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My Time at UCD Students’ Union: Thoughts on Uniting the Divides

Brian Treacy – UCDSU Education Officer 2019/20 (pictured, right)

I started my time as Education Officer of UCD Students’ Union in June 2019 after a needlessly strenuous election the previous April. I was unopposed, but still set myself the target of getting the lowest Reopen Nomination % in any one-candidate race in a Students’ Union election. I wanted to show I would give everything no matter how easy or hard the battle. My campaign team and I certainly got our steps in during those weeks and I’ll be forever grateful to them for their efforts.

 

Unlikely Friendships

The Union corridor was being done up that summer, so we started in the Quad Room and did our training in the blue room of the Old Student Centre. It was 2 weeks of getting to know the people I would work with for the next year bit by bit; their work experience, life experience, political ideology, values, dislikes, hobbies. I remember being nervous because I didn’t want my personality to be miscategorised as singular – just the ‘funny guy’ – just the ‘attractive guy’ (although that was never going to be a problem anyway!). In reality, I wanted to be someone people could have a laugh with but also someone who works very hard to achieve the team’s goals.

During training I would try to get in as early as possible, only to be beaten by our Campaigns and Engagement Officer, Katie O’Dea (pictured, left), each morning. I hated the feeling of knowing someone could evidently do better than me. Katie, for me, would go on to set the benchmark of what I felt it took to be a sabbatical officer; on time, competent, clever, trustworthy, compassionate, kind, never afraid to give her own view but still always respectful of the viewpoint and time of others. She was dedicated, driven, determined, and had a genuine desire to hear the actual views of students (and not just what we thought ourselves was a representative viewpoint). Someone who was truly there to represent students and did their best for the student body. With this, she always wanted the university to listen to and act on the student voice. She sums up my definition of what a student activist should be, but more importantly what a good person is.

Katie’s consistency continued throughout the year and my admiration was summed up at our final Students’ Union Council where she mentioned a late-night conversation the two of us had months before. I was drunk one night, but nevertheless honest, and said ‘Katie, I never thought that a straight Tipperary man could be friends with a lesbian woman from Dublin’. Right or wrong, that is what I thought and said. I knew that I had developed a close bond with Katie that she wouldn’t be offended but would understand the nuisances of what I had said. I suspect she thought something similar as we found ourselves too often than not thinking along the same lines.

I came to realise that above all the apparent glory of being a Students’ Union Sabbatical Officer – being well known amongst students and influential academics in UCD and having it on your CV for future jobs – is in fact the idea and practice of coming together and working with people from different walks of life and viewpoints to achieve a common understanding and vision for an equitable society for all we represent. That is what I cherished most about my time in the Union. With this in mind, my friendship with Katie is one I will be grateful for and cherish deeply.

Such principles I admired are likely linked to reasons why I also have a particular fondness for Thomas Monaghan, this year’s ENTs Officer and a person who has been contributing to the student movement and experience for more years than I can count. Well, five. When comparing myself to Tom, many would say he is much more of a ‘lad’ than I am. He likes to hang out in The Clubhouse, he likes to entertain, he likes to push his jokes to the line of acceptability. And in all respect, much of those taglines he is stereotyped with are in fact accurate to an extent. However, it’s my view that to define him under one singular axiom or personality type would be wrong and would not reflect the depth and breadth of qualities he has as a person.

He is a compassionate, caring, honest, well liked, and is a well-rounded individual who wants the absolute best for the Union and those around him. He is a genius when it comes to understanding how people think and act, how UCD, the SU, and wider society operate. His understanding and humour allow him to discuss a holistic view of the world that very few can articulate into words.  He’s also able to reach out to a cohort of students of students who aren’t politically engaged but that still want to balance their studies with enjoying their college life and could benefit from the Union. He’s not perfect but at least he doesn’t pretend to be and at least he’d have your back if you ever had a problem. He’s taught me to think as an individual and has become a true friend of mine who I will always have huge respect for. He’s one of a kind.

