RSU elections debate: COVID-19, transparency and anti-Asian racism

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By Alexandra Holyk and Heidi Lee

At the Ryerson Students’ Union’s (RSU) election debate on Tuesday, students running for executive positions discussed the importance of transitioning safely into in-person learning, the impacts of anti-Asian racism on Ryerson community members, and transparency between the union and its membership ahead of the 2021-22 academic year.

According to the slates’ websites, there are approximately 43 candidates participating in the elections, including 10 students running for executive positions and 33 students running as faculty and student representatives on the RSU Board of Directors (BoD). There are two main slates, or groups of candidates with a common platform, running in this year’s elections: “For the Students” and “Adapt.”

Candidates running for the positions of RSU vice-president operations, vice-president equity and president were given the opportunity to speak about why they should be elected in their respective roles. Each candidate also answered a series of questions gathered by the chief returning officer (CRO) and deputy returning officer (DRO), as well as those posed by Ryerson students virtually. 

Voting for the RSU 2021-22 elections began yesterday and runs until Friday. Ballots are cast online via students’ my.ryerson portal. 

Here’s what you missed at the 2021 RSU elections debate:

CANDIDATES FOR VP OPERATIONS

Jenna Jiang (For the Students) and Vaishali Vinayak (Adapt)

Q: As vice-president operations, how will you ensure transparency at the RSU?

For the Students: In terms of transparency, we’ll have open budget consultations before the budget is approved. Students will be able to come in and have their say, and I will be listening to all of their feedback. In addition to that, we will be having frequent town halls throughout the year. That way students can come and give feedback, concerns and any suggestions that they have. My door will always be open all year just to make sure that all students are heard. The RSU president will also tweet every single day about what they’re doing so students will know what is happening in terms of our jobs. 

Also, I feel like students don’t know what is going on with the RSU right now, and that’s a huge issue with transparency. So we are going to be utilizing social media, outreach, student groups, student unions and getting everyone involved, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page.

Adapt: In order to ensure more transparency, the first step will be to give the elected board members financial training because not everyone has a financial background. To walk our membership through the budget process, I will have a detailed copy of the budget outlining all of the expenses. Moving on, I was the only one who created a comprehensive document about my work and made it public as vice-president equity and I will make sure to do the same if I get elected as vice-president operations. 

Throughout the year, I will keep refining the financial processes that are made in-person, like reimbursements. All in all, when it comes to the RSU website, it is hard to keep everything in one piece, I do agree with that. I want to create one single platform that will have all the services provided by the RSU in one space, so if students want to know what the RSU is doing, it will be all in one place. 

Q: How would you make sure that student levies are being spent wisely at the RSU?

For the Students: In terms of ensuring student money is going where it should be, we’re going to take a look at where parts of the budget can be slashed. Right now, if you take a look at the budget posted online on the RSU website, there’s a lot of places where the money could be moved elsewhere that is more beneficial for all students. For example, there are certain executive benefits that I believe should be cut and should be moved towards services for the students.

Adapt: As vice-president operations, I will be providing the board with monthly financial updates and publishing quarterly reports on the RSU website. I will be hiring one of the top four accounting firms and getting them to do a review of our financial practices. I will get them to create recommendations for us and I will then implement those recommendations after taking them into consideration along with our budget. My main priority right now is to create more student jobs; I want to bring more exciting experiential learning opportunities to campus. I want to assist students through OSAP application processes. We’ve had various grants this past year: the COVID-19 grant, food relief grant and we’re working on a mental health grant, but the main one I would want to work on is the COVID-19 impact grant because a lot of students are being impacted by the global pandemic.

Q: A large part of your job will be to help manage the health and dental plan. How will you improve the current plan for students?

For the Students: I believe that students also deserve a say in what goes under the health and dental plan. First, I want to make sure all students are aware of what is under their plan. So if there are things most students generally don’t use or need, that could be taken away. People may really want more mental health services and people may want massage services, but we don’t know what students want until we ask them to get their input. That’s why the town halls and the consultations are going to be super important to get more details. We pay too much for too little benefits. I firmly believe that I will be fixing that and contacting other schools, other student unions, figuring out what they’re doing and taking that back to Ryerson students so that they can get more benefits and pay less.

