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“Everywhere we go, we ask: ‘What are the dominant narratives about the city? And what are they hiding?”

In conversation with Uncomfortable Oxford founders, Olivia Durand and Paula Larsson.

I’ve walked past the Clarendon Building on Broad Street many times – but I’d never thought to ask what it had been used for in the past. While today it innocuously houses the Bodleian Library admissions department, in the 19th century, its basement was used as holding cells for the university’s ‘Nightwatch’ police unit.

“It was separate from the city police, operating from sundown to sunrise. Its specific role was to apprehend suspect women who were walking on the streets of the city… This marked women, meaning it was hard for them to go into other types of employment.” Olivia Durand, one of the founders of Uncomfortable Oxford, explains to me. 

“Even for several decades after female students were admitted –  they couldn’t go out without a chaperone. They always needed to walk in pairs, otherwise they risked being apprehended by the ‘Nightwatch’.”

Untangling Oxford from its complicated, imperial past is a process which is certainly still in progress. One voice in the conversation is Uncomfortable Oxford: a social enterprise which seeks to uncover and tell forgotten stories of inequality within Oxford – as a city, and University. Founded in 2018 by two doctoral students, Olivia Durand and Paula Larsson, the walking tours cover a broad range of ‘uncomfortable’ topics and power dynamics: the legacy of the British Empire, the ethics of donation, the exclusion of women in academic spaces. I spoke to Olivia and Paula to hear how their doctoral research led them across academic thresholds, to public outreach.

The pair’s research seems strikingly relevant to contemporary politics. Olivia studies settler colonialism, comparing the USA and Russian Empires in the 19th century. “I started in 2014, looking at narratives of colonising coming to the fore in public discourse. Since 2022, this has emerged more prominently as the invasion of Ukraine has received more attention than the 2014 annexation of Crimea at the time.”

Paula studies the history of medicine, specifically the history of vaccination and medical power. “In earlier research I looked at how [vaccination] was forced upon indigenous communities within the colonial Canadian past”, a history which she herself was personally connected to. “When I learned about that, in my undergrad years, that raised a lot of questions about policy, of how it’s applied to communities as a whole… who gets to say yes or no to a vaccine, and why?”

“For me, history was really about justice in lots of ways, and understanding better approaches to modern approaches to policy.”

Both were drawn to Oxford for its specialised research centres – but also the name and the prestige which comes with it. “It’s a big name – it’s where people tell you that you have to go if you’re gonna study history successfully. It has an allure, largely because of its history in association with British colonisation, that has perpetuated the glory of ‘Oxford’ as a title.” Paula says. 

“Oxford serves as this competitive branding in some way for you as a historian, to get a position or even to succeed in academia. That’s what we both wanted to do originally, as every youngster is told to do: go and do a PhD, become a postdoc, and then go into an academic setting. And our views have changed since then.”

She sounded rueful. I asked her to elaborate on her view of academic careers. 

“I think our view on it has changed largely from just the possibility of having one, which in the past I think would have been a lot easier to do. In the modern sense, especially humanities and social science programmes are being underfunded, undervalued, and are incredibly, incredibly insecure. Once you’ve finished your postdoc, you’re in an endless cycle… chasing a long term full time contract. All of this, and also trying to have fulfillment and meaning in the work that you’re doing. I want my research to have an immediate real world impact in some way.”

Both of them were doctoral students at Oxford at the same time. “A lot of the conversations we were having in the seminar rooms remained theoretical, abstract. Everything took so long to happen. There was a bit of frustration with what we were interested in, and how applicable it was.” Olivia says. “We knew there was a lot of interest in trying to reassess history to engage critically with the past and the way that they shaped inequalities and injustices in the present” – and so, Uncomfortable Oxford began. 

“I was already a tour guide in the city I did as a part time job just to support myself as an international student.” Paula says. “My gosh, was I tired of talking about David Cameron! This image that people hear when they visit Oxford is one of the old white boys clubs… it’s the draw of a lot of tourism, which is really uncomfortable to think about.”

“I think there’s still a lot of idolisation of that lifestyle, that historic view of what an ‘Oxford University student’ used to be… maybe ‘Saltburn’ hasn’t really helped that image. But that is still the image people get.”

“It’s just so divorced from actual reality – the University is incredibly diverse. It definitely still has problems. But I don’t want every single one of those 9 million visitors to come into the city and get told it’s Boris Johnson’s university. That doesn’t need to be the narrative.”

Public outreach and sparking conversations across different communities is at the heart of the Uncomfortable Oxford ethos. “In my mind it’s like, what’s the point of doing history if no one knows what you’re doing?” Paula says. “This is, in lots of ways, the answer to that – Uncomfortable tours. You can have a researcher who is doing really important work and research, and is able to communicate that everyday to new people constantly. It’s allowed for a lot more moments of cross pollination between academics who are doing a lot of really interesting research, and people who are living those legacies in the present.”

Following the surge of public attention of imperial pasts in 2020 – the toppling of statues and renaming of buildings which followed – in Oxford, it reignited the ‘Rhodes Must Fall Movement’. Over a thousand people gathered, demanding the removal of Cecil Rhodes’ statue. Though the attention it drew to the cause did not bring about its removal, work has been done on contextualisation and matching the Rhodes fund on BME initiatives.

“With activist movements, burnout is a huge problem. Growth, enthusiasm, comes in waves – it’s usually volunteer-led, based on the passion and drive and capacity of individuals.” Paula says.

“Funding is a huge part of that. This is free work, demanding work, and emotionally tolling work for a lot of people. And so what we kind of tried to be is a sustainable intervention. We really believe that the only way to defy systems at all is to value labour, to pay for it and to avoid exploitation of people’s energy, time and research and work that they do. 

Uncomfortable Oxford has gone from a one-off summer project to a model which runs in Oxford, Cambridge and York. Each city is different, and holds a complicated legacy to uncover. “Everywhere we go, we ask: ‘What are the dominant narratives about the city? And what are they hiding?’” says Olivia.

The pair look forward to expanding their model of discussion based talks across the UK and even internationally, as well as developing more educational resources on histories of colonialism and power. “We’re really interested in access to education, access to narratives, and collaborating as much as we can with other organisations doing similar work. So that’s where we’re going.”
At Oxford, sometimes learning can feel confined to a book, a library, or a tutorial. Uncomfortable Oxford’s mission served as a reminder that there is much to be learned everywhere – you just have to look around.

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