Black Lives Matter: Usable Pasts and International Futures

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Cultures, Languages & Area Studie


#ICantBreathe. #BlackLivesMatter. The rallying calls of a new movement have reached across the globe. Black Lives Matter (BLM) responds to the oppression, violence and exclusion that shapes black lives. Though most known for its protests against police brutality, BLM's manifestos, rhetoric, and actions respond to all forms of racial oppression, including in the areas of education, poverty, environmental justice and mental health. It is a self-described response to a violation of human rights.

Started by three African American women in 2013, BLM is spreading internationally and has chapters in every region of the US, one in Canada, one in Africa, and one in the UK. It is arguably the largest grassroots social justice movement since the 1960s. There have been more than 1500 BLM protests worldwide in the last three years, including in at least 18 UK cities. We have witnessed a new generation protesting state-sanctioned violence across the US and Europe, and from Brazil to India. Yet arguably activists have been saying "Black Lives Matter" for centuries. When three black feminists harnessed what began as a hashtag, perhaps it resonated not just because of recent high-profile deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others, but also because it recalled a protest heritage - contained within it a deep protest memory.

This network and its outputs seek to understand the origin points, dynamics and possible futures of BLM as a global and intersectional human rights and social justice movement. How can BLM, as a global movement, deliver the aims of the International Decade? Is it best figured as an international human rights movement or a civil rights one? What is its protest heritage: does it draw from the tactics of antislavery, anti-lynching, decolonisation, Black Power, Anti-Apartheid, or other movements? Is there a usable past for BLM? How does it use coalitional politics? We provide an academic framework for the study of a movement that itself embraces research as key to social action - a movement steeped in a tradition of intellectual engagement as political praxis.

The network comes at a critical moment in the study of BLM. Our edited volume is only the third academic book on the topic and the first published in the UK. It is the first work of scholarship to consider BLM as a transatlantic movement and the most cross-disciplinary exploration of BLM so far. Alongside the book, we also offer six network projects that provide a model for activist-scholar partnerships and test our theories about BLM in the context of Nottingham city, home to Europe's first BLM chapter. Two projects examine the usable pasts of antislavery and civil rights. Two projects explore the theories and philosophies of BLM itself, focusing on the idea of a "leaderful" (not leaderless) movement and the importance of coalition building. Two final projects address the movement's sustainability and international potential. The interconnected projects build a replicable model for BLM that other cities can interpret for their own contexts.

The six network projects are the mapping of antislavery murals and memorials around the world, to offer BLM a new visual and memorial culture, and encourage the creation of new community murals and markers; an oral history project to narrate the history of Ukaidi, a civil rights and black community organisation based in Nottingham from the mid-1970s to the late-1990s, as a usable past for BLM Nottingham; a free five-week community-based BLM course about coalition building; a free five-week black leadership course, open to both undergraduates and community members; a BLM roadshow of workshops and resources that visits six other UK cities, to help coalesce and develop new BLM chapters, alongside the creation of a digital map of UK organisations that are part of the Movement for Black Lives; and network visits to BLM chapter headquarters in two American cities and Accra, to share and develop international BLM strategies.

Planned Impact

Started by three African American women in 2013, Black Lives Matter (BLM) is spreading internationally. It has chapters in every region of the US, one in Canada, one in Africa, and one in the UK. It is arguably the largest grassroots social justice movement since the 1960s. We have witnessed a new generation protesting state-sanctioned violence across the US and Europe, and from Brazil to India. There have been more than 1500 BLM protests worldwide in the last three years, including in at least 18 UK cities. The first national US convening in July 2015 drew over 1000 participants. The second drew over 2000. The BLM organisation's "freedom rides" brought together 600 people from 18 cities. The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent has praised BLM as a "growing human rights movement". But it is not clear how BLM can address the goals of the International Decade for People of African Descent, form an identity as a global human rights movement (rather than a civil rights or social justice movement), harness a deep history of human rights activism and social justice protest, and adapt in the international context beyond the US to be a global movement for the rights of the black diaspora. Our network will establish a vision for BLM as a global human rights and social justice movement. Aside from scholarly impact, we hope to observe and measure the following by the end of our project:

1. Early shifts in BLM activism (at the level of the central organisation) towards goals and policies that reach beyond the US to address the global aims of the International Decade.

2. The formation of new BLM chapters in UK cities, as activist-academic partnerships between city and university communities, in the wake of our network roadshow workshops, and active partnerships for BLM Nottingham with new chapters on specific new research or policy initiatives.

3. The shaping of Europe's first BLM chapter, in Nottingham, to generate new initiatives and policies that help to achieve the aims of the International Decade, and that draw upon a usable past (of antislavery and Ukaidi).

4. Widespread use of our maps, course materials, activist archive, oral history project and BLM network resources, as measured by multiple link-backs, page views and downloads.

5. A specific use of our network map, visualising the existing activist groups in the UK, by multiple individuals and organisations to build partnerships and request additional information.

6. A specific use of our mural and memorial map, visualising the existing public heritage of antislavery, by multiple stakeholders to advance plans for new murals, memorials and markers.

7. A specific use and adaptation of our two courses by other communities, so that BLM community courses on coalition-building and black leadership exist beyond Nottingham.

8. Engagement by Nottingham city council and Nottinghamshire police with BLM Nottingham on multiple racial equality and justice initiatives that the chapter develops in 2017 as part of its network partnership.

9. A shift in how HAS tackles its work, so that being a "historian against slavery" now includes work on racial inequality as a legacy of slavery, as well as work in the area of contemporary antislavery.