Adapt: This year, we’ve added many things such as better optical care coverage for students. I want to be able to provide students with more coverage for therapy and wellness. Mental health needs to be prioritized and I believe that RSU can still do a lot more in providing those resources. Often we fail to realize that people around us need mental health support, especially during this global pandemic and I think the support system should start with the people around you. Hence why I think we as team Adapt can provide you with training and certification for Mental Health First Aid training. One of my biggest accomplishments this year as vice-president equity is that, for the first time in the history of the RSU, we’re providing full reimbursements for contraceptives, plan B and pregnancy tests. That is covered under the health and dental plan, and I will be spearheading that process once I get elected.

CANDIDATES FOR VP EQUITY

Zanele Chisholm (For the Students) and Maleha Yasmin (Adapt)

Q: As vice-president equity, how would you support the Ryerson membership through this pandemic?

For the Students: Healing circles are one way that I want to address the mental health impact, and also building the community impacted by mental health. I think there’s a lot of first-year students who are coming in who haven’t had the chance to meet other people in their year or get involved in the Ryerson community in a way that’s actually impactful. Those circles are something that I’m really excited to provide in both an online space and when we end up back in-person, it can be in-person as well. I’m also really excited to be able to meet with student clubs and try and find ways to create online events that are engaging, super accessible and interesting—not just looking at what students want, but going directly to them and asking what it is that they’re interested in participating in. I’m also really excited to run educational panels and bring in student voices, as well as ones within our different communities.

Adapt: As vice-president equity, there are several initiatives that I want to implement. I’m super excited about the first one: pledging to mail out free menstrual products every month to Ryerson students. I want to address period poverty and I understand that many students during this time are facing financial hardships. Menstrual products are expensive so I feel like this initiative will definitely help the Ryerson community. 

I also want to continue and expand the food box program. The RSU has been working with over 1,000 students and addressing food insecurity. Through the Good Food Centre, I want to continue this food box delivery program and expand it to offer kosher, halal and vegan options because a lot of students have different food restrictions. I feel like it’s really important to make the Good Food Centre much more accessible to students. I also want to create subsidized Mental Health First Aid certification. 

Q: How do you plan on addressing food insecurity at Ryerson?

For the Students: I agree that the food box delivery program is great. I think that one way to expand upon that is using the Good Food Centre’s resources that they’ve established in the past years with curbside pickup and being more supportive with the staff there and expanding on the hunger reports that they’ve done. It’s important to fully understand what the equity centre specifically needs—it’s one of the bigger ones within the RSU and tends to be underfunded. One thing that I want to make sure of is that in my first few months, I’m going over the budgets to make sure that we can properly address or give the right resources to the Good Food Centre and make sure it can reach different students. I would like to make sure that we have a more direct line to students when it comes to giving access to the Good Food box rather than having to go through a third-party app.

Adapt: As I mentioned, I want to expand the food box program because of different dietary restrictions and to make it more accessible. I’ll be doing that through kosher, halal and vegan food options. I feel like that would help address food insecurity at Ryerson and make it much more accessible to a wide variety of diverse communities at the university.

Q: Do you have any experience volunteering at the Equity Service Centres? How would you improve the volunteer experience for students?

For the Students: I don’t have any experience volunteering in the Equity Service Centres, but I have been to them and I’ve used their resources before. I think that as a volunteer, something that’s really important is making sure that you have guidance and feeling like you’re supported by the people who are staff there and by the people who are at the head. I would love to meet with volunteers and make sure that they are fully prepped and capable of whatever jobs they’re taking on in the equity centres. I want to make sure that it’s super easy to volunteer and that you know exactly what you’re getting into. I also want to make sure that it’s more of a community and not so isolating or feeling separate from those who are maybe at the top in terms of execs and on the board. I want to ask people who have volunteered throughout their time at Ryerson what their experiences have been like, what they need out of it and what they think could be improved—and applying that as we go forward. 

Adapt: I do have experience working for the Equity Service Centres. Through my current position as the coordinator for the Centre for Women and Trans People, I’ve worked on various collaborative experiences and initiatives with Ryerson. As vice-president equity, I want to create more volunteer opportunities for students in the Equity Service Centres where they’re able to get a certification at the end of the term. I feel like that will be very beneficial to Ryerson students so they can take that experience and the certification to future endeavours, future volunteer opportunities and jobs. I feel like that will be really beneficial and I would really love to implement that.

