Conversations among friends

“I’ve always been passionate about journalism and broadcasting.

“I think it’s important for people, especially young people, to engage with what’s going on in the world and learn from others’ experiences.”

- Bryan Knight (History, 2020)

Bryan Knight (History, 2020) started his Tell a Friend podcast in 2018, creating monthly episodes where he’d talk about events in the news. But in early 2020 he changed tack and switched to an interview format, delving deeper into the issues of the day.

Since then he has interviewed a host of famous faces and influential figures including Benjamin Zephaniah, Afua Hirsh, Alan Rusbridger, Peter Tatchell and Dawn Penn. As well as former Exeter Vice-Chancellor Sir Steve Smith and local MP Ben Bradshaw.

Bryan says: “It all happened really because in my third year I did an oral history project on the Mangrove Nine trial. This is an iconic moment in black British history and I was privileged to be able to interview members of the British Black Panthers (BPP), people who were involved in the trial, members of the nine themselves, and that got me thinking about how I could share some of these interviews with a wider audience.

“And then once lockdown hit I thought, this is the rare time where everyone will be at home, they can’t say they’re away with work etc. so I sent out a bunch of interview requests to all these people who I was interested in speaking to. And to my surprise they all came back with a positive response.

“It started out with Zeinab Badawi, award-winning BBC and former Channel 4 news journalist, and then American poet, author and activist Nikki Giovanni, which was just beyond my wildest dreams.”

Some of the guests who have appeared on Bryan's podcast so far

So after a year of high profile interviews is there anyone who particularly stands out for Bryan, or a favourite conversation?

“I don’t really have a favourite because the themes we talk about can vary so much that each experience is different. The one that I probably had the most fun recording was with Dr Beverley Bryan who was a member of the BPP movement in Britain and she went on to form the Black Women’s Group and also co-authored Heart of the Race. It took me a year to find her as I really wanted to interview her for my dissertation project, but she’s someone who doesn’t often give interviews. I really connected with her and her story, and that conversation was a real highlight for me.

“When I interviewed Denise Oliver-Velez, who was part of the Young Lords in seventies America, I went into the interview expecting her to still hold the same views and come and talk about how great everything was in the movement back then. But she’s a realist and our conversation was much more about the realities of being in any political struggle like that and the personal toll that it takes on individuals.

“I think with a lot of people we revere, until we talk to them we don’t understand the trauma that they endured having to fight that fight. It’s not a nice story for them, it was a real hard time and they suffered with it.”

“I do have a dream guest and it might not be someone people are familiar with. Her name is Altheia Jones-Lecointe and she was head of the British Black Panthers and one of the Mangrove Nine. She is someone who I’ve come to look up to greatly.

“To be a black woman in the seventies leading a movement in what was still a very male dominated environment, is an incredible thing. She was someone who took on an unimaginable task at a time when people weren’t as aware or willing to accept issues like sexism and racism existed. She is someone I would really like to speak to – I’ve spoken to her via email actually and hopefully one day she’ll come on the show.”

Bryan graduated from Exeter in History in 2020 and is now studying for a masters at SOAS in London.

While many of Bryan’s guests are significant figures in black history and culture, he has also interviewed people from across the political spectrum with a range of different views. Notable examples are episodes with former Conservative MP and now Peer, Lord Michael Heseltine and also Professor Jeremy Black talking about Black Lives Matter and decolonising the curriculum respectively.

He says: “This a journalistic project. I’m not here to tell someone else that their view is wrong, I’m going to hear them out. I’m very cautious when inviting people on to make sure they have a point of view that they can back up and that it’s a serious point of view.

"So I’m not going to have an extremist as a guest or anything, but they are not necessarily going to agree with me either.

“People who have not had the same lived experience are not going to come at subjects in the same way, and the way we learn and grow as individuals is to hear from different voices and appreciate what has shaped them. In life it is important to listen to these different points of view, but also to push back on the occasions when something is genuinely harmful. Racism is not a difference of opinion.”

While still a student at Exeter Bryan was a key member of the UnLearn Collective, a student group set-up in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests to promote not just learning to be anti-racist, but to unlearn racist practices. The students wrote an open letter to the University and appeared on local television to share their concerns and desires for the future.

Bryan says: “The idea for the Collective came from one of our other founders – Lewis Brusby – he called me up during the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. He was really upset by what he was seeing and was trying to determine the most effective way that he could help make a difference.

"We chatted around a few different approaches we could take on this and eventually settled on the open letter because we thought that was the most inclusive way to get everyone to be a part of the plea we were making.

“While the UnLearn Collective is attached to wider societal issues, we were really focused on the university space because that was what we could speak to, that was where our experiences were. The University was actually very receptive to the letter, we met with senior staff and the Students’ Guild and in the months since, work has progressed to show it wasn’t just about paying us lip-service.

“A lot of the time when you’re in any kind of social movement, it’s not about going for the big abstract ideas, sometimes just focusing on the immediate one in your own context can be the most effective way of moving the needle.

“One of the strengths of the UnLearn Collective is that it was a really diverse group of people – white members, south east Asian members, black members – and the whole idea is about getting people to admit that they have their own faults and be willing to change things. That’s how the name came about – we need to unlearn preconceptions we had before and see things a bit differently and from other people’s perspectives.”

Since leaving Exeter, Bryan has been producing content for the BBC, Al Jazeera, Novara, and Digital Spy amongst others. He is also studying a masters at SOAS in London.

He says: “I’ve always been interested in issues effecting minority communities based on my own experience. However I would definitely say the dissertation project that I worked on, learning about the Mangrove Nine, hearing from all the people and learning from them has spurred me on to be more vocal on issues. At the root of everything though I am still a journalist, I don’t consider myself as an activist.

“After my masters I want to develop my career in journalism and also work on a project around making history more accessible. When I was at Exeter I would learn all these great things and have all these wonderful debates around historical events, but often it is just us in our classrooms that experience this excitement and hear these ideas. I would like to help communicate subjects effectively to a wider audience and get more people interested in the events that shaped the world.”

Image above and top courtesy of the National Archives Image Library.