By Lauren Emberson
When I joined the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU), I was hopeful. After spending a couple of years involved on campus in a variety of roles, I decided that it was my turn to take a swing at student politics. I was initially hesitant after following the Canadian Federation of Students secret bank account scandal, the disastrous aftermath of 6 Fest, and a history of financial deficits, but I was sure I wouldn’t make the same mistakes as the student politicians who came before me. Just don’t have a secret slush fund or commit fraud and you’ll be fine.
In February 2017, Ryerson students elected me vice-president student life & events. I was committed to transparency, accountability and student-focused decision-making, as most are when they venture into student leadership. What followed over the course of the next 10 months was far more challenging than I could have imagined.
Work consistently consumed 60 hours of my life per week and some of my fellow executives still told me that I didn’t work enough. My personal life and academics quickly fell by the wayside. Most of the work that I did wasn’t glamorous, and it certainly wasn’t anything that students will ever know of or thank me for. Budget analysis, committee meetings and conflict resolution aren’t things an average student typically cares about.
“What followed over the course of the next 10 months was far more challenging than I could have imagined”
Board meetings and executive meetings were centred around taking shots at one another to prove moral superiority instead of advancing students’ interests, which is evident in the insignificant amount of things that typically got done. The bureaucracy and in-fighting hindered any kind of productivity. With controversial campaigns and the follow up concert to 6 Fest in my portfolio, social media was an unhealthy collage of opinions about my successes and downfalls. It was troubling to scroll through comment sections on social media that asked for my resignation or to be tagged in Facebook rants about my latest “power trip” over things I had nothing to do with, all by strangers on the internet.
Criticism to my work in the RSU more often than not came in the form of character judgements and threats. People followed me on the street and I saw online conversations where student politicians who disagreed with me shared my location and threatened me physically.
I felt paranoid everywhere that I went, both physically and online. Unfortunately, these aren’t uncommon experiences among students in leadership positions. It occurred to me that harassment and personal attacks were used as tactics for controlling spaces and the stories that came out of them. It was seen as just another part of the job.
“Criticism to my work in the RSU more often than not came in the form of character judgements and threats”
I was no longer seen as a classmate, a colleague or a friend. I was a public figure, so my work was judged publicly. Campus news outlets wrote about me. Strangers nonchalantly talked about me as if talking about the weather or sports. It felt immensely isolating to be treated like a character in the latest showcase of political theatre instead of as a person, and I’ve since realized how easy it is to dehumanize those who volunteer themselves to make positive change on campus.
That being said, politics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The political stances we took and the events we offered throughout the year led to real impacts and consequences on students’ lives. We should be held to account for those choices. The problem is that the line between holding student politicians accountable and ruining our personal wellbeing and safety has disappeared.
After a long year in this toxic environment, I ultimately decided to resign. I felt that student government wasn’t serving its purpose. There have been several other resignations in other facets of student leadership throughout the course of the year including faculty societies, course unions, and student groups. It’s clear that my experience isn’t an isolated one.
I, like my former colleagues, ran for the RSU with the best intentions. It’s a shame that with the weight of the responsibilities we carry and our reputations and career prospects on the line, we often lose sight of those intentions. Student government has the potential to change lives on campus, but it currently exists to primarily benefits those in positions of power, and as a source of entertainment and memes for those it’s meant to serve.