Simon Blake: ACUI Conference 2017 diary

Monday 20-03-2017 - 10:53

Simon Blake is in America this week for the Association for College Unions International’s (ACUI) annual conference, which is taking place in Philadelphia this year. He will be blogging about his trip each day for NUS Connect right here!

Jump to a diary entry by date: Sunday 19 March (part one), Sunday 19 March (part two), Monday 20 March, Tuesday 21 March, Wednesday 22 MarchThursday 23 March

Thursday 23 March

Our last day in the USA was a road trip. Yemi, Tricia and I were rather excited when we were told our car had been upgraded, so we drove to Rutgers in a Cadillac.

We set off to the first of three student centres on the Rutgers campus. Given it was a left hand drive, we navigated the freeway pretty well. Bar a couple of hairy moments, we arrived on time.

On arrival at Rutgers, we were pleased to see a large display about women, aspiration and choices. We were also pleased to see lots of public information about gender and sexual diversity, as well as mental health and wellbeing.

We were shown around the centre and the facilities by one of the facilities managers - a third-year undergraduate. In the USA, student staff often hold facilities management roles within the centre. It is interesting that at ACUI conference there were lots of Masters students who are also student staff in management positions. When we describe our system of student leadership some of them are surprised at the level of power and responsibility officers have.

Tricia, Yemi and I were struck by how much responsibility and accountability the student staff have within the US college system. Different systems with lots we can continue to learn from each other. The rooms at the student centre were pretty standard; the challenge of having enough space at the right times for all the societies very familiar. However, their 57,000 seat American Football stadium was a bit bigger than our college facilities.

We asked about mental health support and there was a general view that support is pretty good for students who need it. There was certainly lots of public information about emotional wellbeing, resilience and mental health support. One of the staff involved in this area of work worried that students may get a bit tired of hearing about it.

Just as we were asking about the mental health support available, in trot (quite literally) two mini therapy ponies the size of my dog for students to stroke. As a lifelong horse lover and rider, this was fun, although slightly absurd to see them dressed in converse trainers, and to be told that I needed to be careful as I went to stroke the pony because he was a bit frisky.

It was interesting talking to the coordinator of the Greek Chapter and understanding the important role that fraternities and sororities play in supporting students both in their academics success and social inclusion  - we know that clubs and societies are an important part of the experience and contribute to academic success. We could do well to be more assertive in this assertion and share the evidence that demonstrates this to be the case in the UK so we can speak with similar levels of confidence.

The events programming team are supported by 40 student staff, who each commit to meeting on a weekly basis and have to retain a certain grade point average (GPA) throughout the year. If they drop below the required GPA they are provided with support to help them. However, if the improvements are not achieved within an agreed timeframe they forfeit their right to be part of the committee. The principle being that 'extracurricular activity' is supposed to enhance your experience not jeopardise your chance of academic success.

As more and more students in the UK are expected to live at home whilst they study, and SUs in the UK often find it more difficult to connect with and support these students there will be lessons we can learn from the US. Rutgers, like many other institutions, has a strong association/union for commuting students.

Having spent five days at ACUI conference, it was a treat to visit a real life union doing front line work with students and to see, feel and ask questions about the system, what works and what doesn't for ourselves.

We were struck by just how many things we take for granted about our system, and similarly how much colleagues in the US take about theirs. Whether that is the tuition and student support fee regimes, the welcome week and orientation process, the use of alcohol on campus, our independence as students' unions, the model of student leadership or the different types of staff roles that exist. The opportunity to listen, talk and hear provided us with the opportunity to challenge our assumptions, question ourselves and affirm our beliefs.

We all need time to think, to challenge and be challenged. It is the opportunity to do so with folk who share similar goals that make being part of ACUI, and this trip a valuable experience. Thanks to everyone who made it such.


Wednesday 22 March

Last day of conference started with a workshop on diversity and inclusion. In an hour the facilitators whizzed through 60 examples of activities that colleges are undertaking to promote inclusive campuses. Lots of activities are similar to those undertaken in many students' unions across the UK. Tricia, Yemi and I were all struck by how well packaged and branded many of the activities were. The presenters agreed to circulate the slides I am happy to send them on when I get them - contact me at if you would like a copy.

The final plenary talk of #ACUI17 was by Alex Sheen, founder of 'Because I said I would', a social movement dedicated to the betterment of humanity through promises made and kept. In a truly stunning talk he explained how his life course had shifted from a career in software technology to the head of a non profit: @bcisaidiwould.