 

Achieving Our Goals

While I may have discussed the qualities and values of some of the Union members and the Union that I believe are fundamental to our representative nature and in our fight to achieve equity for our student body and wider society – it would be disingenuous of me to paint a perfect picture of the Union. This includes our term in the Union and student activist movements more widely. We make mistakes. We made mistakes. Students criticise us (rightly so) and even worse sometimes we don’t take that criticism on board. We don’t always achieve the goals we set out for ourselves. I did not achieve every goal I set out for myself and the team.

In not achieving a goal, I’ve learned to distinguish quickly if a particular failure occurred because whilst we had a common objective as a Union. For example, a fight for more higher education funding, we didn’t have the policies, procedures, resources, and knowledge in place to be able to achieve it. Or, alternatively at times, perhaps the failure was due to not having a common goal, albeit we had common practices and policies which we agreed on. My learnings in both contexts is it’s vital that we determine what our principles are and vision is, not just a buzzword like social justice or equity, but how we want to see social justice play out in reality and have mutually agreed steps that we are willing to collectively take to get there.

Many times, when those factors weren’t involved, we didn’t do as well as we could have, and I take responsibility for any part I played or indeed didn’t play. However, I still believe in all circumstances we tried to do our best as a team and that on the whole, most student activists are trying to do what they can for the student body. We are trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world around us and trying to make the right judgement. We have to balance competing values and come to common goals. Much of the criticism we did receive was, as per our constitution, ultimately expected to be dealt with by our president, Joanna. There were times where different pressure groups had truth in what they were saying about how we operate, for example in relation to whether or not we should have events that relate to fast fashion, but Joanna did always try her best to help resolve the disagreements and come to a consensus amongst different perspectives. It’s by no means an easy task and probably the most important of all things we need to do as a democratic organisation.

While I know we can make progress in strengthening our democratic structure and operations in this regard, I’m equally concerned about the people involved in student activism and politics  who think they have, without any doubt, found a solution to the societal circumstances, challenges, and dilemmas we face. They present themselves to others they interact with as knowing absolutely everything, talking in truths not opinions, not caring to listen to the opinions of others, and when they do hear the opinion of another they slam it down outright with little respect. They see their strategy as the only way to achieve equitable and effective change. I think this form of a failure is increasingly entering the political domain and one that I can be honest in saying I’m wary of.

While disclaiming that my own personal views are predominantly left wing, that there are unjustified inequalities and (dis)advantages in society that should be addressed, I accept this concern does not exclude extreme leftists too. I’m left, but still left cautious of those activists who demand more equality and peace but are actually hindering progress by being divisive and sustaining (in many instances exacerbating) the polarised society that currently exists. There is too great a tendency for such groups to focus their energy on who they hate and whose vision they hate, rather than engaging in an open and honest dialogue about the society we live in and want to live in and providing an alternative vision too.

An example of this, is where a Class Representative this year, who I have huge respect for, was labelled homophobic for questioning the existing practices the Union has in relation to solving student issues, and how we decide what specific time and resources we devote to each issue. He begged the question if we have the right balance of solving university issues like microwaves and UCD academic policies – versus national topics such as housing and global issues. He wasn’t suggesting pitting minority issues off of issues that pertain to a majority either, but rather questioning if we are effectively working on all the issues that fall under our remit and what exactly falls under our remit. That is not homophobic. It’s such a situation where I can understand why only around 10% of students vote in Students’ Union elections. They don’t feel we represent their needs and wants. They don’t feel they can speak their minds without being told they are wrong. They feel many of us are in it for our careers alone and aren’t truly representing them. It’s an issue in our democratic structure and we have to address it.

I think also the context of the situation we are working under is important to acknowledge also.   We are situated in a university context where the aim is to seek truth and knowledge and common understandings and goals for society. Labelling some homophobic, when they’re not, is a cheap way out of tough conversations that are needed sooner rather than later. How do we act if we genuinely come across someone is actually homophobic? We should use the terms to describe those who genuinely fit the bill and not throw it around meaninglessly, aimlessly, and unfairly. Otherwise we will widen the division between individuals and between groups. It is a regret for me that I didn’t speak up at the time.

