackling institutionally racist policing, at critical moments schisms in our respective politics have emerged. We believe that policing is fundamentally and structurally problematic and that, by embracing the spirit of freedom dreaming, 27 we should strive for the abolition of the police. 28 During one particular collaboration, it became clear that our collaborators were in fact only interested in equity to the extent that white young people are arrested, punished, and imprisoned to the same extent as Black young people. In instances like this, the notion of uncritically working in service to community groups shows itself to be deeply flawed. Recognising that ‘subordinated communities can also be sites of unethical conduct and/or political disagreement’, 29 it becomes necessary in such instances for us to challenge regressive logic or disband the cloakroom community. It is therefore perhaps more useful for us to orient ourselves towards working in service to anti-racism more broadly, rather than to specific community groups. In practice, our broader service to anti-racism will see us working (critically) in service to community groups as a means to achieve our broader goals, but nevertheless our anchor will ultimately be to the broader project of anti-racism. We turn now to consider how working in service to community groups and anti-racism more broadly impacts upon, and is guided by, concerns around accountability.


Central to working in service to anti-racism, we want to suggest, should be the notion of being accountable. Establishing accountability has been a long-standing concern in UK HE, particularly since the neoliberal turn. Indeed, accountability is a key driver behind metrics such as the REF and the Teaching Excellence Framework, both designed to ensure that universities remain accountable to the State for public investment and to the student consumer. 30 As we suggested in our introductory chapter, these technologies of neoliberalism are incredibly limiting, including in the forms of accountability they encourage. Rather than facilitating meaningful accountability to the public, they encourage academics to jump through hoops that are dictated by market logics, leading in turn to a culture of competitiveness, stress, and anxiety. 31 Whilst the UK's REF Impact agenda might at first glance be seen to encourage an accountability to various publics or to social change more broadly, normative conceptualisation of Impact in HE can, as noted in the Introduction, ‘often lead us to value only those modes of social impact which are unabashedly substantial, muscular, large-scale, self-confident, and readily narratable as such’. 32 Institutionalised forms of Impact – those that are causal and readily measurable – might therefore cross-cut fleetingly with the genuine, long-term (albeit, unquantifiable) forms that arise from scholar-activists’ embeddedness in communities of resistance, but the nature and extent of accountability in each are incomparable.

Anti-racist scholar-activist notions of accountability stand in stark contrast to those that pervade HE. Pointing to the relationship between embeddedness within, and accountability to, communities of resistance, Laura Pulido notes:

Accountability refers to the fact that scholar activists are not lone mavericks. Indeed, the idea of a scholar activist operating alone is something of an oxymoron. The whole point of being a scholar activist is that you're embedded in a web of relationships, some of which demand high levels of accountability to a community or other groups of individuals. 33

In a similar vein, and tying the notion of working in service to accountability, Patricia Hill Collins explains:

there is an important distinction between scholarship in support of social justice and scholarship in service to social justice. Scholarship in support of social justice implies a lack of accountability on the part of the scholar – others are engaged in social justice projects and the thinker in question aims to make a contribution but is not held accountable for how his or her contribution works out. 34

Understood in this way, accountability should be at the heart of what it means to work in service to anti-racism and thus, in turn, central to anti-racist scholar-activism.

Our participants were keen to subvert the pressures of hegemonic forms of (neoliberal) accountability within contemporary HE, and to suggest that they were primarily accountable to the immediate groups that they worked with, wider communities of resistance, and ultimately anti-racism. For some, particularly academics of colour, this accountability came from working within the communities they had grown up in. For others, this sense of being accountable was something that had to be managed more consciously and proactively. This is apparent in the case of Maria (white, mid-career), who worked at an institution and in a city to which she was relatively new:

that takes time in a community, and it takes relationships and the relationships, I think, are the most fundamental part. And for me to do it ethically, it involves me having personal relationships with people that are regular relationships, where there's accountability. Especially being a white person within the discipline and working around issues of race. So that's going to take time, but it's a thing that I am committed to doing if I stay in a place and it's always my central goal.

Maria talks of the importance of building relationships with local communities and, as Gramsci puts it, being ‘an active participant in practical life’. 35 She emphasises that these relationships should be both personal and regular, and thus – like Clarke, Chadwick, and Williams – appreciates the importance of ‘being present, being consistent, being approachable, being engaged and being a support’. 36 As Maria indicates, relationship-building takes time and effort, but ‘for many activist researchers in movements, the significance of relationships will be one of the first things people emphasise’. 37 Relationships are particularly pertinent for Maria – and other scholar-activists like her – both because she is working within a community with which she is unfamiliar and because she is racialised as white working primarily with Black communities.

