Dear Varsity Editors,
I am writing in response to your recently published op-ed “What does OPIRG even do for 147k?” questionable not only for its ill-cited content, but also because it misinformed students in the upcoming referendum vote to withdraw student levy fees from the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG Toronto). As an indigenous student and volunteer of OPIRG Toronto for the past four years, I can attest to the work, dedication and accountability the organization has had to the broader University of Toronto community, whose mandate has been misconstrued by the op-ed.
OPIRG Toronto is one of the few places at the university that offers opportunities to connect students across campus to create community based alternative solutions in dealing with local and global issues of environmental advocacy, migrant justice, indigenous and human rights. This commitment is reflected in a number of OPIRG initiatives, including the founding of Tools for Change, which hosts a variety of free workshops to University of Toronto students who pay into the OPIRG Toronto student levy. Unlike what is reported in the op-ed, Tools for Change was created in 2006 by then OPIRG Board member Jessica Bell as a joint initiative between the organization and Earthroots to build activist skills that “champion social, economic, and environmental justice.”
OPIRG also hosts a number of action groups–including the Filipino Canadian Youth Alliance, Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and the Women’s Coordinating Committee for a Free Wallmapu–all run by and for University of Toronto students, which in many cases challenge the status quo to further environmental, and human rights advocacy. As a South American indigenous student at U of T, OPIRG has been one of the few places on campus where I have been able to fully express my concern for issues–such as indigenous land claims rights–and know my voice will not be greenwashed to the will of corporate or other private interests on campus. Whether it be questioning the role of billionaire investments in the Munk School of Global Affairs, or challenging university investments in the military arms industry, OPIRG speaks truth to power on campus, often stepping on the toes of powerful interests that have a different vision of what the university should look like.
It is no surprise then that the current campaign to defund OPIRG seeks to discredit the organization in the eyes of students and targets marginalized communities that have very rarely had a voice on campus since the inception of the University. The recent op-ed by Christopher Dryden, which argues to defund OPIRG, speaks to this manipulation of facts by initially claiming that the UTSU student levy was no less than $147,000 paid to the organization, which is entirely false as this number represents the totalassets of OPIRG Toronto in a given year. According to the University of Toronto fees website, the OPIRG Toronto levy fee under UTSU is a mere 50 cents per full-time undergraduate student per term, which is reflected in UTSU’s annual audit as approximately $38,000 for the year of 2016. This means that this referendum is concerning only as approximately $38,000 and neither the full budget of OPIRG Toronto or the amount all undergraduates pay. Mind you, even this number does not align with the stated number of full-time undergraduates at the University in 2016-17, which was 39,411. So OPIRG Toronto isn’t even receiving fees equal to all UTSU members.
The author’s attempt to discredit OPIRG proves the author’s inept research at best, and purposeful manipulation of undergraduate students at worst, which preys on student sentiment of making ends meet to silence dissent. The author ridicules articles published in OPIRG’s Actions Speak Louder which upon further inspection reveals his political agenda. 2011’s “How Sex Lost Its Steam” denounces pinkwashing of queer/trans communities and “Eclectic Vultures Go On a Wine-Tasting Spree” from 2016 explores the sexual and economic exploitation of migrant women. Dryden’s sentiment is very clearly one which mocks and demeans the struggles of marginalized people and reveals the true political agenda behind the “Yes OPIRG out of U of T” campaign. One which seems to want to uphold and maintain the university as an Old Boys club which excludes the stories and experiences of the marginalized as valuable research and motivation for action. But, sadly for the author, the faces of university have changed and OPIRG has been there the entire way.
For an organization with only two full-time staff, OPIRG Toronto manages to run a student run a research symposium, a bi-annual student led publication, logistical support for action groups, Tools for Change, DisOrientation and countless other initiatives with a total budget of less than $150,000 a year, while paying their staff a living wage. This is staggering in comparison to the multi-million-dollar budgets run by student unions and non-profit enterprises across North America and on this campus.
Just fifty cents allow undergraduate students the opportunity to publish and present research, build analysis beyond what can be found in the classroom, learn valuable skills that can be used in all sorts of fields, and find their voice to challenge the state of affairs on and off campus. OPIRG has given me so much to be able to do this over my years at U of T, I can only hope that my fellow students will continue to have the same opportunity that I’ve had.
Jenna Morales is an undergraduate student at Woodsworth College specializing in Geography.