10. Active partnerships for BLM Nottingham with the Accra BLM chapter and at least two US-based BLM chapters on specific policy initiatives.

11. Early signs that participants in our two courses are benefiting from their training in leadership or coalition-building.

12. At least one new planned future initiative on the part of the city's new coalition of black-led institutions and groups, brought together for the first time by the network around BLM.


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Description We have identified new ways of creating partnerships and establishing collaborations between universities and community organisations. We have also begun to re-draw protest histories and protest cultures within a wider and more substantive geography of black protest that should enable knowledge and strategies of survival to be transmitted and translated across borders and communities. We have been able to make new networks that can play a role within future AHRC funding and have demonstrated new ways of facilitating the capacity building needed for institutions, community groups and organisations to participate within research clusters.
Exploitation Route We expect to write more about our ways of working and our findings, produce additional funding bids that can add research to our networking activities and stimulate additional research opportunities for diverse audiences to learn from and link with protest cultures and histories of survival and resistance across the African diaspora. We would welcome additional teams who could develop our work wider and extend into regions and spaces that the network could not reach--including communities in Latin America, as well as on the continent of Africa. As a network project funded as part of the UN International Decade for people of African Descent, we can see a ready opportunity for AHRC to bring together these networks and learn from our ways of partnering and working in order to stimulate future work on the many diverse themes.

We have already begun to explore the ways that different geographies of black protest have formed and shared their knowledge and strategies of survival. Future work is planned to extend this work and look along critically important lines, such as food sovereignty, environmental resilience and cultural traditions. We were able to successfully secure a small travel grant after the project ended to return to one of our network sites, Halifax, Nova Scotia, to explore the strategies of survival around food for the Africville and wider Black Nova Scotian communities.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other

Description Bright Ideas Nottingham 
Organisation Bright Ideas Nottingham
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The research team has worked closely and collaboratively with Bright Ideas Nottingham to co-develop and deliver a set of activities related to the award. The team affiliated with the grant holder have provided support, information and advice to the partnership while also remaining cognisant that they are listening to and working alongside Bright Ideas Nottingham--along with other project supporters and potential partners. This is significant for the team to re-imagine a different way of working and partnering between unversities, organisations and activist communities.
Collaborator Contribution The collaborator--Bright Ideas Nottingham--brings considerable experience working as a social enterprise in the voluntary sector and with long ties to leadership and activist communities. Through networking and working collaboratively with the research team, both sets of partners contribute to the research work--including interviewing participants, engaging in fieldwork and working with youth leaders.
Impact Outcomes are currently in development, but, at present, our combined work in history, archival research, ethnography, art and social movements has produced extensive plans for follow on funding that include returning to our network for further podcasts, interviews and documentary filming. An anticipated outcome will be follow-funding application to AHRC and an additional funding bid to other internal funding schemes.
Start Year 2016
Description AHRC Research Network 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The UN General Assembly has proclaimed 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent (resolution 68/237) citing the need to strengthen national, regional and international cooperation in relation to the full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights by people of African descent, and their full and equal participation in all aspects of society. The theme for the International Decade is "People of African descent: recognition, justice and development". In 2016, the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded a call for research networks to explore these themes and contribute to the aims of the UN Decade through engagement with the arts and humanities. This event brings together representatives from the funded networks to showcase the variety of work undertaken.

During the Panel and Roundtable session, each network will have the opportunity to discuss their work and present a variety of outputs. There will also be opportunities for discussion around the broader themes and aims of the UN Decade, as well as talks on the wider context of the networks in terms of national and international in initiatives relating to the UN decade.

The Evening Reception and Networking Event will provide an overview of the networks, alongside talks from Dr Karen Salt (University of Nottingham) and Sister Dr Barryl Biekman (Global Coalition for the Implementation of the UN Decade for People of African Descent).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Festival 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We were invited to participate in the Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity as part of the "Food Tales" workshop targeted at young people and their families. This activity drew upon our network collaborations in Canada and allowed us to explore aspects of the centrality of food to other more local Nottingham audiences. Through activities, young people worked with prompts to develop their own food tales that were then collected into a display board. This event lasted over 4 days and was replicated at 4 different city libraries.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation to AHRC staff and RCUK/UKRI staff in Swindon for an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Seminar that presented exemplar funded projects to them 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Nearly 50 members of staff from across RCUK/UKRI were invited to an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion seminar that showcased some of the exemplar AHRC-funded projects working with and amongst diverse communities. Speakers (including a member of the project team) presented information about their research, made recommendations for future funding or research support/actions needed from the research councils and answered questions from various teams. This was followed by an additional networking and sets of exchanges with team leads.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Public Talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact More than 200 people took part in the AHRC Heritage Priority Area's Evening Launch and Public Lecture, given by the PI of the project. During this presentation, the project rationale and work was presented, the timeline and activities explained and the anticipated impact discussed. This prompted extensive questions and comments--including additional follow-up exchanges about involvement in the project, links with research communities engaged in similar work and reports of increasing or changed views about issues related to protest cultures and histories within the African diaspora.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Youth Leadership Programme 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact As part of the project, Bright Ideas Nottingham established a co-created Youth leadership programme that the participants dubbed Shapeshifters. The programme produced a logo, used social media and other outlets to draw in volunteers and ran over a six week period of time. During that time period, the participants exchanged valuable skills, develop their leadership capacities, delved into the networks within the project and took on a leadership activity focused on the community of Nottingham. Although focused on 17-29 year olds, the programme brought together a wide range of community members who took the opportunity to follow their passions and develop their ideas. From these trainings, some have explored postgraduate training and others have developed community-based support materials aimed at stimulating mental health for African Caribbean people.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018