There is a clear counter-hegemonic tendency in Maria's account. Time has been commodified in our capitalist society, the effects of which are very much felt within the academy. Indeed, the pressure to use time ‘wisely’ – that is, to be ‘productive’ – is ubiquitous in (as well as beyond) the contemporary HE sector both nationally and globally. 38 It is in this context that Aziz Choudry observes that ‘maintaining relationships with movements, organisations, and activist groups involves considerable work, which often goes unrewarded and unrecognised in terms of pressures to win research funding and the ways in which academics are evaluated’. 39 One of our participants, Jay (Asian-British, mid-career), noted something similar, suggesting that ‘one of the biggest barriers to doing that sort of stuff [scholar-activism] is just sheer workload, time pressures, and the bureaucracy that comes with all of that’. Therefore, to build meaningful, regular, trusting relationships with local communities – as opposed to the short-term, hollow, extractive relationships that so often characterise academic interactions with wider communities 40 – is to swim against the neoliberal tide. The counter-hegemonic nature of this practice is particularly apparent when we consider that it can be ‘easier to build a CV’ or meet the demands of performance metrics ‘with nominal engagements and positions in “the community”’ than it is to invest the time and energy in cultivating embeddedness. 41 Of course, the former becomes tempting in a context whereby the neoliberal logics of competition, precarity, and overwork characterise HE.

The embeddedness that Maria strives for creates opportunities for direct and tangible forms of accountability, and this is part of her motivation for building such relationships: it is what informs and guides her orientation as an anti-racist scholar-activist. Dillon – a British Asian early-career academic – similarly reflected on the more direct forms of accountability that arise from embeddedness:

you get called out as well. I've had many conversations with Linton [anonymised] where he said to me, ‘no, you're focusing on the wrong thing here’. Or where he said, ‘that's not the issue, it's this. You need to look more at this.’ Because he's involved with the people on the ground, he has a strong idea of what academia should be focusing on and writing about. So, then I go back to my work, thinking actually I need to refocus it if it's going to be of any use to people. So that's pivotal. Sometimes when you hear community groups saying ‘oh the work doesn't speak to us’ that's part of the reason why – because some academics are so detached from the groups that are mobilising and resisting, and hence they're not writing about the things that people on the ground care about. It's only by mingling with, being with them, being part of them, and actually being them that you understand what matters and what doesn't.

Whilst being called out by non-academic activists can often produce defensiveness and a sense of vulnerability, Dillon shows that such instances can be important, even formative. In activist circles, this is particularly the case when one occupies a position of relative privilege, such as that of an academic. For Dillon, the process of being challenged leads him to refine and refocus his praxis to ensure it is of ‘use to people’. In this sense, the accountability that comes from ‘staying connected to and informed by struggle’  42 enables scholar-activists to better service communities of resistance and anti-racism more broadly.

Much like Dillon's argument that one needs to be embedded within a community in order to understand what matters to it, Sara (British Muslim, early-career) suggested that working within communities of resistance is important because:

It centres you and it grounds you and it connects you back to those experiences … it moves your scholarship from being behind the paywall of a journal, to being grounded in the community you are working with.

There are clear parallels here between the views of Sara, Dillon, and Maria since each of them speaks to what we noted in the Introduction to be a key tenet of anti-racist scholar-activism: a deep commitment to the collaborative production of knowledge through grounding as part of – rather than as a detached observer to – communities of resistance. 43 This embeddedness enables one's scholarship to be informed by ‘the sounds and visions’  44 that emerge from struggle. As Choudry contends, this is ‘real work’ which ‘cannot be easily converted into “outputs”, “partnerships” or “future collaborations”’. 45 In this sense, embeddedness is productive of an anti-racist scholar-activist rendering of accountability that is radically distinct from the neoliberal accountability of HE metrics. 46

Thus far, we have focused on the importance of embeddedness and direct accountability. Here, however, we want to argue that anti-racist scholar-activism also necessitates less tangible – perhaps even imagined – forms of accountability. There are at least two reasons why imagined accountability can be important. Firstly, it is not practicable or ethical for communities outside of the university to constantly manage and check on the work of university-based scholar-activists – that is, although we should be accountable to communities of resistance, anti-racist scholar-activists should not need to be supervised by (often unsalaried) community members and/or activists. Secondly, the sheer size and scale of marginalised and dispossessed communities means that we must adopt a larger conception of accountability that extends beyond those with whom we have direct contact. In this sense, and to borrow from both Benedict Anderson and Sivanandan, 47 we might think of ourselves as being accountable to imagined communities of resistance.

