Photograph by Tai Liam Mitsuji

#ox4kenya: Enacting Empowerment Through Global Networks

"There is a lot to say about the privilege we had there … give if you can. You are international, and you have a lot of power."

I had never thought much about my own role and responsibilities within the framework of an academic institution until joining NYU Abu Dhabi in 2012. Early in my first semester, I met Layo London, a British student from the class of 2015 who was my floor’s Residential Assistant and literature classmate that semester. Fiercely academic, emotionally generous, intimidatingly stylish and committed to calling into question paradigms of race, gender and mental health in our school’s social and institutional rulebook, London became a dear friend, collaborator and role model –– in Abu Dhabi, New York and, eventually, from a distance, when she returned home to pursue a Master of Studies in History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of Oxford.
London’s work as an emerging artist and activist is gaining momentum. Last week, she made waves at Oxford with an act of creative resistance that drew attention to the precarity of financial assistance for Black and Minority Ethnic students, particularly lower-income African international students. On Feb. 23, during a Q&A with U.S. American artist Jeff Koons, London rose from her seat, seemingly to ask a innocuous question about his art –– instead, she brought to Koons’ attention the plight of another student, Gilbert Mitullah, who faces deportation and the loss of his position at Oxford University if he fails to raise £25,800 by Feb. 27.
After summarizing her efforts to bring attention to Mitullah’s case –– involving activism on social media and around the university campus –– London urged Koons to fund Gilbert Mitullah’s degree by purchasing a stand-alone performance art piece. She offered Koons written instructions on how to donate, then committed academic suicide, so to speak, in front of her fellow classmates and professors by announcing that she was withdrawing from her Oxford degree to direct her tuition fees towards funding Mitullah’s education instead.
Voted among the 100 Most Influential Young Kenyans of 2016, Gilbert Mitullah is a lawyer and social entrepreneur who is one term away from becoming the first Kenyan to graduate with a Master of Science in Comparative and International Education from the University of Oxford. Nine years ago, Mitullah founded a youth mentorship NGO named African Solutions for Africa Programme. He has since gone on to work as a legal aid lawyer and education innovator, becoming a member of the World Economic Forum Global Shapers Community and a mentor in the Presidential Digital Talent Program launched by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in 2015.
After obtaining a full sponsorship from a Kenya-based company, Mitullah’s funding was abruptly cancelled due to visa processing delays –– the company withdrew its financial support on the second day of his arrival at Oxford. Despite the sudden setback, Mitullah is determined to graduate, turning to crowdfunding while he remains suspended from the university on financial ground. The campaign –– which builds on the Africa Society’s previous fundraising efforts –– is, driven by London’s social media posting and the larger public performance piece, has raised a massive £11,127 in one week. As the Feb. 27 deadline approaches, along with cancellation of Mitullah’s student visa, the duo remains confident in social media as a leverage point in their appeal to Oxford to extend the payment deadline.
Courtesy of GoFundMe
London’s social media campaigning efforts, consisting of a stream of videos and posts framed by the hashtags #oxfordinspires and #ox4kenya, will be part of the larger performance that she offered up for sale to Koons. The hyper-symbolic nature of Mitullah’s situation lends itself to a larger, more urgent discussion of privilege, visibility and accessibility in the corporate and academic institutions that today serve as gatekeepers to economic and political advancement. The campaign, along with the performance piece, contextualises Mitullah’s plight within a larger post-colonial narrative of resistance and upliftment in the face of institutional and diplomatic discrimination. The hope is that even more funds will be raised for the continued support of African students pursuing graduate and postgraduate studies at Oxford University, and, more broadly, across the U.K. and Europe.
Despite her confidence in videos, London’s choice to stage the campaign as a mixed media performance comes from a place of vulnerability and, in the derisive throes of this post-internet age, a genuine belief in art and the internet’s capacity to mobilise social change and trigger reform. “If I tried to do this in the real world, I would have been crushed,” she explained, still seemingly shocked by the speed with which the campaign raised its first £10,000. “By conceiving of it as an art piece, I am able to imagine a reality that does not exist –– one that I can control and impose on other people, forcing my reality onto the status quo until it becomes real.”
Addressing her United World College and NYU Abu Dhabi alma maters, which both run on a fully-funded, non-denominational scholarship program that brings together students from around the world, London asks us to question our privilege and responsibilities as students who once benefited –– and likely still do –– from free or subsidised international education, mobility and freedom from debt. “We are going to raise [money] because we are putting forward the empathy that wasn’t shown to [Mitullah] in the original situation,” she said in a recent video. “We were designed to do this. We were designed to change the world. We were designed to leverage the power of a global network to create effective social change. There is a lot to say about the privilege we had there … give if you can. You are international, and you have a lot of power. You’ve done well, so reach out to your networks, because you have influence. … You know the value of education.”
Donate to Mitullah’s Oxford fees on GoFundMe or directly into the account below to avoid the fee charged by GoFundMe:
The College's bank details are:
Bank Name: Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)
Branch Address: 32 St Giles, Oxford, OX1 3ND
Account Name: St Antony’s College
Sort Code: 16-10-15
Account Number: 10129750
Swift/BIC Code: (8 digits): RBOSGB2L
Swift/BIC Code: (11 digits): RBOSGB2LXXX
IBAN Number: GB38RBOS16101510129750
Isabelle Galet-Lalande is a contributing writer. Email her at
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