By Alyson Rogers
“You have been chosen to receive a Faculty-Wide Dennis Mock Student Leadership Award”.
I was very excited and pleasantly surprised when I read this e-mail. I had been selected for awards before during my time at Ryerson but this one felt different. This feeling stemmed from the fact that my nomination focused on the work I am most proud of: founding and organizing the Ryerson Feminist Collective. My surprise stemmed from the same source as my excitement, “is Ryerson really going to recognize progressive and what has been referred to as ‘radical’ work in an official capacity on campus?”
On April 5, I attended the Student Experience Awards at the Chelsea Hotel with Dylan Freeman-Grist. It was neat having him there because he broke the news about the Ryerson Feminist Collective in The Eyeopener back in October (don’t worry journalism students — we weren’t friends before that). The Student Experience Awards were a typical awards ceremony; enter stage left, shake hands, pose for a photo and return to your seat as a description of you and your work is displayed on a screen. When I returned to my seat, Dylan turned to me and said, “Whoever wrote that bio doesn’t know you very well.” How could that be possible? I was nominated by my best friend and co-organizer, Jackie Mlotek and Alison Finney, whom I worked for over the past three years.
On March 11, the day I received that e-mail, I felt like I was a part of the broader Ryerson community. On April 5, the day of the Student Experience Awards Ceremony, I felt disconnected and out of place In its selection of recipients, Ryerson was going to recognize progressive work but it was going to be watered down and the school would separate itself from the groups and individuals involved in that work. There was a stark contrast between my bio and those of the other students receiving awards that day. The other recipients’ bios were filled with student group names, initiatives, positions they have held and what they have accomplished. Mine detailed how I was a tireless volunteer/activist for women’s rights, disability issues and effecting systemic change in society.
My work makes our campus safer and my contributions will have lasting effects both on and off campus. There was no mention of the Ryerson Feminist Collective or other groups I have been a part of including the Academic Integrity Council and Social Work Students’ Union. I’m honoured and humbled to be spoken about this way but why was my bio so different from the other recipients’?
In my opinion, this is a strategic attempt, whether conscious or not, by Ryerson to distance itself from progressive social justice work and those involved in that work. While Ryerson is quite progressive compared to other post-secondary institutions, our school is by no means progressive in the grand scheme of social justice and equity. In many ways, Ryerson still upholds the status quo through racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, white supremacy, colonialism, misogyny, etc. through its silence.
Ryerson will not ban men’s rights groups, professors are transphobic in the classroom with impunity and there is a glaring underrepresentation of Black women in our faculty. A woman on maternity leave was laid off on our campus and Ryerson remains silent. Ryerson has not expressed solidarity with many movements that its students have been involved with including #BlackonCampus and the recent Black Lives Matter Toronto Tent City. These are not the actions of a truly progressive institution.
I think Ryerson distances itself from progressive social justice work because it is not fully committed to the ultimate goal of social justice which is to dismantle oppression. By aligning itself with social movements and making progressive changes on campus, Ryerson would likely come under fire; social justice ruffles the feathers of those that privilege the most from the oppression of others. At the end of the day, Ryerson is an institution that will choose its reputation over social justice, even if this means remaining silent on issues that impacts its students and faculty.
By omitting my role in the Ryerson Feminist Collective, I believe the school is distancing itself from grassroots, intersectional, feminist groups that are seeking change and considered a bit loud. While onlookers may describe us as loud, I see us as a group of fierce, passionate students who will not be silenced as oppression should not be a part of the university experience. I think the school was also trying to distance itself from me, as an individual who is involved with this kind of work on campus, by omitting my involvement within their own groups. All of the other members on the Academic Integrity Council, a university-level body, were recognized as such, as were past and current executives of course unions.
While I am still excited and honoured to have been chosen to receive such an award, I am critical in my excitement and extend it beyond my own experience. While my bio was the most blatant example of what I have described, it certainly wasn’t the only example. I was proud to see my friend walk across the stage to receive one of the university-wide Dennis Mock Student Leadership Awards but I was sad to see that one of her greatest accomplishments was not included. This accomplishment was being involved with Students for Justice in Palestine, which is considered “radical” as it seeks to make change and challenges dominant pro-Israel sentiments.
Sitting in the audience, I was thrilled to learn about the work students are doing on campus and to see them being recognized for that work but there were some recipients I couldn’t bring myself to clap for. I have never been so rude in my life but I could not support this kind of student work; student work that has caused harm to others, violated human rights, deterred students from fully participating in student life and made this campus unsafe for many during their time at Ryerson.
Some may be able to softly clap out of politeness but I cannot applaud students who we have had to ask to leave feminist spaces due to sexual harassment, triggering survivors, racism, and complaints from too many women on this campus to keep count. How many more women will I now have to warn after that awards ceremony? If this is student leadership, we have a big problem.
On our way home, Dylan made a suggestion that I would love to see come to life; Ryerson needs an awards process and ceremony for students who focus on progressive, social justice initiatives. I want to see students like Pascale Diverlus, Markus Harwood-Jones, Evan Roy, Chrys Saget-Richard, Awo Abokor, Vajdaan Tanveer, Drew Silverthor and students from the Equity Centres, CESAR and all of the groups who remain unnamed in awards ceremonies, be fully recognized and celebrated for the work they are doing. Especially when they are making substantial change both within and beyond Ryerson.
Awards and being recognized aren’t expected or thought about in this work, and it certainly is not the most important part of what we do, but Ryerson’s Student Experience Awards should be reflective of its true student leaders.
This should include work based in equity and social justice.
Through the Ryerson Feminist Collective, I have had the privilege of meeting so many wonderful, talented, passionate and caring students who are true leaders in social justice work on campus and it has been a pleasure to work with them.
As I approach graduation, I would like to thank each of you for your tireless work, even if Ryerson won’t.