By Susanne Nyaga
Being the first Black woman to hold the title of President of the Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) was not an easy task. There was veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) anti-Blackness and sexism around every corner.
It all began on May 1, 2017. It was an odd start. I was stepping in with the first split slate executive team in almost 10 years. My predecessors left a legacy of financial mismanagement, lack of transparency and the overall lack of support for marginalized students. Yet despite all of that, I stepped into the year optimistic and ready to change the negative image of the RSU by doing productive work for students while maintaining a healthy budget.
In short, I succeeded. Through my role, I was able to advocate for the needs of marginalized students and support progressive work on campus. I opened Ryerson’s first holistic Wellness Centre, I created a 24-hour study space and I implemented a financial policy that increased financial transparency. But the year was far from rainbows and butterflies, it was more like racist colleagues and public attacks.
No one was naive enough to think that a group of executives that had campaigned head to head would suddenly step into office and become best friends. So upon arrival, the executive team went through extensive training where we discussed conflict resolution skills, equity issues and preferred work styles. We discussed the importance of maintaining honest communication, whether it was a time of conflict or agreement and the importance of professionalism above all.
On July 1, 2017, all conversations and respect went out the window with the launch of the Colonialism 150 campaign. This campaign worked to centralize the needs of Indigenous students on campus. It soon gained national attention as executives and board members veiled their anti-Indigenous racism as concerns for ‘lack of communication’, nevermind the communication package with all the posts and supplementary resources I created once I was aware of the campaign. Essentially a tone was set where instead of behaving like adults and having conversations to create resolutions, arguments were made public and fingers were pointed.
The team dynamic never improved. I was shocked to see how quickly people were willing to throw me under the bus just to gain more power. I was leading a team where individual people were actively working to publicly humiliate and/or impeach me. Not only was it heartbreaking and taking a huge toll on my mental health, but it was hard knowing that this was all because I wouldn’t allow people to manipulate the bylaws, policies or budget for their own self-interest, because I stood with integrity. I no longer felt like I had a team where we could have rational or professional conversations about concerns, I felt like I was constantly fighting to do my job and for others to do theirs by the book. So I lowered my expectations, I got into the mindset that as long as we all focus on our portfolios and get our work done, this year can still be a success… even with those low standards, reality still kicked my naive ass.
Soon executives weren’t showing up for work. We had orientation approaching and the events team could barely get direction from their VP. Emergency bursary applications were piling up yet it was a battle to get the VP in charge to call a meeting or respond to emails. It left me plan orientation or communicate with frustrated students who thought there would be some urgency in processing emergency grants
I found myself falling behind on my own projects, pulling 12-18 hour days in order to finish my work and the work of other executives while dealing with public attacks by the same executives who didn’t show up. It was the year of Facebook statuses and sarcastic #ThatsMyPresident.
The biggest irony was that those who advocated so strongly for mental health also heavily contributed to the deterioration of mine, with little to no concern when I tried to address their violence
I will give credit where it is due though because the executives that did show up also did some great things. Whether it was securing over $300,000 for Sexual Assault Survivors Support Line and the Good Food Centre, or breaking significant ground towards making the U-Pass a reality. It was clear that Ryerson students were winning, and even in my constant state of burn out, I was always ready to celebrate and support the accomplishments of my team. I was happy to see work done for students, regardless of who was doing the work.
Even with all the critics, under my leadership, we ended off the year in a surplus of over $400,000 in comparison to the previous years’ deficit of over $1.1 million. We conducted a forensic audit on 6Fest and tried to get those answers to the students, a project that the current executive quickly shut down. I turned buzzwords into actions; we were more accountable, more transparent (although we could have done better) and more inclusive. And even with all the toxicity, I do not regret taking on the challenge. I admit to our mistakes the same way I celebrate our successes, as we were far from perfect.
To sum up, this past year was a roller coaster where I am thankful for all those who provided a shoulder for me to lean on in between the public attacks and sexist emails (nothing like being talked down to by fellow execs while they CC in stakeholders and staff). I am proud of those on my team, especially the staff, who kept their focus on the needs of students rather than the pettiness of student politics.
I won’t always have faith in student politicians, but I will always have faith in the students to hold them accountable and build the union we all deserve. After all, ‘the students, united, will never be defeated!’