Notwithstanding the need to and possibility of building more direct international networks, the ‘expanded notion of community’  48 in imagined communities of resistance can enable us to look beyond the borders of ‘methodological nationalism’  49 to adopt a more internationalist approach to our anti-racist scholar-activism. This internationalist approach encourages us to see ‘our struggle as closely related to’ or a part of ‘liberation struggles around the world’. 50 In this sense, it recaptures those elements of the radical anti-racist tradition (discussed in the Introduction) that seek to understand struggles in their global context, tied to imperial and colonial histories. 51 Our argument here is not intended to suggest that imagined forms of accountability should overshadow or preclude direct and tangible forms of accountability, or should discourage us from building international networks. Our intention is simply to acknowledge that, for the reasons set out above, imagined forms of accountability can be both necessary and generative. As our last point on the matter, we want to take this one step further. Earlier in this chapter, we suggested that whilst we work in service to communities of resistance, our ultimate service is to the broader project of anti-racism. We might say the same here in terms of accountability: our ultimate accountability is to anti-racism. Thus, our accountability is governed by our ability to live up to the principles and orientations of radical anti-racist traditions – that is, those that centre on racism in its institutional and structural incarnations. Such a rendering will regularly leave us at odds with the neoliberal-imperial-institutionally-racist university.


A concern with the usefulness of academic work ran through many of the accounts of our participants. In essence, such a concern is somewhat unremarkable. Not only is it shared by many (if not all) academics, but it is also institutionalised through the REF Impact agenda – albeit, in a somewhat reductive and economically calculated form. As we will show throughout this book, however, scholar-activism invokes a particular way of thinking about usefulness which breaks with the market-driven understandings advanced through HE's technologies of neoliberalism. More specifically, the notion of working in service anchors to whom (or what) we strive to make our work useful. 52 In an anti-racist scholar-activist tradition, work is useful if it helps to empower communities of resistance and if it fuels anti-racism. 53  The usefulness we are describing here is something akin to that which Richard Johnson and others, charting traditions of radical education, have referred to as really useful knowledge – that is, usefulness that does not merely operate ‘as a tool of social reproduction and a guardian of the status quo’ but which ‘demands changes by unveiling the causes of exploitation and tracing its origins within the ruling ideology’. 54 We use ‘usefulness’, therefore, to describe that which serves ‘practical ends’ that are shaped by the ‘social standpoint and political purpose’ of communities of resistance, in pursuit of liberation. 55

Focusing specifically on research, Sajid (British Pakistani, mid-career) provided insight into how we might think productively about this notion of usefulness:

Your research agenda is often derived from your involvement in community or grassroots organisations and campaigns and movements … to me that's where good research comes from. It doesn't come from a research gap or a gap in the literature. And I think often that can be the worst excuse to do a project: because I've seen a gap in the literature. I don't think that should be a motivation to do a project. For me it's about how socially useful is your research?

By starting with the ‘research agenda’, Sajid situates usefulness as being fundamental to the entire research process, with communities of resistance playing a key role within it. In this regard, his understanding of usefulness ties into earlier accounts from Dillon, Maria, and Sara in relation to accountability, in that all suggest that community embeddedness produces ‘good research’ and good praxis. Part of the value in embeddedness, we argue, derives from its facilitation of attempts to combine theory and practice, which we noted in the Introduction to be a key tenet of anti-racist scholar-activism. As Walter Rodney conveys, embeddedness enables linkages between one's theoretical ideas and ‘the practical realities of the experiences of the masses’. 56 In turn, as Mathiesen remarks, we can take as ‘our point of departure the interests of those out of power rather than those in power’. 57 This is the crux of anti-racist scholar-activist notions of usefulness. It is in recognising that research should be socially useful that Sajid juxtaposes his own work against that of an academic whose research is motivated by a perceived ‘gap in the literature’. Talk of the proverbial gap in the literature is commonplace in academia and is encouraged through the operationalisation of ‘originality’ within the REF, but for anti-racist scholar-activists like Sajid, the importance attributed to knowledge gaps is apt to sound self-indulgent. In a context where marginalised communities often have pressing needs, scholar-activists cannot afford to practise detached forms of scholarship (this point is complicated a little in a moment). 58

The importance of allowing communities to drive the research agenda was unpacked further by Sajid, who went on to say:

it's about trying to figure out what communities want and I think in the times that we live in which are highly polarised politically, which are dangerous with the rise of the far-Right and with the rise of the more respectable, or so called respectable, alt-Right, we live in dangerous times and I think it's about trying to respond to the needs of communities as opposed to preaching to communities.