I must also note that this divisiveness should be made distinct to the genuine activists who highlight injustices and ask for necessary change. In a highly unequal society, the top 1% own over 50% of the world’s wealth and a quarter of the world don’t have access to adequate sanitation. In Ireland 1 in 4 children are living in households experiencing deprivation of two or more basic necessities such as heating in the home. Recently our attention has been brought to the deep racial inequality that exists globally. I encourage us to seek and achieve radical change and greater equity in an unequal society, in an unequal world. All I ask is that we try to be honest and accurate when we speak our minds and engage openly with those who disagree with your point of view. Talk to them. Do not tarnish them. They will walk away with their same views, still in disagreement, no consensus will be reached, no progress will be made. I will also be conscious in saying that there will always be some who disagree with you no matter what, but I think it’s worth the try!

 

Striving For Healthy Debate

Perhaps the most significant thing that I’ve learned in the Union is respecting that we all each have a missing piece of the puzzle needed to make the world a better place and that it can’t be a better place if we don’t move with the issues together. A personal example this year is when I was discussing gender neutral bathrooms with a fellow Union member and a so-called ‘feminist’ interrupted us and commented, “oh look, two straight white men talking about gender.” For me, she undermined the work of feminists who work hard to highlight and address issues surrounding gender equality and it derails the movement. As someone who got into Comparative Social Policy at the University of Oxford based on my work tackling societal issues and researching issues of childcare and parental leave (i.e. a strong advocate for gender equality), I was deeply annoyed because I knew I had developed an evidence-based philosophy to guide my judgements but was still stereotyped as someone who couldn’t be informed about the issue. And to top it off, this was by a person who apparently hates people who stereotype.

This example is part of a broader tendency I’ve seen during my 3 years in the Union for activists, including students’ union activists, to paint a picture of themselves as holier than thou or better than others, when as humans we are far from an ideal. I’m not suggesting that we should lead to a world where slander is fair game, but I am suggesting considering if there is any truth in what’s being said before it’s slammed. I’m also suggesting that we shouldn’t be hypocritical – be consistent in how you expect others to behave and how you conduct yourself as person. Call out all forms of hate and injustice. If you see sexism call it out, but if you see bullying by people who hide behind a screen, I equally expect it to be called out. Furthermore, I expect those who do play the moral high ground to abide by the same morals and I’ve seen that’s not always the case in the students’ union activism world.

I’ve seen the Sabbatical Officer who tells us it is wrong to stereotype social cohorts and not to use offensive language (yet they think every Ag Science student is a lad and labels them as such, and calls Fianna Fail and Fine Gael followers Nazis and fascists). Again, does this not take away from and undermine the huge injustices caused by actual Nazis and fascists?  We know these comments are happening too. It’s double standards. Students also see the Officer who talks the good talk but is evidently just in it for the CV and the reference – and even worse, the Officer who denies being in it a small part for the CV at all and hides under a guise of strong morals.

As a Union, and for the student activist movement in general, it is my view we also need to stop focusing all our energy on who may or may not be the enemy and work together to achieve a better university and world. That is not to be naïve about the opposite views standing in our way and the structures that reinforce inequality and injustice. But I’ve just too often seen the ‘social justice’ type who just hates the rich or those in power but has no real love for helping the vulnerable student or for understanding all elements of a complex issue. If it continues, we will be continued not to be taken seriously and we won’t be equipped to deal with the enormity of a particular societal challenge.