CANDIDATES FOR PRESIDENT

David Jardine (For the Students) and Siddhanth Satish (Adapt)

Q: What qualifications and experiences do you have that would make you a good fit for the role of president of the RSU?

For the Students: I actually created the RSU COVID Response Committee. As my colleague is currently on the RSU, a question I would ask back to them and the other people rerunning with the team is why after that committee was created, the committee never met once and never accomplished anything during the year that they have spent in power. 

I already spent time working with Housing and Residence Life, as well as two different COVID testing and vaccination clinics at other university campuses. I’m ready to use that knowledge to be able to put that to work at Ryerson and set up those same services here for students. This year, I was on the Board of Governors running a semester-long research study on the impacts of online learning on students.

Adapt: I’ve been a part of various student groups and course unions since the start of my university education. The last few years at Ryerson, I’ve had the chance to hold two executive positions for campus groups at Ryerson and the RSU as the vice-president education in the past year. During my term, I created the infrastructure to provide students with grants and bursaries; lobbied the university for various initiatives like to pass and fail; and provided a quicker and more efficient, greater appeal process through the RSU advocacy department. I also worked with the university to formulate better and more inclusive policies for students. 

Along with all this, I ran a campus wide survey to better understand the needs of the students. I believe that my life experiences and student involvement, along with the achievements during the past year would make me an excellent candidate for the role of president.

Q: Students are financially struggling at the moment. As president of the RSU, what will you do to help these students?

For the Students: Like my other team members said, we have a lot of plans to address that. One of those being directly addressing food insecurity by improving upon the Good Food Box program that the RSU has run for many years. It stopped for a year or two, and then Vaishali brought it back this year. We want to improve on it so that there’s no time limits where you’re receiving the email with a code that times out if you don’t buy the groceries in time. So we want to work more closely with the Good Food Centre, hire a full time coordinator who can make sure that those food boxes are being sent out to address food insecurity. 

We also plan to continue administering the RSU emergency grant. We definitely plan to continue that, operating the grant in a fair and transparent way, and advertise it widely, so students can access it throughout the entire year.

Adapt: I’m going to focus on this in two parts. First, a short-term solution then a long-term solution. 

For the short-term solution: I will first continue the good work we’ve done this year. We gave out funds to students impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we gave out grants and bursaries to students who were displaced due to the fire incident at the Neill-Wycik building. And, of course, like David mentioned, the Good Food Box, which really helps students struggling with food insecurity. This is something I really want to continue working on when we get elected. 

The long term solution is to prepare the students for the employment market. We want to make sure that all our students get suitable employment when they get out of university. We’ll be hosting an annual career fair with 150 employers seeking to recruit Ryerson graduates, and creating a number of part time student jobs at the RSU. I really believe that these solutions could help with the financial struggles for students.

Q: Anti-Asian racism is on the rise. How will you make sure that when students come back to campus, they will have the support they need?

For the Students: I really think it’s about letting the people being affected by any type of racism being the ones leading that conversation. I am a white person answering this question and I recognize that. So I’m going to make sure that we are doing absolutely everything we can to listen to students. First, we have to figure out how it’s manifesting on campus. Is it happening in the classroom from professors? Because that’s a very different approach, for which we would need a solution that is very different from something happening on the street from an outside community member. 

But then, very similar to what Siddhanth just said, absolutely empowering the equity centres and giving them all the resources they need to run educational campaigns. Zanele, our vice-president equity candidate, already mentioned the idea of healing circles. I think that’s a really great example of something that would provide the knowledge to prevent anti-Asian racism and a lot of other methods to support the students who have been affected by it, to make sure that campus is safe for everyone.

Adapt: As a person of colour myself, I’ve personally had to deal with racism all my life. This was apparent at the RSU office too. Moving on from that, from a personal point of view, I can understand what our students are against. I believe that the best way to support them would be by empowering the Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) Collective to set up longer working hours. I would also work with the BIPOC Collective to host seminars and workshops to educate the campus on inclusivity and the importance of equity and diversity. 

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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