November 9, 2015

#IAmAStudent: the student fightback at UBC

Rebel Youth presents an interview with University of British Columbia student activist Kelly Gerlings

Interview by Rozh Armand

RY: What sparked the #IAMASTUDENT movement? How did it start?

KG: In early October 2014, the UBC Alma Mater Society (AMS) [the student union] leaked a proposed 10% increase to international tuition and a 20% increase to 8-month contracts for on-campus housing. Quickly students began organizing and speaking about the proposals. Just as quickly it was understood that if the students were going to be heard, they would need to organize outside of the AMS. And so within about a week of getting the news, a Teach-In was held for more information to be disseminated, and out of this, the group “I Am A Student” (IAAS) was 'born', in a sense.

Our timeline of activism included the Teach-In in early October, followed by our first protest, and then a historic turn-out to the AMS’ Annual General Meeting (AGM). In November, we had an online petition circulating, which reached close to 2000 signatures, as well as a Carnival Against the Tuition Hikes, which was an event that brought local student bands together in a carnival-style celebration that mocked the foolishness of the proposals. We staged a protest at the Board of Governors’ (BoG) meeting in December, on the topic of the tuition increases. In January, we organized a protest and a sit-in outside the President’s office on campus to take up space and demand face-to-face consultation. We showed up at the BoG meeting in February to protest the housing fee increases. Since then, we have published a few articles and had the chance to chat with international student activists, but no further action. I’ll get into that later.

RY: What do tuition increases mean for students and why do you think it is important to fight them? What are some of the concerns students have?

KG: There are so many reasons why these increases work against the interests of students. Essentially, fee increases of any kind continue the process of corporatization of the university and the classroom. That is, more students in a class, less tenured professors (and thus more sessional lecturers, and they've got all their own battles to fight), less care and concern for the well-being of students, more industry-input into what is being learned, more biased curriculum, less 'freedom' of 'knowledge', if you will. When did a university become less a place of mind and pursuit of 'knowledge' and more a place of money?

Generally, these tuition increases are contributing to the inaccessibility of an already way too elitist, classist institution, captured in the attitudes of the members of the Board of Governors (BoG), whose meetings we attended in the few months while we were organizing. They had such gem-like quotes like “if we let tuition go, then we risk becoming a community college”; one of the Board members implied that had there not been a cap on domestic tuition, 'Canadian' 'nationals' would have been subjected to the same treatment. Indicative of a much larger battle then just the international/national divide. The question becomes who can 'afford' a 'quality' 'education' (scare quotes because all these terms are pretty biased and colonial in their own right, and there needs to be a constant conversation on who decides the standards of 'quality' and who is defining 'education'); and the answer is not hard to see.

Not to mention the fact that there is nothing that really justifies having tuition costs in the first place…

On the note of the housing fee increases, this proposal will affect almost every incoming first year student who lives on campus, and those upper year students living with 8-month contracts (September-April). The concerns here stem from a pretty dirty money trail in regards to the land endowment fund that UBC has, and where on earth this money was actually going and was actually going to end up. Not to mention the fact that the administration tooted its own horn that some of the 'profits' would be going to 'mental health services'....when in fact poverty is one of the largest causal factors in determining mental health. Pushing students off campus and into potentially unsafe living conditions in the bitterly expensive housing market of Vancouver...not exactly the best option for the well-being of these students. The students most affected would be students marginalized already by the institutionalized oppressions from wider society (students of colour, indigenous students, queer and trans students forced into unsafe living conditions).

 Never was there any actual ‘consultation’ made of the students prior to having these ‘solutions’ proposed. In fact, when asked for further information on where these proposals were coming from, we routinely received the answer of “it is too complicated”. The administration patted itself on the back for opening up a “30 day consultation period” with the students, but really, as fellow student activist Ivan Leonce said in his Teach-In speech, “that’s not consultation; that’s notice”.

RY: Tell us a little about yourself and some of the other organizers of the movement?

