TW: Street-harassment .
FaceTiming Ellie, I’m aware I’m getting a glimpse into one of the most famous student rooms in Oxford. Having been featured in The Tab and the Oxford Mail, as well as having over 22,000 likes on Twitter, Ellie’s room went viral earlier this term – I can confirm that the fairy lights and ivy cascading down the walls makes for a gorgeous aesthetic.
Aside from having an eye for interior design, Ellie has been an incredibly involved journalist and student activist in her three years so far doing Classics at Oxford. Having started as a JCR Welfare Rep for Magdalen College, she has gone on to create the All in Your Head magazine, allowing a space for discussions for mental health, as well as re-starting and chairing Woman’s Campaign. She has lobbied colleges, the university more widely and spoken out for what she believes needs to change in Oxford.
I start the interview by asking about how she became so invested in mental health activism at university: “I’d say what really started me off was doing welfare at my college – that was the first position I took on since arriving in Oxford. In my first year, I wasn’t really involved in other extracurricular stuff, but after doing welfare, I realised that there is a lot of work that needs to be done in Oxford and so much ends up resting on JCR welfare reps who often aren’t equipped to deal with it all.”
Ellie further elaborates on the disparities she noticed in that position: “We don’t particularly talk about how marginalised people go through mental health issues, and how we know discrimination can impact upon mental health. I’d say that’s what really inspired me to create a space to talk about that, and use that to lobby the university to actually take that into account, diversity the counselling service and actually commit itself to making Oxford a better place for everyone.”
I respond, “So is this when you started the mental health magazine, All In Your Head?”
“Yes so, I started the mental health magazine because there wasn’t actually one in Oxford, and there was in Cambridge. I just felt it was a hole that hadn’t been filled yet in terms of journalism. I also wanted to make it really accessible because I think a lot of students, especially freshers, come to Oxford and feel they aren’t a good enough journalist or writer to get involved – I wanted it to be a free space where people could submit things easily. The editing was quite light touch as well, we just really wanted it to be a place where people could get their authentic thoughts out. In welfare as well, it is very much focussed on how to get people into a better space. But I wanted a place for people to just be able to talk about their experiences.” Ellie laughs at this point and goes on, “it’s an overused phrase, ‘oh we need to talk about this’, but I do believe it’s still needed – a place to talk about more stigmatised mental health issues and how universities can be better.’
I ask further about the process behind starting up Women’s Campaign at the Student Union again. Ellie excitedly gushes about her experience with campaigns, “I was on Disabilities Campaign before the pandemic, and when lockdown started, I just really got into writing and also student activism beyond welfare – Women’s Campaign had faded by this point and I just felt it was a really important voice. Of course, It Happens Here does some amazing work regarding sexual assault, yet I thought it was really important that there be a fully intersectional feminist branch of the Student Union to deal with issues beyond this. So, I got in touch with Alex Foley and submitted a motion to set it up again. Honestly, I have been blown away by the engagement and I’m just so happy with how it’s going.”
“What is the one thing you feel you have learnt being involved in student activism at Oxford?” Ellie pauses and then reflects, “I guess the one thing that comes to mind is that change is a lot harder to make than you originally think it is going to be – which isn’t the most inspiring thing for me to say.” She smiles before continuing, “but often, being at Oxford, the university has very entrenched views about how things are supposed to be brought about. Like just a couple of months ago, I sent an email to the Ambassador at my college asking for some lights in this very dark area of college and he told me it would take seven years to make this happen! I think you get involved and you think oh wow this is going to take work, but it also makes it more rewarding in a way because you know that change is necessary and you’re the one who is actually working to make that happen.’
She excitedly adds on – “this is especially true with Reclaim your Story Oxford”.
Reclaim Your Story Oxford is Ellie’s latest project, calling on people to submit testimonies of street harassment in public spaces in Oxford. When asking about where the project originated, Ellie goes on to say that it started with the death of Sarah Evarard earlier this year that “just brought this outpouring of grief among women and people who are affected by misogyny who have been afraid when walking out late at night.” She goes on to reflect on the stories that are similar, that have not gotten the attention or press coverage they deserve due to other forms of inequality and oppression, and that growing sense “that something had to be done.”
I begin to ask if students want to get involved, and Ellie just brightens up with the biggest smile and saying ‘honestly, just message in and say hey, I’d like to help – my inbox is very open!’ She talks also about hoping to spread the word to students through JCRs and social media in the hopes that everyone who wants to take part in All in Your Head, WomCam and Reclaim Your Story can.
If you would like to get involved you can reach out to Ellie directly or contact WomCam by email [email protected] Facebook or Twitter. To hear more about or get involved with Reclaim Your Story, the project can be found on Instagram.