An appropriate example is the Union’s relationship is with UCD management. Throughout my time of dealing with the most senior academics in UCD, many twice my age and three times my salary, I’ve found you have no choice but to be tuned in, competent, accurate, convincing, and honest. That’s regardless of any ideology. You won’t do well if all you do is shout and be inaccurate. It equally won’t work if you don’t say anything at all. I appreciate that a balanced approach can be difficult to do but it’s worth considering and trying. I further refute the claims that they are all bad people. I’m not denying they aren’t in it to do well for themselves, seeking promotions and status, but many of them also want to make policy and practice changes to help students and wider society just as much as we do.

 

Campaigning Effectively For A Better Tomorrow

Again, that is not to say that we should not be absolutely critical to those in power (e.g. the government or the university management), to situations that are wrong, and to the inequity that exist in society. We absolutely should and I absolutely will too (I took a lot out of reading Marx during my undergraduate in sociology and social policy!). It may very well be just the decision makers standing in the way. But, in doing so we need to allow a deeper discussion and deliberation about the society we want to live in and come to a shared grasp and understanding of the complexities of the issues at hand in order to solve them.

For example, I deem the Union’s rent strikes that followed the rent hikes this year very much necessary. It went against our Union’s values. The rent was already too high, the communication in relation to the rationale for increasing the rents was poor. The rationale itself was dodgy and dubious. Our president, Joanna, even did a detailed presentation earlier in the year to the University Management Team about housing and accommodation, and the effect it has on students’ accessing and flourishing in higher education. We felt the university were wrong and we wanted them to change their decision. We protested, we got the media on board, the student body on board, UCD staff on board. It was necessary to be what some may describe as radical and try to balance a very unbalanced situation. I think we should restate such a distinction between this example and the extremist position which just seems to hate and make noise rather than wanting to help the situation.

My point is that an equitable and effective campaign doesn’t immediately focus on seeing someone or another group as the enemy and deriving the issues from there, but rather focuses on what the issue is, the context in which that issue operates under, and identifies the barriers that need to be addressed to achieve the desired outcome. In this instance, not only did we say that UCD is not a business, we also highlighted that it is a public institution with public duties and responsibilities. We showed them not only what we hate but what we are in principle and should be in practice.

We need to operate in a way that doesn’t only criticise, but one that presents solutions to societal issues and an alternative vision of the world we want to those we disagree with. At the same time, we shouldn’t be mean to those who are trying their best to wrap their head around tough situations in forming a viewpoint. Listen to their opinion even it’s not quite formulated perfectly. These are tough issues and take time to be understood let alone acted on accordingly. I’m not saying don’t act, but if you act on the basis of a deeply implausible view of the situation, you won’t get anywhere, the majority of people won’t accept it, and you’ll hinder progress.

 

Working Together – Not Apart

Allow yourself the space and time to come to the decision in your heart and soul that what you’re saying and doing is the right thing to do. You might not always get it right. In fact, people may disagree with you. Some may disagree with what I’ve said here. That’s okay too. I won’t apologise but I’ll respect your view. I am confident that with most there’s a level of respect whilst we are processing how we feel about an issue and what to do about it. If there’s anything I’ve learned during my time in the Union is that we need to have these discussions and conversations in society in order to create a fairer society with a common vision.

We should also be free to question the motives of those who present their actions and view themselves as ‘the answer’ to the problems we face in society. That is regardless of whether it is an external group that you disagree on regarding policies and principles in which you need to change their perspective or an internal debate within an organisation that needs to be had to reach a mutual understanding of what we value and want to achieve. Who you think are representing your needs may not have your best interests at heart either, and could equally be fuelled by the greed and power in which they argue their opposition is fuelled by. Challenge the assumptions because unfortunately, I’ve found that the chase for status and greed is found on both sides of the political spectrum.

In the final regard, we shouldn’t assume because we agree on some high-level principles for example gender equality or justice, that we view the term playing out in the exact same way. Conversely, we may agree roughly on how the world should operate but not use the same term. We need to have the conversations and discussions and provide the clarity, dignity, and understanding that will inform the society we want to live. I think we’ll find there’s more that can unite us than divide us, and that we can only have a better future if we work together.

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