LETTER | The UVSS: Run by (some) students, for (some) students

Letters Opinions

The gap between the UVSS and the larger student body seems to be growing larger by the day. Decreasing voter turnouts on every other election is the evidence to it. By contributing to oppression and exclusion of people of colour who are labelled as “outsiders” to their clique, the UVSS BoD demonstrates how little they are willing to expand beyond their own political ideals. The UVSS has become a resume-booster for political science students with a certain mind-set, and somewhat less-active members of the student body are excluded from conversations. The UVSS’s structure allows for this type of aggressive behaviour to continue to exist, and it falls onto the next board to change things around. We can’t allow for this attitude to continue if we wish to hold onto whatever resemblance of credibility we have left.  

UVSS claims to be an inclusive organization and has made it known in numerous instances that it values inclusivity and diversity. However, as seen from the meeting on April 6, 2020, the UVSS has failed to live up to its supposed values in regards to respect, inclusivity, and equality. Actions of Kai Richins (acting Director of Events) on March 3, 2020 have deliberately undermined any legitimacy UVSS has in terms of inclusivity. Furthermore, lack of actions by the members of the BoD at the  April 6 meeting further support the argument that UVSS refuses to take action against victimization of those who are vulnerable by people in positions of power, given those who are causing the harm are members of the board.

During the Lead Directors Debate on March 3, candidate Isabella Lee was repeatedly targeted by personalized questions aimed to personally harm her and discredit her as well as her agenda. These questions were asked by members of the UVSS Board of Directors including Lead Directors. These questions were exclusively and specifically intended to victimize Lee, a woman of colour. During the UVSS Board of Directors meeting on April 6, the Board voted against a motion to issue a formal apology to Lee who was a candidate for Director of Outreach and University Relations and served as Director of Student Affairs on the 2018-2019 board. Ironically, this decision came minutes after a half-an-hour long discussion on how to increase minority participation in UVSS committees. 

During the UVSS elections debate, Richins stated, “As a somewhat active member of these direct actions, I never see you, except for the one day you showed up to the legislature for a photo-up.” Richins moved on to portray Lee as a “fake ally” and accused her of using a social movement for a photo-op, despite no such pictures existing. 

The collective actions in concern were large-scale and days-long. It is perfectly normal for Richins, a “somewhat active member” to have missed Lee. It is also perfectly OKAY for a woman of colour to not publicly attend to direct action since there are high levels of police presence and women of colour have historically been the biggest target of police violence. Being able to take action against the police and governments is a perk that privilege brings, and should be held at a high regard.

Richins later stated that, “While the mover (Blecha) might have personal issues with the methods, and substance of the issues that were raised, to make public and permanent record of personal grievance is exclusionary, destructive and oppressive.” The Board seems to have a different view of what ‘oppressive’ means, since they supported these words in their vote to defeat the motion. Oppression is being denied inclusion, conversation, and contribution simply due to one’s ideas. A public apology however, is recognition of one’s mistakes. In order to preserve its credibility and public image, the UVSS BoD allowed for public humiliation and systematic oppression to go unnoticed and unpunished. 

As someone told me, “The UVSS is a weird clique.” It is invitation-only, and if/once you are a member your requests are taken care of and your needs and well being is upheld to the highest degree. If you are an outsider or simply disagree with the overall mission, vision, and values of the board, the UVSS will become unapproachable. One has to follow a strict political code to be recognized by the board as a “legitimate ally” it seems, and failure to comply seems to result in public humiliation. A “You are either with me, or against me” mentality is present throughout the actions (or the lack thereof) of certain board members from the 2019-2020 board term. This observation comes through my role as the Director of International Student Relations. Since assuming office last spring, I have noticed a concerning trend in the board’s interactions with people who are “outsiders” as well as a lack of action against certain issues such as the case of Isabella Lee. Some of these issues are raised internally and are dealt with immediately, however, as seen from numerous examples I have pointed out, certain issues are let go in order to protect the board’s reputation and its directors, as well as guarantee results for upcoming elections. The sad truth is, if this attitude was directed to a member of this clique, whoever was responsible would have been exiled from the board right there and then. We just witnessed the UVSS showing double standards in a situation where intervention and direct action was needed the most. 

The UVSS clearly has a selective process of addressing social issues. The board will often spend hours discussing gendered language in policy, inclusion of visible minorities to UVSS committees, and harm reduction. Any member of the board can talk for hours about how much they care about diversity and how hard they work to change policy around to ensure maximum accessibility to the UVSS. While these conversations are publicized at any given chance, the board refuses to take on more challenging tasks. The UVSS BoD allowed a woman of colour to be publicly targeted by a member of their board at a live-streamed UVSS event. When internal concerns about these events were brought up, those concerns were quickly excluded from conversation using ‘bureaucracy’ as a tool. It is ironic how a board uses colonial methods to oppress or support the oppression of women of colour. 

Inclusivity isn’t achieved by putting forward motions to add policy, or to make language changes to existing policy to make it seem more approachable and inclusive. It  is achieved through supporting visible minorities, regardless of their views or position within the student body. Inclusivity is achieved by taking action, accepting mistakes when they are made, and apologizing when necessary. It is achieved by allowing conversation, regardless of the other side’s political stance on social issues. It is our duty to raise the voices of all students, not raise OUR voices to students when they are vulnerable the most. Especially those who have historically been oppressed systematically. 

As Director of Campaigns and Community Relations Juliet Watts noted in her debate in the 2019 UVSS elections, “a lack of a stance is a political stance.” The UVSS BoD just showcased its lack of stance, proving its unwillingness to recognize systematic oppression of people of colour simply due to their position within the student body as well as their differing political views. We talk the talk when it comes to policy and public statements, but we don’t walk the walk when it comes to taking action. 

The “holier-than-thou” approach has been utilized by members of the UVSS BoD to legitimize their claims of self-righteousness as well to legitimize their positions as “leaders” of the student body. It is a way to hold on to the small but consistent voting members within the student body, simply a way to guarantee re-election when needed. A supposedly all-inclusive UVSS should’t allow for members of the student body to be publicly demonized and targeted by anyone, let alone the members of its Board of Directors. 

Several members from the student body expressed their concerns and opinions with me regarding this matter. One student stated, “They claim to be socially aware, fight for social justice, yet they repeatedly and continuously bully and victimize a strong, capable woman of colour. They don’t have to like her — for f**** sake they can hate her for the rest of their lives if they wish. But they have no right to treat her the way the have and for Kai, a white cisgendered male (to the best of my knowledge) to treat her like that is textbook discrimination.”

Another member of the student body had this to say regarding the matter: “While I don’t usually get involved in UVSS politics, the questions asked by Richins, regardless of intention, appeared to use anecdotal scenarios as an attempt to paint Lee as a bad ally.  This is not how I expect the UVSS board to conduct themselves, and is an ill-favoured look for student politics at the University of Victoria. Furthermore, when the motion to issue a public apology to Lee was denounced during the UVSS live stream earlier this evening, it seemed that the UVSS were more concerned with protecting their director and reputation than keeping the UVSS an open, inclusive and welcoming place for all students, including POC. ” 

Respecting a person, regardless of their beliefs, their past, and political stance should not be up for debate, it should be a given. Just because we don’t agree with the political views of a student, doesn’t mean we can publicly demonize them. By contributing to the demonization of Lee and further axing any attempts to issue a formal apology, the UVSS BoD clearly stated their unwillingness to be inclusive and therefore lost its credibility as a student society by the students, for the students. 

Efe Türker

Director of International Student Relations