Here, Sajid reiterates his commitment to taking direction from marginalised communities but, importantly, he also points to the wider socio-political context that surrounds his praxis. To be sure, ‘we live in dangerous times’ that, as the prominent American philosopher George Yancy writes, underline the ‘urgency of addressing and attempting to eradicate our collective dehumanised existential condition, of overthrowing hegemonic structures that render our Black and Brown bodies dispensable’. 59 Responding with urgency can be counter-hegemonic because ‘the academy is not geared towards immediacy or urgency’, 60 at least not in service to social justice. We will return to exploring how urgent scholar-activist agendas jar against slow university bureaucracy when we consider the backlash against scholar-activism in Chapter 4.

It is perhaps this sense of urgency that leads many, like Sajid, to be absolutely clear in their commitment to communities of colour. There is no time or space for ambiguity; we must, as Routledge and Derickson put it, engage with an ‘insurrectionary imagination’. 61 Barry (early-career academic of colour) picked up on this thread when he noted:

If you're not trying your best with your position, whatever wage you get, and [a] permanent job, to feed into some kind of struggles, [then] I do struggle with that. I also think sometimes you want to do an intellectual project and that's okay as well, but I do struggle to see how you can justify making your funding bid about a bowling alley in the shadows of Grenfell or whatever. Or, how you can get involved in certain kinds of representational stuff around gender when women's centres are being closed down and such. There's always that balance to be struck between saying you always have to do the most insurgent, radical, on the ground feeding into the movement work, because it is important to, [but] also do[ing] some theoretical work even if it's really abstract.

For Barry, the urgency of the moment dictates the need for work that feeds into anti-racist struggles and prioritises a focus on the material conditions of dispossessed communities above purely representational politics. 62 When grappling with this urgency, we want to suggest that there is work to be done to connect the immediate and the symptomatic (e.g. Grenfell) to the underpinning structural conditions (e.g. capitalism, racism, nationalism, and borders) – that is, there is a need to respond to the urgency of the moment, whilst also feeding into struggle against wider structural forces. In this sense, there is a tension that some scholar-activists might work to reconcile between urgent and responsive research on the one hand, and more long-term theoretical explorations of the structural conditions (that give rise to the events that require urgent attention) on the other. As Barry indicates, there is ‘always a balance to be struck’.

Notably, Barry's comments do not constitute a disavowal of theory. Indeed, in contrast to stereotypes that often construct scholar-activism as anti-intellectual, 63 there is clear acknowledgement from Barry that there is a place for theoretical and/or traditionally intellectual work. As we suggested in the tenets we set out in the Introduction, the utility of theory, in this balance, would be informed by and situated alongside the (urgency of the) needs of communities of resistance. In this sense, as the Black Power activist Kwame Ture and others have maintained, theory is used to propel anti-racist social change. 64 Though this is a feature of activism generally, it underscores the scholar in scholar-activism particularly. This serves as a reminder, as Patricia Hill Collins so aptly puts it, that ‘the overarching goal of scholarship in service to social justice is not to explain social inequality or social injustice, but to foster social justice, to bring about some sort of change’. 65 In this sense, Sivanandan's notion of ‘not just thinking for thinking's sake, but thinking in order to do’  66 – as we noted in the Introduction – is far from an anti-intellectual position. Instead, it is better understood as pointing to the importance of making theory useful in resistance struggles. 67

Situating his thoughts in a longer genealogy of anti-racist scholarship and activism, Barry traced his concerns around usefulness to what he described as a disagreement between the ‘two powerhouses’ of Stuart Hall and Ambalavaner Sivanandan. Barry recalled that Sivanandan had charged Hall with a ‘betrayal of the struggle against racism’ for his turn to ‘culture and identity’ in the 1980s and away from more radical, socialist, anti-racist politics. 68 For Barry, this represented a ‘really healthy debate’ that illustrates how the contemporary moment ‘has become watered down to a whole new level’. Put more plainly, we might ask: if Sivanandan could make that critique of Hall, despite Hall's socialist politics and his work as a leading public intellectual in Britain, what might he think of contemporary scholarship? As Barry put it, contemporarily:

you have policy-oriented migration studies which are shit, carceral everything everywhere, criminology being full of people who are basically police officers, [and you] can't talk about race and identity without being ‘Leftist’. We talk about migration without talking about race!

Barry reminds us here that scholar-activism must be fundamentally based upon a radical and critical anti-racist analysis, if it is to be most useful (or work in service) to communities of resistance and anti-racism. In keeping with the Black Power-influenced strand of anti-racism we outlined in the book's Introduction, such an analysis situates racism within broader social, political, and economic process, and ties it to histories of colonialism and imperialism.

