A marginalized student's union?
As much as inclusion and diversity have become buzzwords in elections and values upheld by student unions, measures to implement equitable services and plans are often met with resistance.
Recently, the University of Toronto Student Union (UTSU) introduced an Equity Plan which, if fully implemented, will remove representation for most colleges and faculty programs and add ten constituency directors. These directors will represent indigenous students, LGBTQ students, racialized students, women, athletes, international students, mature students, students with disabilities, first years, and commuters.
Although the UTSU’s plan is in its beginning stages and has not yet passed at their Annual General Meeting, it has already become a controversial topic at U of T and beyond.
In an article in the National Post, post-secondary education commentator Robyn Urback condemned the UTSU’s plan for all the wrong reasons. She called it “harrowingly stupid,” and aimed to expose the plan for what she thinks it truly is: an attack on white men. Urback’s article has unfortunately served as a reference point for many U of T undergrads and others who are outraged by this plan. It’s been cited in comments in U of T’s student newspaper The Varsity and other social media platforms as an acceptable rationale for why UTSU’s plan is so “stupid.”
Yet, Urback is missing the point, as are many of those disagreeing with UTSU’s plan. While there are many things to criticize about this Equity Plan, none of these criticisms will be taken seriously if they continue attacking “equity” instead of the “plan.”
The UTSU’s plan is clearly a decision based on inclusion and the desire to give marginalized communities on campus a voice. Since representation of minorities and democratic bodies elected by the majority don’t always go hand in hand, introducing ideas that aim to better represent marginalized groups is an incredibly difficult task.
This attempt to introduce something new and unheard of before in student governments should be criticized constructively and given credit for its radical effort. The exclusion of marginalized identities from student government is undoubtedly an important issue in post-secondary representation.
Can the UTSU’s plan fix this systemic problem? I don’t think so. But I think the UTSU’s board understands the level of reform that needs to take place in student unions.
The plan will certainly increase descriptive representation on student council, making marginalized identities visible, yet it will encourage a culture of placing the responsibility of meeting minority needs to minority members. It limits representation as something that can be achieved only by those whose experiences are identical to their constituents. This assumption of similarity is extremely flawed, given that our reliance on democratic systems is based on our belief that our representatives are capable of addressing our needs regardless of differences.
Instead of emphasizing the idea that women, LGBTQA+ individuals, racialized or disabled students are present in all faculties, across the entire campus and catering to their needs is only the just and equitable thing to do, it will instead encourage the idea that placing one queer, or disabled, or indigenous student on a governing body to represent their communities will create larger cultural impacts. Sure, that one director for racialized students might offer some insight on a policy, but are the creators of this plan hoping that somehow the one voice in the assembly will be more than that? Will it cause an increase in the number of racialized directors elected for other positions on the assembly, for president?
The UTSU’s plan assumes that guaranteeing a seat at the table for these identities will solve complex problems of representation. We want our communities represented, but true success would mean achieving proportional representation in the current structure of student assemblies. It would mean members of marginalized communities being elected by students to represent them without the student union creating mandatory positions. This plan would not work towards breaking down barriers and prejudices that cause the underrepresentation of these groups in the first place.
It seems as though the UTSU forgot what the goal of their plan really is: to create a campus where equity is the norm and marginalized identities no longer have to be referred to as marginalized. By restructuring their student union assembly to have boxes for these marginalized identities, the UTSU will be building a system that secures representation but ignores the deeper problems they are trying to address.