His dad had been a man of his word. He believed in keeping his promises. If he said he would be somewhere he made sure he was. When his dad died Alex gave his eulogy. In honour of his dad's commitment to promises he asked people to make a pledge. Big or small. Something they wanted to commit to. He had some cards made up. On one side it said 'because I said I would'. On the other it was blank for the pledge.

After his father's funeral he posted on social media offering to send people packs of the cards free of charge. He was overwhelmed by the response. The offer went viral. Eventually Alex decided to quit his job to work on this full time.

The principle behind Because I Said I Would is simple - we are all accountable for our actions, we must stop pointing the finger at what others have or haven't done, and be clear about what we want to achieve and do it. The mechanism he has used for this is the card. You write a promise on the card. If the promise involves someone else you give them the card. When you and they believe you have fulfilled the promise you get the card back. If the promise is to yourself, keep it on you to remind you at the right times. A simple but powerful tool that has proven to be effective in creating social change through thousands of deeds both big and small.

To paraphrase Alex's drive behind the movement: 'Social media is incredible as a source of activism but it is not enough. No amount of likes and shares will change things so we have to do things to show we care and make a difference. We can pretend to care but we can't pretend to show up. And if we really care - if the why is strong enough then when it gets tough we will be able to keep going.' You can find out more at



In the afternoon I attended a session on Trans activism and being an ally. The facilitator called for awareness, acknowledgment and action. They were clear that being an ally is not an identity, and it is not something you can claim to be yourself; it is for the members of the community to define whether they believe you are an ally through your actions and behaviours.

The facilitator started the session by saying people often talk about safe spaces, and they thought we needed brave spaces where people could ask questions and explore answers together. I was struck by the quality of discussion and people's willingness to ask questions with confidence, sensitivity even when they felt as though they didn't feel confident in their knowledge or language. 

I felt incredibly proud of NUS' and students' unions' work to develop a trans campaign and elect the first full time Trans Officer in Europe, and similarly in my role as a trustee at Stonewall I felt proud of the excellent Vision for Change strategic document recently produced and consulted on by the Stonewall Trans Advisory Group.

Conference concluded with a gala dinner at which the new President of ACUI, Jeff Pelletier, was handed the baton. In Jeff's words 'until 18 March 2018 ACUI national conference is adjourned'. Thanks to ACUI and the conference planning team for an excellent conference experience.

Tomorrow we visit three student centres at Rutgers University in New Jersey before heading home.

Tuesday 21 March

Yemi and I started the day with the 5k fun run. It is questionable whether a 6.30am start in pretty cold temperatures is fun, but we got to see a bit of the city - including the National Constitution Centre and the Liberty Bell and got to earn points for Region 8.

I was wearing a pair of Stefan's socks (thanks, Aberystwyth SU!) which prompted some interesting conversations about students and mental health.

The ACUI Honors Breakfast took place immediately after the fun run. Their awards celebrate excellence, as well as people's commitment and service. They also have bursary awards for young professionals starting out their career to help them access professional development. It felt like a nice mix of reward for excellence, recognition for personal effort and achievement and a boost for people early in their careers.

I spent my lunchtime learning about bursaries, and state and financial aid available for students to help ensure that cost is not a barrier in the USA. Ensuring cost is not a barrier is an important strand of NUS 100. There is a lot to learn about the different ways students are supported financially. This is an area I am keen to learn more about when we visit Rutgers University SU on Thursday.

The keynotes focused on three social entrepreneurs; Mason Wartman, Ariell Johnson and Jeffrey Barg - all of whom are inspiring social good and inclusion through a commitment to the social environment, volunteering and social business.

Between the three speakers they have transformed physical spaces across the city; opened a Pizzeria that provides over 100 pizza slices to the homeless each day funded through a 'pay forward' system whereby customers can pay in advance for others who cannot afford to pay; and a comic shop and community space that specialises in comics featuring people of colour.

All the presenters talked about the importance of us connecting to work that really makes you feel good, and helping students to have opportunities to learn about themselves and what drives them as well as developing skills and qualities which encourage motivation and entrepreneurial spirit.

We finished the day with competitive debating. Yemi represented Region 8 and was fizzing with sass. One of the debating topics was social media. One debater said, “people like to use their cyber-muscles without thought for others.” A nice alternative and descriptive phrase for ‘keyboard warrior’. Expect to hear me say it.

Tomorrow is the last day of the conference and on Thursday, we head across to Rutgers University SU before heading home.

Monday 20 March

The day started with three excellent keynote speakers, each talking about inclusion and diversity. The speakers were Laci Green, a sex educator and YouTuber; Benjamin O'Keefe, an activist and social entrepreneur and Davin Searls, Executive Director of Discovering Deaf Worlds.