There is one final point we want to make with regard to questions of usefulness and this was captured most forcefully by Dez, a Black professor:

If you are a critical scholar or a critical theorist, or someone who does that kind of stuff, it's not that you're not useful but that a lot of what you write about is, by and large, known by people who are at the front of the thing. You do critiques of power. You might be able to write it a little bit more eloquently, but basically you're not going to wow anybody, like ‘fuck, I never knew power was like that!’ Do you see what I mean? Often what people want is a particular kind of expertise, and a particular kind of expertise which actually a lot of critical theorists don't have! Do you see what I mean? For example, I know a few of the people around the Grenfell Tower stuff, and one of the things that they were really wanting was in-depth investigations into local council stuff, and legal issues and all that kind of stuff, not globalisation and the city and justice.

In speaking back to assumptions that elevate the knowledge of academics, Dez's analysis here is vital. As he puts it, the knowledge that ‘critical theorists’ possess is usually already known by activists on the frontline or by individuals living through inequality and injustice. 69 Often, movements may not need the research of scholar-activists at all, but rather more practical skills. It might even be that buying pizza for a community meeting, stacking chairs after a meeting, or being a shoulder to cry on is far more useful than one's academic work. 70 In this respect, as Gargi Bhattacharyya advises, we must avoid rushing ‘to commentary before [we] are able to do everyday work’: the ‘donkey work’. 71  To engage in work within communities of resistance, scholar-activists might therefore find themselves having to upskill and move beyond their comfort zone: to learn the craft of activist organising. As Castle and McDonald warn, however, ‘given that excelling in the academy often requires submission to the same power structures that activists are organising against’, 72 academics can be less willing or able to engage in necessary confrontations with power. We might add here that, particularly for those in precarious positions (and with marginalised positionalities), it might not only be a case of excelling in academia but of merely surviving or remaining in it. The analysis of Dez therefore is sobering and offers food for thought for those of us committed to anti-racist scholar-activism.

Accessibility and reach

Participants were also concerned with ensuring that their work is accessible to, and reaches, the groups and communities for which it is intended. A fundamental concern in this regard pertains to the US-Eurocentricity of knowledge production and discipline formation, 73 and the interrelated dominance of the English language, both of which speak to the university's ties to colonialism. This has implications for which voices, and which forms of knowledge, are valued. It creates disadvantages for those academics for whom English is not a first language and feeds into unequal (academic) power relations. 74 It also means that such knowledge is only shared to English-speaking audiences. For anti-racist scholar-activists, this places significant limits upon our abilities to work in service to communities of resistance, particularly as – in the spirit of internationalism – we look to move beyond borders. It is for this reason that participants like Malaika – who had migrated to Britain from South America – spoke of translating academic writing in different languages as part of their scholar-activist praxis. Notwithstanding the irony of this book being written in English, we want to suggest that it is necessary that we push for the decentring of the English language and – wherever possible – call for the production of materials in multiple languages.

Concerns about language also bring forth strong critiques of the opacity of academic jargon, and the subsequent exclusion of people outside of the academy, 75 including those we claim to be working alongside. As Haytham (Pakistani, PhD researcher) explained, academic norms can lead you ‘to stop writing like a human being’. It was in a similar vein that Galiev (person of colour, early-career) said:

There's always this problem of the knowledge that we produce being incredibly impenetrable. I know so many people that say, ‘You talk a big game of being radical and this, that and the other, but first of all we don't have access to your scholarship. Second, when we do it's completely impenetrable, man.’ I think this is something we can no longer think is okay: to acknowledge this as a problem and then that's enough. I think it's the biggest problem within critical scholarship.

For Galiev, it seems that critical academics are largely unable or unwilling to move beyond (the hollow performance of) critiquing the exclusionary nature of academic jargon, and towards a change in their own praxis. For those of us engaged in anti-racist scholar-activism, questions over the accessibility of language should raise important questions. Namely, who are we writing for? Or, put another way, to whom are we working in service? As Patricia Hill Collins acknowledges, working in service to social justice ‘raises a distinctive set of concerns’ that includes questions over style, ‘intended audiences’, and accessibility. 76 If we are to work in service to communities of resistance, should our work not speak the language of those communities? This should not be taken to mean that scholar-activist work should be ‘dumbed down’ to patronising, monosyllabic writing. It is certainly a fallacy to assume that those outside of the academy cannot understand precise, complex language; this is a point we return to soon.

Alongside questions about the accessibility of language sit questions over where and how work is published. ‘Paywall journal articles are shit and always have been shit, really’, Barry insisted:

and yet they're the things we are valued on in terms of getting a wage, getting a permanent job, getting a promotion. So, I think it's more important than ever to try and write some shorter stuff, and also that's where the political intervention is.