KG: So I am now an alumna of UBC, having graduated in May with a Bachelor of Arts, major in political science (what's wrong with the world) and minor in gender, race, sexuality, social justice (how to fix it). I identify as a white, gay, cisgender woman who comes from the traditional territory shared by the Mississauga, Wendat, Petun, Tobacco, Seneca peoples (also known as Toronto, Ontario). I worked, lived and learned at the UBC Vancouver campus for 3 years (with one year abroad), located on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territory of the henqeminem speaking Musqueam people. It's hard for me to speak to the identity of the other organizers, as at one point we had quite a large group involved in different aspects of student organizing-- international and domestic students, indigenous student allies, queer, straight, cis and trans supporters. There was never a hierarchy instituted and so I like to consider that anyone who showed up, from photographer friends to article writers to banner-makers and microphone holders, all count as organizers, in a way. A pretty wide range of disciplines were involved, cross-faculties, with a heavy leaning towards social science student involvement. We considered our group a horizontal collective of decision makers and had open meetings about once a week from about October until January. No group is perfectly cohesive though, and I'd say towards the end (in January/February), the spearheaders of the organization were in much smaller number and mostly white cis allies who worked in collaboration with other student groups to be as inclusive as possible in the articles published and the speeches made. A few of us have since graduated and some of us are returning to UBC in the fall.

First rally in October 2014
RY: What did organizing UBC students look like? What were the challenges?

KG: Our student "vibe" is considerably different from the fire and numbers of Quebec, much to the chagrin of our francophone counterparts'. Riding the momentum in October of the initial proposal leak, we had quite a bit of support, for UBC. We’re a pretty conservative student population with so many broad interests, so it’s hard to reach any awe-inspiring numbers. Not for lack of passion or effort, however. The Teach-In had between 250-300 students show up; we met quorum for the first time in 40 years at the AMS Annual General Meeting, where IAAS organizers passed several resolutions that essentially told the AMS to oppose the proposals, support organizing efforts and to help handle media relations in regards to it. The actual support from the AMS was reduced to pretty much just one or two really rad women who worked tirelessly to get things going, but the rest of Council was very resistant to assisting us in any way.

AMS aside (it’s a pretty out-of-touch institution anyways, for all that it is supposed to work in the interests of student voices, etc), our popular support peaked pretty early on at a very passionate protest, organized with IAAS. Around 300 students marched around campus, wearing red squares (from the Quebec student protests in 2012), yelling chants like “hey hey UBC how much money will you take from me”, and encouraging different student speakers to stand up at each designated gathering point. Afterwards, participation in our events slowly fell off, and then in the second semester, our numbers even in organizers were considerably smaller.

RY: Is there any democratic structure to the organization or is it a broad-based movement?

KG: Broad-based movement for sure. I couldn’t actually tell you who it was that began it, or that pulled everyone in together. I got much more heavily involved after our first protest, which is kind of the nature of this beast. If you were interested, you could get involved. We made all our meeting minutes public to a Facebook group where around 70-75 students were willing to help out, and regularly posted on our Facebook page about different articles and information for the student body.

RY: Were there splits and conflicts between students regarding how to move the struggle forward?

KG: As I said before, there is no perfect one way to organize, and we certainly felt that. I definitely think we ran into a divide in terms of more radical versus more moderate student participants. By ‘radical’, I mean the students who felt that more intense action was needed in order to shake up the administration and really push our message forward, students that didn’t want to seek the approval or support of the AMS for every small thing, considering the AMS’ general apathy towards organizing of any kind. “Take to the street” people. The ‘moderate’ students wanted to reach as broad a student population as possible, which often meant working with more conservative groups on campus, like the AMS, like the Ubyssey, in order to be an accessible and ‘easy’ thing to get as many students out as possible. The “sit down at the table” folks, if you will.

However, this inevitably led to some friction towards the end of November, and with exam season approaching, it was really hard to rally a cohesive group together. I can’t really say who had the better idea of what to do--indeed, we needed all the numbers we could get, but numbers alone would not or could not tip the boat. Rock the boat. Shake the table. Flip the table. Burn the table? I obviously wish we could have maintained more broad reaching momentum, but in the end the more moderate students withdrew a lot of active participation so it was left to a smaller crew to keep anything going come January.

I personally wanted to paint the town red and have media relations reaching to prospective student families to get parents involved, shine the biggest spotlight ever on the questionable practices of the BoG, just put 240% into changing the conversation...but it just turned out to be not humanly possible.

RY: What I found interesting about the UBC #IAMASTUDENT movement was the amount of women identified organizers. What does this say about women’s struggles and UBC activism? What are your thoughts on this and your personal experiences?

