The Importance of Student PEN Centres

By Joey Wilson-Brooke

Perhaps it was lazy of me not to go along to Fresher’s Fair in my first year, but I couldn’t see the attraction of squirming my way through hoards of newbies and getting tons of emails from societies I didn’t really want to be part of (but being British, could hardly say no to!). I suppose you could call it blind luck that I stumbled upon the name York PEN and thought “that sounds like a society I could get my teeth into.” I had been a part of Amnesty International at sixth form and got my first taste of what it meant to campaign for human rights, but this was something different. I came to realise what it would mean to me if I lost the thing that I have always enjoyed—words. Words for myself, the words of others: they have made me who I am as I sit and write this.

So what is PEN? Well for those who do not know the story behind the acronym, it stands for “poets, essayists, novelists” and (coincidently I am sure) this forms the word pen: the very tool that we fight for and express our right to freedom of speech with. There are many branches of PEN, from the global-scale International PEN, creating a united front on global issues like the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with their Keeping Score campaign, to country-based branches like the UK’s Scottish and English PEN – but the tree extends further, with the help of a future generation of activists: students.

The idea of student PEN centres started in 2009, in the English Department of King’s College in London. The idea was, as Julia Ziemer from English PEN put it, to “tap into the thriving political and literary currents of London’s hugely diverse student body.” As English PEN itself is a London-based charity, it seemed logical to appeal to the “demographic of engaged, energetic and intellectually curious young people” who are the future of human-rights-defending charities.

But once a great idea has been loosed it cannot be stopped, and the student centres spread to other universities outside London, like Durham, Oxford and York. One of the newest centres to be established is in Cambridge, set up this year by Jamie Osbourne – “[I] started advertising for other people interested [in freedom of expression]. The response was fantastic.”

What do these student PEN centres do, I hear you ask. Well, the answer is quite vast and unique to the universities where they are formed. They are meant to uphold the values that PEN stands for and this can take many forms, such as sending personal messages by letters and postcards to imprisoned writers all over the world, to organising petitions to take action against injustices to our freedom of speech. Some centres have held lectures, workshops and exhibitions (to name a few types of events) on various topics concerning freedom of expression. It isn’t all campaigning and injustice though – some centres work hard to raise the profile of translation works, either by translating authors’ works themselves or encouraging other people to read and review translated works, as a way of celebrating our freedom of expression. Essentially, there are ways for everyone’s talents to be put to use.

From my personal experience of being part of a student PEN centre, I have gained so much and have hopefully given back just as much. I am much more aware of the political climate and how it affects our freedom of expression; I have learnt to decipher the delicate line between offence and expression and that human rights campaigning does not end when the termly event has finished. Others in PEN centres have gained practical experiences being part of a committee and holding positions within it, as well as organisation (in varying forms). However, there is one experience that can be very hard to gain in day to day life – what Sherry from Cambridge PEN explains as “the ability to take part in something that goes beyond [your]self,” and is what some people will say is the altruistic side to PEN centres, and arguably, the most important.

For some lucky members, it has even helped to answer the dreaded question that every student hears: “so, what do you want to do after finishing university?” York PEN’s 2012-2013 chair, Seb, answered this question (and in greater length in this article) saying “in hindsight, York PEN was hands down the most valuable thing I did at university” and that, after having this experience, for him “it actually doesn’t really bother me what part of the imagined ‘human rights sector’ I end up working in, so long as it is effective.” What is insightful, and something worth bearing in mind in general life, is that “human rights isn’t really a career, it’s just what you believe.” It is belief that will guide you along the right path.

Student PEN centres are a new sector that help “in raising the profile of English PEN nationwide,” Rebekah and Julia from English PEN both agreed, “by spreading word of English PEN’s campaigns, throwing fantastic literary events and promoting PEN values,” such as Oxford PEN’s upcoming work translating the poetry of PEN case of concern, Enoh Meyomesse, or the Read for Redemption art exhibition by York PEN, that tied in with English PEN’s on-going Books for Prisoners awareness campaign. Student centres amplify the work that PEN does all over the globe, reaching people in ways that were not possible before.

This is why student centres are important. They introduce the future generations of human rights defenders, freedom-of-expression campaigners and literature liberators to what this actually means. The PEN centres realise that freedom of expression is an integral part of their lives as students. It is important to “establish a ground base of support and hope for the future” as Jamie puts it, as “students tend to be the sort of people for whom PEN’s values really matter,” who are most likely to feel the impact if “access to the books we rely on and enjoy, or our ability to think about these books, to respond to others’ ideas, were curtailed.”

So it appears it’s not too difficult to start a student centre, you just need 3 ingredients:

  • 1 student to hear about PEN centres and think “That’s great! Why don’t we have one here at university?”
  • 1 member of faculty to think “we support this idea for a society”
  • Other like-minded individuals who also believe in freedom of expression to hear of the project

Voila! A society that helps challenge oppression globally and locally, open minds and build a variety of opinions on a wide range of topics and encourages future generations to continue to take up the fight.

Joey Wilson-Brooke studies English and Related Literature at the University of York, and is one of York PEN’s new co-chairs for the academic year of 2014/15.

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One thought on “The Importance of Student PEN Centres

  1. You don’t even need the support of faculty members to set up a student PEN centre. Cambridge PEN is entirely independent and student-run – all it takes is a few enthusiastic and committed people, and someone to start saying “we shouldn’t be stopped from saying this”.

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