Last night, the Student Umbrella for Social Justice held its forum with the executive candidates. The format was an interesting one, and an effective departure from the traditional format of speeches and Q&As. This forum used the concept of ‘open spaces’, in which small discussion groups were set up, each discussing a certain topic, with the candidates and attendees free to wander around the room, to allow for an open dialogue on issues of sustainability and social justice. The candidates began with a brief statement, albeit one tailored to the event.
Board of Governors Representative incumbent Brent Kelly began by critiquing the Board for lacking any significant internal debates, and pledged to continue working to strengthen a coalition of associations on the Board. He also expressed an interest in amplifying student advocacy by further intergrating the BoG Representative with the existing advocacy networks that exist within the Students’ Union.
Dustin Chelen, the incumbent Vice President-Academic, spoke on the idea of Community Service Learning, as well as his efforts in creating a Sustainability Certificate to be available across Canada in the near future. He also spoke to humanizing students in the face of a University that currently views its 31,000 undergraduate students as little more than numbers or “widgets”.
Josh Le, who is running unopposed for the Vice President-Operations & Finance portfolio, expressed his intent of running his campaign as a conversation – an open dialogue to create ideas for next year. He spoke to the idea of corporate social responsibility – the idea of doing well by doing good – with SU businesses, as well as an idea for an internal “Groupon” of sorts, which could provide discounts for healthy dishes for students.
Adam Woods, candidate for Vice President-External, citied access to post-secondary education, mental health, upcoming budget cuts, mandatory non-instructional fees, and student employment as the key issues important to him. He noted that the average student, working a minimum wage job over the summer, will simply not make enough money to pay for the entirety of their tuition for the next year. He thus expressed a desire to ensure that good jobs with an adequate wage are available for students.
William Lau, candidate for Vice President-Student Life, noted that happiness is fifty percent genetic, ten percent derived from material goods, and forty percent from our lifestyle. He arged that for many, social justice is that lifestyle, and that the skills that come with being an active member in the social justice community help to deepen a students’ educational experience.
Kevin Smith, also a candidate for Vice President-Student Life, explained that he got his start in the Students’ Union through Make Poverty History, and of the success that it enjoyed. He noted the importance of having a ‘street team’ to communicate with students, classroom talks, and promotion to increase turnout at events.
Petros Kusmu, candidate for President, spoke of his involvement with the Students United for Progressive Action slate that emerged a few years ago to bring a more unified voice to Students’ Council. Although the initiative was disbanded, Kusmu argued for the continued need to improve the student experience at the U of A in a progressive way, driven by a progressive Students’ Union.
Saadiq Sumar, candidate for President, noted that the Students’ Union will be reviewing its strategic plan in the next year, and of the importance that social justice groups will play in this process. He also called for expanding the visibility of sustainability and social justice issues during Orientation, such as incorporating the APIRG’s decolonization tour into existing Orientation events.
The rest of the forum was divided into two sessions, with three issues discussed in each. These included engaging the student body, access to education, “Dare to Care”, social sustainability, equitable representation on the SU, as well as food sustainability and a Fair Trade campus.
I sat in on the Dare to Care discussion, an intiative of generating and ingraining a culture of sustainability and ethical actions in the student community, following the university’s slogans of Dare to Discover, etc. The need to create a culture that isn’t apathetic on campus. Candidate Smith noted an attempt in 2010 to institutionalize social justice within the SU, which had much momentum but stalled in the end. He expressed the need to find a way to institutionalize these ideas, while also dealing with the fact that students graduate – essentially, how to generate that culture to exist permanently.
Chelen disagreed that these issues were the Students’ Union’s repsonsibility, and instead argued that it was the responsibility of the University to pursue these goals. He noted that it is very difficult to have everyone agree on these goals and ideas, and instead pointed to perhaps creating an office for Community Service Learning, which could faciliate volunteer experiences both here and abroad, which could fit under the ideas of social justice.
Petros Kusmu didn’t agree that students were being moulded into a culture of apathy, that they do care – just about different things. He believed that there is room for the SU to provide support for those individuals that wish to pursue those issues that exist outside of campus.
Saadiq Sumar stressed the need to make it easy for people to take the next step; that is, after an individual decides to become involved in activism or advocacy, simplifying the transition to the next stage of action. He also brought up Lister, and how Lister’s culture comes from mentorship. This keeps the culture alive and vibrant. Sumar disagreed with Chelen, and argued that these issues of culture are the SU’s responsibility, and is the way to create a culture that we want to see.
Smith argued for the need to build a culture of social justice throughout the entire year, to help embed the social justice mentality in students, promoting the ideas of Dare to Care and why it is important. He also talked about strongly pursuing all three pillars of the sustinability policy – environmental, economic, and social, and that social justice falls under the category of sustinability.
The discussion then shifted to a one on the more fundamental aspects of social justice, with the table recognizing the stigma that tends to surround issues of social justice. Kusmu stated that social justice isn’t a scary word, it an issue of a culture that has been stigmatized towards social justice. Many seemed to agree that using social sustianbiltiy was perhaps the better term. Smith tabled an idea to bring the SU to pride parades, to aggressively promote such involvement. He argued that if the SU could get hundreds of students out to a parade, it would show that U of A students are active and engaged in issues of social justice.
I had to leave as the discussion wrapped up and the forum moved into the second session, but it was certainly an engaging discussion on matters that don’t usually get discussed at the election forums. For more information on the SUSJ, check out this article in VUE Weekly.
Written by Graeme Archibald