Editorial

Hey You! Yes, you.

 

Plenty of empty chairs at the CSA Executive Forum. Where were you?

The Central Student’s Association (CSA) does a lot of valuable and important work here at the University of Guelph. From the services they offer and the clubs they oversee to the substantial influence bargaining power they have, the CSA fundamentally shapes the university experience for undergraduates. However, as CSA presidential candidate Nolan Polkinghorne said during the CSA Executive Forum on Feb. 5, “No one really gives a shit.”

The forum, which brought together the candidates hoping to be elected or re-elected to CSA executive positions, was mostly unattended. There were rows of empty chairs and the only audience in attendance were current CSA executives, staff, The Ontarion’s photographer, and me. The one student who was there asked the candidates what they would do to get more folks out next year. We’ve covered their answers in our reporting on the CSA elections, which I encourage you to read, but I still had questions.

So I talked to the president of the CSA.

 

 

Dena Van de Coevering, the current President of the CSA ran for her position unopposed. As did her predecessor, Jack Fisher, in 2018. In 2017, candidate Jay Rojas also ran unopposed and lost by fewer than 100 votes when reports of his past criminal convictions circulated on social media.

“A student’s life is so busy,” Van de Coevering told me when we met in her office a couple of days after the forum.

There are a bunch of reasons, she said, why students don’t get involved. It’s no one factor, but a combination of finances, workload, stress and other professional and social obligations.

Another reason though, is that this has been a hard year for the CSA. The Student Choice Initiative (SCI) was a blow to almost all student groups, the CSA among them. “There were many challenges that came with it,” Van de Coevering said. “We started [the year] not knowing what our funding was.”

The SCI is currently deemed unlawful, and, pending a request for appeal, it seems like it may be done. “Looking into the future our budgeting process looks a lot more stable,” she said, as she and I joked about how, without the drama and uncertainty of the SCI, whoever takes over from her will have a much easier time than she did.

Part of the real destruction the SCI wrought (and this was by design) was that, both in cutting budgets and by making budgets uncertain, the initiative compromised the way student groups can operate. If you are not sure what your budget is, it’s very hard to get things done. And if you’re not getting things done, students aren’t going to get involved.

“It’s great to have this conversation today,” Van de Coevering said, “seeing that we sold out Bill Nye in 30 minutes.”

Good work, important work, change — when done right, these are slow. These are often dull bureaucratic processes, that, like voting, are essential, if unglamorous.

Get involved with stuff because it’s fun and get involved because it looks good on your resume. Do both. But also get involved because things can always be better just as they can always be worse.

The Mar. 5 Bill Nye event has been generating buzz across the university since it was announced on the same day as the Executive Forum. And the CSA has leaned into excitement to encourage students to go vote.

Throughout the year, this approach to building student engagement through events has been underlying much of the CSA’s work.

“Being able to create an event that is so engaged with students and that clearly they’re excited to be apart of, that’s probably the victory of the year. To have such uncertainty at the beginning and then to have this great triumph of being able to bring our community together to showcase the great work CSA is capable of doing.”

It is a good strategy.

“We’re engaging students on a fun level,” Van de Coevering said, talking about one of the CSA’s most popular recurring events, Sexy Bingo at The Brass Taps. “It’s a stress reliever for them, they get to learn a little bit about the CSA so they might be able to connect the dots more as to who we are and what we do.”

This is something that I have heard several times from the CSA executive candidates as well as others involved with the CSA. But this idea, that the way to fix low engagement may simply come down to better marketing and event promotion, has never sat quite right with me.

The CSA does need to market itself. If it seems cool (or beneficial or exciting), then students will absolutely want to be a part of it. However, the cynic in me does pause at the idea of organizations and active recruitment because I see two big problems that can emerge.

The first is, as with any organization, there is always the risk of recruitment becoming insular. If friends hire friends or create the kinds of programming that their friends are into, then eventually, a bubble forms. Over time, this can alienate new people and that bubble can become a barrier.

Second though, and far more troubling, is that given the inherently political nature and democratic structure of the CSA as well as their substantial budget, one can imagine a kind of advantage that comes from low engagement. If the public — or in the case of the CSA, their membership — are who hold you accountable, then there are reasons you might not want all their eyes focused on you. You can get a lot done when people aren’t paying attention and you can get a lot done because people aren’t paying attention, because in either case, who’s to stop you?

Dena Van de Coevering, President of the CSA (2019-2020)

I am not saying the CSA is being disingenuous when they talk about outreach and working to better connect with students. And I’m not suggesting that they are diabolical — quite the opposite actually. I think the CSA is doing very good work. What I am saying though, is that students need to pay attention. One shouldn’t place the burden of engagement solely on any organization. Undergraduates at the University of Guelph (and odds are that’s you, dear reader), need to take their own initiative as well.

I asked Van de Coevering the same questions I’ve been asking student leaders all year. How do you get people involved? How do you get people to come out to something?

Time and again the answer I’ve received is that involvement begins with getting students to take a first step.

“You enter into one opportunity, even as simple as one event, and your perspective can grow more and more because you might see more of what’s available, what’s out there,” Van de Coevering told me. “If you take literally just one step forward to being involved in some way — like attending one event on campus — you’re already exploring so much.”

Tyler Poirier, one of this year’s candidates for CSA President said essentially the same thing at the executive forum when talking about how working with SafeWalk eventually led him to run for the position. I have even used a similar version of this when pitching The Ontarion to students who are considering writing. But, as Van de Coevering, Poirier, and I all know, it’s finding that thing that makes people take their first step that is the big challenge.

“Essentially, I think it comes down to what the student wants themselves. Do they want to be a part of a certain club? Do they want to represent this club in what they do and what events they run? If they connect with that passion, and it suits them well, then they’re going to stay on and it’s going to bring them a source of happiness while they’re going through school.”

Van de Coevering is correct in this. Though, I want to put forward a slightly different perspective.

Get involved with stuff because it’s fun and get involved because it looks good on your resume. Do both. But also get involved because things can always be better just as they can always be worse.

Often organizations seeking new members (or participants, or contributors) pitch themselves as fun. We do this because it is true. The Ontarion, for example, is great; come write for us! We are fun, but we’re not always.

Good work, important work, change — when done right, these are slow. These are often dull bureaucratic processes, that, like voting, are essential, if unglamorous.

The CSA, as an organization, has enormous potential. Earlier this year York University’s student association, the York Federation of Students, sued the provincial government and won. Our student association is no less mighty. But the CSA also has enormous potential for mismanagement. In January of this year, Ryerson University announced that it would terminate its Operating Agreement with the Ryerson Student Union after reports alleging the improper use of funds by the RSU Executives.

What incentive is there for executives to do the really hard work when “no one gives a shit”? What incentive is there for executives to commit to projects, or even campaign, when they’re running unopposed? What oversight can there be if no one is watching?

Let this be what gets you to take that first step. Please, go get involved. Run for an executive position next year. Run for president. It’s a good job. Go vote, if it hasn’t closed yet.

Celebrate the CSA for their good work and hold them accountable in those places where they can continue to improve. Tell them to fight for your tuition, tell them to fight the university over divestment and for student safety.

The CSA contributes as much to the overall texture and experience of U of G as the administration does, so make them work for you and make them work hard. And if they won’t, lead them.

 

 

 

A version of this editorial appeared in print in The Ontarion issue 188.2 on February 13, 2020.

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