Bringing a critique of academic publishing to the forefront of our considerations of accessibility, Barry draws attention to the issue of journal paywalls (although much the same can be said of extortionately expensive academic books). Journal paywalls create conditions of exclusivity, meaning (in theory at least) that articles are only accessible to those who are willing and able to pay, or who have an institutional affiliation that grants them access. Thus, journal paywalls not only accelerate the commodification of knowledge, but they (attempt to) ensure that certain forms of knowledge remain the preserve of the privileged. 77 Noting that publishing in journals is what we are valued on (and what keeps us employed), Barry points to how, through the pressure it creates to publish in particular journals, the REF constitutes a barrier to accessibility. In this sense, the REF bolsters the locking of knowledge into the academy and away from communities outside of it.

In addition to paywalls, the form of academic journal articles is itself limiting. Alex – a mixed-race, established academic – conveyed sentiments similar to Barry's:

I think it [blog writing] is very important because people read blogs, people outside of academia read blogs and they have a much wider circulation. They're free, they're outside the heinous academic publishing system. And yes, I think that obviously they're shorter, they're not as rigorous, but then you can also be more creative and more free and I think that, politically, it's important to write blogs.

Extolling the virtue of writing short form pieces, Alex, much like Barry, suggests that accessible writing is politically important. Thus, the motivation for writing is to advance the political interests of the communities and causes to which we are in service. Alongside her substantive point about the need for knowledge to be free, Alex places emphasis on the importance of engaging a wide readership, including publics beyond academia: there is convergence, here, between the interests of scholar-activists and the interests of public intellectuals. Alex conveys a desire to ‘speak the truth to the people’, 78 an impulse that we traced in the tenets of anti-racist scholar-activism set out in the Introduction. This tendency underscores a tension between the orientation of scholar-activists (who are concerned with political change and engaging wider audiences) and the norms of HE (which are more conservative, and often exclusionary). In ‘speaking to the people’, Patricia Hill Collins argues that scholar-activists can undermine the ‘belief that elites are the only social actors who count’. 79 As Alex puts it, in contrast to academic journal articles, blogs are something that people (beyond academia) actually read.

Having spoken of the virtues of blogs, Alex also notes that they are sometimes less rigorous than academic scholarship. Whilst she importantly ties this to the opening up of opportunities for more creative interventions that are perhaps better suited to working in service to communities of resistance, we might also read her comments as an intimation that blogs alone are not enough. Rather, blogs play an important role alongside longer, more in-depth and more typically ‘academic’, peer-reviewed work. We agree with Gargi Bhattacharyya that ‘sometimes understanding important things can be laborious, and the labour is an important component of developing understanding’. 80 Indeed, defending complexity, Sivamohan Valluvan asserts that ‘to always eschew complex language in the interests of clarity and simplicity is not necessarily a virtue and not necessarily consistent with the aspiration to provide sufficiently searching argumentation’. 81 It would be a misapprehension to presume therefore – as critics of scholar-activists often do (see Chapter 4) – that anti-racist scholar-activists disavow or devalue academic rigour and precision. As we began to establish in the Introduction, there is a strong tradition within anti-racist scholar-activism (and relatedly, public intellectualism) of producing rigorous scholarship that is tested and refined through resistance. 82 It is worth reiterating here, as Sivanandan's work – as a non-university-based intellectual – attests, this rigour is not only confined to academia.

Concern over the dissemination of one's work to wide-ranging audiences was a recurrent theme amongst our participants. Whilst public dissemination is a concern for many academics and is an imperative within the REF Impact agenda, the concerns of participants were inflected by a specific concern for reaching communities of resistance in pursuit of anti-racism. Ali – an early-career Arab man – reflected on his sense of responsibility in this regard:

I feel a lot on my shoulders which is that, because I am privileged to read and think about these things, I do have to give back and try to rephrase and transform things in ways that are digestible for people who don't have that space and time to think about these things, and legitimately so, who are concerned with other things in their lives.

What Ali describes here is a responsibility to demystify some of the exclusionary tendencies of the academy as a way of opening up knowledge. Echoing much of this sentiment, Ereene, a British Muslim early-career academic, asserted:

People are not inclined to read [academic] books. They're not inclined to read papers. Who's going to read papers? Blog articles and things get shared on social media, shared on WhatsApp, shared in so many different forms and people are reading them. They're quick, they're snappy, and it's important because that's how you spread the news, that's how you build a movement and that's how you get people involved.