 KG: I very much wish we didn’t get cookies for having women-identified organizers--like I wish it was so the norm it wouldn’t even be a second thought. But indeed it was a thought we were all thinking and all very conscious of, as much as we could be throughout our organizing period. This was one of the joys of organizing with such a wonderful group of down-to-earth and politically involved folks: we paid attention to this. Not like “okay, women, now it’s your turn to speak” condescending egalitarian shit, but just an actual sincere grounding of most people’s politics in a really refreshing feminist groundwork. And just naturally we had a lot of passionate women step forward. It’s not surprising to me, as UBC has a slew of really fucking impressive self-identified women doing some really fucking impressive things, and just generally women are awesome. (I’m maybe biased).

The dude I co-wrote a ton of our articles with is not only a dear friend but also one of the kindest, chillest feminist men I’ve ever known, as were most of the other men that I encountered in our group come second semester. Again, this was my experience, and it was my experience stepping into the organizing about a month into the group’s existence. I don’t wish to speak for everyone here; I know some of the divide came from some pretty disappointing sexist encounters that made it obvious that the patriarchy is pretty much inescapable.

For myself, though, in what was kind of my first experience at organizing and protesting and the like, I felt a camaraderie and support among the organizers that was incredibly encouraging. Encouraging on a personal level of like “oh awesome, look at these cool people I know and who exist” and encouraging in the sense that we weren’t really taking any shit. We just did the things, you know? Kind of manifested a new way of relating and organizing without getting caught up in those self-aggrandizing privilege cycles and just taking care of each other.

RY: What antagonizing forces were there? Why do you think they were threatened by the movement?

KG: The UBC administration (particularly the BoG) found its comfortable position as ultimate-decision-makers challenged for sure. No longer were the students content with the subpar representation (if you could call it that) of the AMS, and no longer were we content to just let it happen. Not that we ever were, but now it was a public thing, a vocal thing. And even though there was a unanimous 'no' coming from the students and our AMS, the BoG still steamrolled over all of our concerns and passed the proposals. As if we didn't matter.

I think there was a kind of unspoken undercurrent wherein us protesters knew, or at least, I felt that we weren't about to shake them off their profit-minded track. But without giving us too much credit, I strongly believe we did rattle them up. We caught the bit between our teeth and we held right the fuck on. Small groups of protesters showed up to their BoG meeting in December (for the tuition vote), and we interrupted their meeting, despite numerous attempts to be silenced (including the presence of an RCMP officer in the room). We showed up to a talk our then-President gave at an event on the "University in the 21st Century", and he was rattled, to say the least, unable to answer our questions. We showed up to the President's office during our Sit-In at the end of January. We showed up on twitter and reappropriated the hashtag he was using for his 'twitter town hall'. We didn't leave, and so he had to face us, face us as students, as people who had something to say. And then we showed up to their BoG meeting in February for the discussion of the housing increase, and unbeknownst to us, it was not a discussion or debate at all.

We showed up in numerous articles published in The Talon, the Ubyssey, and outside-UBC sources (rabble, Ricochet), in short clips on the evening news, in the posters around campus and the red squares on students' backpacks.

Then-UBC President Arvind Gupta and BC Premier
Christy Clark.
The conversation really does change depending on who's listening, and we shone a small amount of spotlight on the ridiculousness of a governing body in charge of a university only having 3 student representatives, and only 8, of 21, positions 'democratically elected'. We made the administration feel something, I think. We made them feel something because they had to see our faces, make eye contact with us, read our posters we held up to them. And you can't just walk away from that (though President Arvind Gupta tried).

Another pretty considerable ‘antagonizing’ force was also our AMS, as it were. They dragged their feet on every possible decision to support IAAS and stayed safely caught in their bureaucratic nets when it came down to actually doing what they were mandated to do. Sure, they set up a “mobilization” fund, but it was like pulling teeth to actually get any money. More on them in later -- I could go for days.

RY: What was the UBC AMS response? Do you think they represented the concerns of students well?

KG: AMS response was mediocre at best. As I mentioned, there were two AMS members who worked pretty tirelessly with us, but my impression was mostly that the AMS couldn't really be bothered with us in IAAS. I am speaking entirely from my own experience, I found it pretty dismal that our main student association was so apolitical and apathetic, without any of the drive and fire you would really hope that a student union would have. When it came down to it in the BoG meetings, the AMS representatives spoke pretty strongly against the proposals, but it was way too little and way too late. So no, I don't think they represented the concerns of students very well at all. I would like to be sassy and tongue-in-cheek here, and lament that "yes they represented the students because most students didn't care", but that's not fair. Not fair because there was a small, tight, powerful bunch of us who did care. And if the AMS had done its job, had any kind of backbone, the students would have cared quite a bit more.