Some of their key messages were;

  1. Diversity and inclusion are best friends but they are not the same - diversity is having lots of different people in the same place; inclusion is making sure they feel welcome, safe and happy.
  2. Everyone has their stories. Stories have the power to change the world and shape how we see and interpret the world as well as the decisions we take. To paraphrase Benjamin, 'we can choose what we say but we cannot choose the words that people hear'.
  3. We must acknowledge our own privilege, own our biases and challenge ourselves all the time, even when others are not challenging us. During his presentation, Davin said: "if there was a magic pill to cure my deafness I wouldn't take it. If I have a child I hope they are deaf". He then asked us to quietly reflect on what he had said - to challenge ourselves and the assumptions we may make about this statement.
  4. We have to actively celebrate our differences; highlighting and telling our stories and personal experiences, and making sure we do all we can to help those without a voice, or with quieter voices to be heard.
  5. People can be and feel excluded for all sorts of reasons. Environmental and social factors often stop people engaging at all, and or being their best. We must actively seek to dismantle these barriers to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be and feel included and be their best.

We were reminded that whilst students' unions may not have got it completely right we must not beat ourselves up. We continue to be at the forefront of change and must 'carry the torch for inclusion proudly and unapologetically' and keep challenging ourselves to keep getting better and driving society to do the same.

In the afternoon, Yemi and I attended a workshop exploring how ACUI makes sure it truly uses the international networks to promote and support excellence on shared issues. A short term Council has been established to take this work forward. Mike Day from NUS is a member of the group. If you have any ideas please do contact him directly.

Tricia, Yemi and I then met Professor Shaun Harper to discuss his work at the Centre for Race and Equity in more detail. We explored possible ideas for collaboration as part of our Race Matters programme and agreed there is a lot we can learn from each other and will continue to explore opportunities.

Monday ended with Yemi and Tricia laughing at me being a 'prop' in ACUI Region 8s ‘Story Slam’ effort. I had to act out a real life story that I didn't know, as it was being told. It was mortifying. Truly mortifying. But I concede it was fun too.

Tired but inspired and ready for day three.

Sunday 19 March (part two)

Conference was officially opened by J Scott Fitzgerald and John Taylor, President and CEO respectively, with a launch of their new visual identity and the tradition of thanking the board members, the conference organising committee and others who have made a significant contribution to the work. The first keynote took place at Pennsylvania, which is home to the USAs oldest students' union.

Professor Shaun Harper, Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania then gave a stunning talk on race matters and the role of college unions. I have tried to summarise his messages below, but cannot do justice to how brilliant and inspiring his presentation was.

Yemi, Tricia and I all agree we need to keep connected with Shaun and the work of the Centre as we progress Race Matters and the implementation of our plan to promote racial equality.

Shaun began by reflecting on his experience of working in student affairs two decades ago while he was a student member on ACUI board. He thanked ACUI for publishing his first work on hate crime at an early age, which gave him confidence that his views and ideas were valued.

He described how ACUI had provided a space for him to develop a sense of radical Black possibility because there were four framed photos of past Black Presidents of ACUI. Those pictures made him realise that even in majority white spaces it was possible to be Black and hold positions of authority and power. He went on to cite how other Black colleagues would be inspired by ACUIs President-elect, Michael Coleman.

Shaun's presentation was given through the lens of #alternativefacts. He explained why, as a lover of research and evidence, it was important to challenge those facts with the empirical evidence. He drew on data from tens of thousands of students and those who work with them.

Alternative Facts #1-10:

1. Communities are inclusive because we say they are and we consistently enact the espoused values

A review of significant numbers of institutions found that all had diversity promises in their brochures; all promised to prepare students to thrive in racially diverse communities and the global economy. The evidence, however, showed the spaces were safe for some students, some of the time.

2. Communities are inclusive beside a handful of student leaders from particular identity groups say so

The Centre has found that sometimes a small group of engaged student leaders from some backgrounds will tell you that it is all fine, but they will often not represent the different views from within those groups. He gave examples where the management had been told all was fine, while in the meantime in interviews, students would weep at the homophobia, transphobia, racism and sexism they face.

3. We learned how to build inclusive campus communities in graduate school (in the USA they have specific qualifications to work in SUs)

The evidence from graduates is they don't learn about racism, structural inequality and racial equity. They don't get education on how to deal with hate crime or racial inequity.