Ereene speaks damningly here of the capacity to engage with wider publics through academic books and articles. It is for this reason that she sees blogs and shorter digital forms of writing as being important for engaging the groups and communities that she works within. Her motivation is to ‘build a movement’ and draw others into it. For this reason, she is clear who her audience is and how to engage with them. Making explicit reference to mobile messaging services, Ereene reflects where she believes her communities are most likely to be reached.

Whilst we agree to some extent with the point being made here, we also want to push back a little. We want to suggest that many communities of resistance do want to, and are able to, engage with books and papers to inform their praxis. Indeed, our activist friends and comrades based outside of the academy often contact us to help them to access paywalled journal articles, books, and other academic materials. Moreover, many of our participants listed non-academics as amongst their fiercest and most generative critics. It is important, therefore, to resist a binary that presents those in the academy as being engaged with rich knowledge and theory, and those outside of the academy as only wanting to engage with ‘snappy’ blog posts. Ereene is right to call for shorter forms of engagement in order to draw people into movements, but this should not be extended to imply that non-academics in movements are not engaged with theory, or that meaningful engagement with complex theory is not a worthwhile task.

Ereene is not alone in emphasising the importance of social media. The possibilities that are opened up by our entry into the digital era are widely recognised in academic literature, including how digital technologies open up the university to public pedagogy. 83 In this latter respect, Michael Eric Dyson observes that ‘the advent of technology has enabled [a] new black digital intelligentsia to share their ideas more widely and publicly’. 84 In the spirit of freedom dreaming, 85 we might even think of how digital technologies enable us to engage in community education as an alternative to the university and/or as a way of undermining the university. Yet, the ability of these technologies to accelerate anti-racist movements cannot be taken for granted. Not only have anti-racist scholars long since found ways to reach wider publics, but we should also question whether our ability to rapidly communicate our thoughts in pithy formats ‘moves us closer to the truths that will sustain us’. 86 Natalie Fenton has warned about how the rapid communication of the digital world may ‘[run] roughshod over the slower process of political organization’ that is needed to sustain movements. 87 Similarly, Bhattacharyya and colleagues warn of ‘the power of social media to undo the historically informed, internationally contextualised and carefully thought-out analyses of racism so desperately needed in these times of multiple crises’. 88 Thus, whilst offering opportunity for anti-racist activism, it cannot be assumed that new technologies will lead to social justice. 89 This rings particularly true when we are cognisant of the existing (imperial) power structures in our societies, and how they shape access and engagement online. Given that internet connection and media literacy is not available to all, 90 digital technologies – much like journal paywalls – can lock out already marginalised members of society.

There are other considerations in relation to digital technologies, too. After echoing much of the sentiment of Ereene, Sara (British Muslim, early-career) went on to unpack some of her thinking around the utility of social media for anti-racist resistance:

I mean I am in two minds. I absolutely do believe it's so important. You can literally connect to millions, right, and I think that is what is really important … However, I am now also aware of how Twitter is used to literally tear you down. Especially as someone who is part of a marginalised community, I am extremely aware that that is the downside of it. I am very cautious with what I tweet now, especially in relation to the research that I am doing because I know that it is used by those who are advocates of the policies against me. I think that I have to be really mindful of that.

As Sara makes clear, the role of social media in social movement building is a complex one. On the one hand, social media has the potential to propel movements and to reach huge audiences instantaneously. The rise of Black Lives Matter from a hashtag to a movement is a case in point, 91 as was the Arab Spring, 92 the Egyptian Revolution, 93 and the global #MeToo campaign, 94 among others. Pew Center research has shown that communities of colour are more likely to find political utility in Twitter than their white counterparts. 95 As Sara acknowledges, there are, however, issues around the relative impunity with which people can enact racist abuse online. There are also significant issues around surveillance and demonisation, and evidence that social media can be weaponised to undermine social justice efforts. 96  In these and other regards, critical work on social media and online spaces offers notes of caution. The respective works of scholars such as Cathy O’Neil, Safiya Noble, Yarden Katz, and Ruha Benjamin all point to how – in contrast to their assumed objectivity – digital technologies in fact reinforce structural inequalities, with racism often hardwired into and reinforced by online spaces and the digital. Online platforms are saturated by whiteness, often reflecting biases and assumptions present in design, development, and usage. 97 Moreover, Michael Kwet's work details how US ‘domination of digital technology’ reinscribes or ‘reinvents’ imperial and colonial relations (through ‘economic domination’, ‘imperial control’, and ‘imperial state surveillance’). 98 Social media – as per the digital more broadly – is, therefore, an incredibly difficult terrain for scholar-activists to navigate. This underlines the need for reflexivity to lie at the heart of scholar-activist praxis and for that reflexivity to be exercised in the context of online engagement, if we want to work effectively in service to anti-racism.