RY: This year, UBC saw many progressive forces. (The Talon, the UBC feminist group, the BDS movement and so forth). What are your thoughts on this progress and did this bring about more student activists/support for the #IAMASTUDENT movement?

KG: Ah yeah, it was an incredible year for the activist-y types! I think quite a bit of cross-cause solidarity was felt, mostly because we ain’t gettin rid of the white supremacist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy without all the help we can get, you know? But actually, I think we all kind of drew from a similar pool of student activists for all of our different endeavours. A lot of this is due to the fact that many spaces operated out of the resource centre on campus, which houses our Social Justice Centre, Pride UBC, Color Connected Against Racism, the Student Environment Center, and the Women’s Centre, so naturally there was much crossover. I think this led to a bit of activist burn-out for many of us, but overall we could achieve more by helping each other as much as possible. As it always goes.

I can't be sure if I'm living in a dream bubble of radical deconstructing folks or if it's an actual ripple effect, but I think slowly our campus is waking up. In fact, I think young people everywhere are waking up--and staying woke just a little longer each day.

RY: What were some of the successes of the movement and what were some of the limitations?

KG: Successes definitely included the turn-out we helped bring to the AMS’ AGM to meet quorum and pass resolutions to oppose the proposals. Our first protest and teach-in in October were awesome, and I would like to think our sit-in and flooding of the twitter townhall we snowballed were pretty great. And by ‘pretty great’, I think it showed the creativity and potential of young people who are engaged, with politics, with social media, with activism, with not letting the people in power get away with what they are getting away with. I think it demonstrates the power in showing up, in taking up space.

Limitations include being students and being activists; having to participate within the institution we are pretty actively opposing. Our school lives and responsibilities didn’t stop just because we were organizing demonstrations and handing out red squares and postering and writing articles. Not to mention the student body seems to have a collective memory of like 3 months? So while we had been able to gain some ground (in between midterms and assignments and the general stresses and anxieties and immense pressures and escalating debts of student life these days) in the first semester, we seemed to start from scratch in the second semester. And the timelines of pulling together any kind of mobilization was incredibly short--the pressure was on. Limitations came also in the form of a pretty large, pretty isolated student body, such that it was incredibly difficult to get out the mass numbers we were dreaming of.

March in January 2015
RY: What are the next steps? Do you see the movement growing, do you have hope for the future?

KG: I wish I knew! We first arose out of a need we found to mobilize students against the proposals, though our mission statement goes beyond to include that: "I Am A Student opposes all existing structural barriers to education, affirms that education is a right, believes that the governing structure of universities must democratized, believes all levels of government should be lobbied to increase funding to postsecondary institutions, believes in mass student mobilization to put pressure on decision making bodies both governmental and in our universities and believes our student societies and associations should be at the forefront of the battle with the students they represent".

I think for sure that there is so much space for IAAS to move forward, so many amazing initiatives to be pursued to further the above points in our mission statement. And I would hope beyond hope that there will come a revival of what IAAS has been working on, either some of the previous organizers or a whole bunch of new fresh energetic enthusiastic faces who come in and pick it up and charge forward. I hope for that.

But getting pretty real for a moment here, I know that many of the core group of organizers that took up the mantle in the second semester have graduated, and moved on. So for now I think IAAS is a dormant force, with all the infrastructure and advice waiting for new students to come and take up the fight. Because goodness knows there’s a hell of a lot more showing up to do.

RY: Anything else you'd like to tell the magazine?

KG: I’m pretty excited to have the chance to speak about this again, because for all that we were small, we were loud. I also want to restate that I am by no means representative of the opinions or ideas of anyone else but myself in this interview. I know that IAAS encouraged students to speak from their own experiences when speaking of IAAS and their involvement with it, so wherever I use “we”, I mostly mean myself in my experiences of the group. 

I must say, I am so incredibly proud of everyone who showed up and everyone who continued to show up and support. We really did have some of the most politically active student protests this past year than we have had in a very long time on that campus, and I was so impressed by the passion of my fellow organizers and their ability to pull things off and step in and step back exactly when it was needed. Viva la revolution!

This article is printed in Issue 19 of Rebel Youth which is now available! The issue deals has a focus on student struggles and the federal elections. Find out more and subscribe today!

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