4. Experienced senior student affairs professionals have figured out how to foster inclusive campuses

Not true. Unless we have been explicitly trained and supported in anti-racist approaches and practical strategies we don't just 'pick up the skills' because we get more experience.

5. We can advance campus communities without talking explicitly and fluently about racism

This just isn't possible. In research asking people of colour and white people to write down any burning questions they have about race, racism and whiteness the Centre expected to get complex questions, but the simplicity of the questions showed that the issues are just not being talked about.

6. Racism happens everywhere else on campus, but not in the union or student activities

Nonsense. All the evidence shows that often people of colour believe the union is not for them because it has portraits of white people everywhere, activities appeal to white cultural interests and the demographic make-up of the staff is at odds with the student population. Racism is as much an issue in unions as it is across the rest of campus.

7. Only some of us are qualified to lead inclusive community advancement efforts

Yes, of course, people need training and support, but promoting race equality is not, and must not be left to people of colour alone. White people are going to have to get better at working with diverse communities across campus.

8. Student affairs professionals can foster inclusive campus communities on their own

Nope. A cross-campus, multi-faceted partnership is required with the academic staff. Union and student affairs staff have to work together with students and to care what happens in the classroom.

9. We actually advance community in education

Racism is woven into the cultural architecture and norms of institutions. So making progress is really hard in that system. But it is and must be possible. We have to stop making baby steps and ensure there is a strategic set of actions and efforts to tackle institutional racism within education.

10. It is possible to advance community without evidence of inclusion, cross-cultural interaction and learning

We must be developing metrics to measure belonging, inclusion and perceptions of commitment to diversity, as well as understand where and what they learn about race.

To summarise, we need to; be serious in our intent to secure racial equality and have the strategy to make it happen; be committed to collecting the evidence of progress; constantly be willing to try new things in new ways; be measuring the climate on campus and making changes as a result; use the existing literature and continue to develop the evidence base.

So many of the issues are similar to those identified in NUS’ Race Matters work and the Runnymede Review into Institutional Racism. We are looking forward to meeting with Shaun to discuss how we can share learning tomorrow.

That's a wrap on a brilliant day one of #ACUI17

Sunday 19 March (part one)

On Friday, I travelled over to Philadelphia with Yemi Gbajobi (CEO, London School of Economics SU and SU ARTS) for the ACUI conference. We met Tricia O'Neill (CEO, Liverpool Guild of Students) later that evening and we’ll be joined by Aidan Grills (CEO, Leeds University Union), Rory Murray (President, Kent Union) and Jim Gardner (CEO, Kent Union) soon.

Over the next few days, we will hear conference plenary speeches, participate in workshops and visit some SUs. I will try and capture some of the learning, thinking and maybe a few photos from the UK delegates and international colleagues as we go along. 

Yemi and I will also be doing the fun run on Tuesday morning (it was last year’s ACUI fun run which inspired us to do the same at SU2016!). It is below freezing and I didn't bring running leggings but luckily, I have a pair of Stefan’s Socks which will hopefully keep me warm and more importantly - promote awareness around mental health. The campaign was launched by Aber SU following the death of one of their students, Stefan, who took his own life after experiencing depression for many years.

As well as the formal agenda, I am really keen to use this conference to connect and learn about what SUs are doing on Race Equality on campus, and on equality and diversity more broadly here in the USA.

I also want to understand more about the different measures and approaches unions and institutions are taking to prevent cost being a barrier to participation in education, and learn more about the work being done on wellbeing and mental health.

This morning I met with John Taylor, CEO of ACU, who agreed to help connect me with people and networks doing work we can learn from. Yemi, Tricia and I then went to the reception for international visitors.

Conference formally starts later this afternoon. It kicks off with a regional meeting. The UK is part of ‘Region 8’ and Yemi is on the regional leadership team, a voluntary position guiding the work of the region.

We are all excited for the first keynote speech by Dr Shaun Harper on 'Race Matters in College Unions and Student Activities' later today. He is one of the leading experts on race and gender in the USA and this topic couldn't be timelier for us given our Race Matters programme of work as part of our NUS 100 strategy.

For those of you who like me may not be totally clued up on American History, here’s a little bit of trivia about Philadelphia - Philadelphia is home to the Liberty Bell, the iconic symbol of American Independence commissioned in 1752. The bell was cast with the phrase 'proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all the inhabitants thereof', later adopted as a symbol by abolitionist societies in the 1830s who dubbed it the Liberty Bell. Abolitionism was the movement both before and during the American Civil War to end slavery in the US.

We will be publishing updates here daily but if you want to follow these updates in real time, I’ll also be tweeting on #ACUI17.  


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