In addition to blogs and social media, many of our participants shared a general commitment to using a range of other platforms to engage with non-academic publics. Ali captured this sentiment when he noted that ‘there are definitely different ways … I say we hit them all. We do what we can with what we have.’ Thomas (Black, early-career) similarly reflected on his efforts to utilise a range of dissemination methods:

I do a lot more kind of audio-visual academic work than most academics, which I think is a lot more accessible than writing in a journal and in incomprehensible language. I go to schools and community centres and teach on the same topic as I wrote my highbrow thesis on and deliver workshops on the same topic.

Thomas's praxis here is based upon a critique that relates to two themes discussed earlier in this section: the inaccessibility of academic language and the exclusivity of journal paywalls. In response, Thomas draws upon other methods of engagement – often appearing on the news, the radio, and on podcasts – to better communicate ideas related to his research and issues that pertain to anti-racism more broadly. His reasoning for doing so reflects a desire to reach more people, and move beyond academic echo chambers, in order to strengthen anti-racist resistance. As Thomas also reflects on his use of workshops in schools and community centres, he returns us to the question of who our work is for. In doing so, he highlights the need to speak to different audiences which, in turn, requires the adoption of different registers – an idea we introduced in the Introduction. The individuals, groups, and communities with which we work are not homogeneous; we should be prepared to use different methods and registers to reach them.

Taking us back to the notion of working in service explicitly, and expanding on the point raised by Thomas, Elroy explained:

Researchers, if they're talking ‘in service of’, then those findings should be ‘to the benefit of’. Sometimes, that means, therefore, presentations locally. Feeding back to those individuals for whom that research is intended, who that knowledge may be of use to. To those individuals, for want of a better term, who commission that research. Accessible, transparent. But it has to go back through those groups. That's the impact, isn't it?

Here, Elroy reaffirms the idea that researchers must feed their research back to the groups they claim to work in service to. Not only this, but that feedback must be ‘accessible’ and ‘transparent’. In this regard, there are lessons that university-based scholar-activists can learn from wider activist and organising communities about effective and useful dissemination of knowledge. In contrast to popular understandings that centre the university, Elroy situates communities of resistance as the commissioners of the research. He also suggests that the measure of the research lies in the extent to which it is ‘to the benefit of’ those communities. By making reference to impact, he pushes us towards a reclamation of a term that has been co-opted and institutionalised. In this sense, impact is not to be measured by institutional metrics but by our engagement with communities of resistance.


In this chapter, we have introduced the notion of working in service as a foundational principle – an orientation – that guides anti-racist scholar-activism. We have suggested that by working in service to communities of resistance and to anti-racism more broadly, anti-racist scholar-activism is counter-hegemonic. This is so, not only because it disrupts the power dynamics that often elevate academics who work within communities of resistance, but because it disrupts the idea that academics work for the university and therefore should be governed by the neoliberal technologies that pervade contemporary HE. We have shown that the working in service orientation guides anti-racist scholar-activism in a number of ways. Firstly, it induces a sense of accountability. In the most immediate sense, this accountability is to those communities with whom one directly works. Given that some of us work in service to communities beyond those we have direct contact with, however, we have argued that accountability (necessarily) exists on a much broader (perhaps imagined) level too. We are accountable to imagined communities of resistance. Secondly, we have also shown that the in service orientation can guide anti-racist scholar-activist concerns about how useful (or otherwise) one's work is, and to whom/what it is useful. In this respect, we maintained that usefulness to the broad project of anti-racism should be the primary goal of our work, and this should often be mediated by (or overlap with) questions around the usefulness of one's work to the groups with whom one works more directly.

Lastly, we reflected on questions of accessibility. Here, we suggested that language is an important consideration, both in terms of the dominance of the English language and the exclusionary logics of academic jargon. Language can, therefore, serve as a barrier or enabler of our ability to ‘speak the truth to the people’, 99 and thus to work in service to communities of resistance. We also reflected on the exclusion and exploitation that manifests in academic publishing, and the ways participants circumvent such obstacles. From these criticisms arose calls for a commitment to wider engagement with publics beyond academia and, in this regard, public intellectualism can be a vital component of scholar-activist work, particularly in the quest for the mobilisation of a larger anti-racist public. Whilst we are (trying to become) mindful of the problematics of social media, and have emphasised the need for reflexivity when utilising digital technologies, we have suggested that they offer opportunities to reach wider audiences and move beyond our academic echo chambers. We cannot be complacent about these opportunities, however. It is not inevitable that they will work in service to anti-racism. In the next chapter, we continue to draw upon the idea of working in service, as we think about ‘stealing’ from the university as a key component of anti-racist scholar-activist praxis.

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