The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Annual General Meeting (AGM) went by seemingly unnoticed by the larger student population, but amid debates over policies and bylaws, one comment from an executive stood out to me.
During the debate over a motion that allows members to vote on policy changes at AGMs, Vice-President Operations Tyler Biswurm said, “All these people here are insiders, every single one of us… We don’t speak for the normal person. The normal person doesn’t care about the UTSU.”
It was a pivotal moment in the debate and in the night as a whole. The discomfort from Biswurm’s statement was evident in the room. Members included in their contributions to the debate that they did not feel like that the “insider” label represented them or others attending the AGM.
I reached out to Biswurm to give him the opportunity to provide context to his statement, and he informed me that while he “spoke out in frustration,” he stands by the comment. He wrote in his email that the AGM looked like “an auditorium packed to the brim with ‘insiders’—Executives, Board Directors, Board Directors’ friends, Board Directors’ friends’ friends, members of the press, and hawks from the old guard.”
He argued that the “AGM is supposed to be a night where everyone is equal and the weak can speak in strength. Time and again, however—and this year’s was no different—the AGM is an arena for the powerful to hijack its credibility with voting blocs backed by arsenals of proxy votes.”
“On the evening of October 30th, 2018, special interests won out over the interests of the average student,” Biswurm continued. “A room of 40 insiders decided, in a moment of disgraceful conceit, that they could choose for everyone else.”
Those in attendance clearly disagreed with Biswurm’s characterization. From my perspective, Biswurm’s remark was cynical and alienating, and didn’t get to the heart of the UTSU’s engagement problem. But his comment at the AGM carries some truth that, while uncomfortable, is worth examining.
As a second year with little knowledge of the UTSU, I certainly did not feel like an insider. I’d like to think of myself as the counterexample to Biswurm’s statement: I am a ‘normal’ student who still cares about student governance, which is why I attended the AGM.
But the truth is, my understanding of student governance at U of T is shaped by my friendships within it, the position I hold on my college’s student association, and my involvement with The Varsity. Denying the powers and privileges I hold in these circles does nothing to tackle exclusionary cultures that prevent others from participating.
The dichotomy of ‘insiders’ and ‘normal’ people is not unique to the UTSU. It exists in many spheres of student life, from clubs to college student associations to dining hall cliques. Although many student groups have mandates of accessibility and inclusion, their internal cultures do not always reflect this.
If we want inclusion to be more than a platitude, we need to get back to what it really means: making people feel welcome as they are. It means something as simple as taking the time to explain things you may take for granted: how procedures work, what commonly used acronyms stand for, and what different terms mean within your group. It also means, at times, valuing curiosity and criticism over experience, and accepting that leadership positions shouldn’t always go to the longest serving members.
A good start toward meaningful inclusion can usually be boiled down to asking yourself two questions: who isn’t in the room, and why aren’t they here? The answers to these questions often require practical solutions, such as providing American Sign Language interpretation, choosing an accessible location, and providing food.
But looking at barriers to student involvement should also give us pause to examine things as intricate as tone, demeanor, and atmosphere. A group that ‘ticks’ every box when it comes to physical accessibility could still be exclusionary if members are hostile, condescending, or intimidating.
Ultimately, the claim that ‘normal’ people don’t care about the UTSU shouldn’t be the end of a debate, but the start of a dialogue. If we want an inclusive campus, we should start by making our own circles more open. While it may be uncomfortable to be labelled an ‘insider,’ it feels much worse to be an outsider — so let’s make sure no student feels that way.
Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.