On February 23rd, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s Soup and Substance. The event discussed campus climate in relation to events both on and off campus, centering the voices and experiences of students.
The panel consisted of 6 students with diverse identities but with the common experience of a hostile and unsafe campus climate at times. Student groups represented on the panel included: The Trans Collective, Muslim Students’ Association, Indigenous Students’ Association, Feminist Collective and Students Supporting Israel. There was also a student present who spoke about the experience of having a disability on campus. Before I go any further, I would like to point out that this selection of student groups did not contribute to a safe space for all students to attend and to participate in the panel.
In my representation of the Feminist Collective, I spoke broadly about the structures of misogyny and sexism, and how those have played out for our members this year. The events I chose to focus on were the threats against women, feminists and specific departments at the University of Toronto in the fall and the visible emergence of a Men’s Issues group at Ryerson. I spoke about how these events impacted our collective in general terms with a few specific examples of the harassment we experienced. While I did not use “I” statements, I’m really glad that fellow panellists did as it demonstrated the ways individual interactions contribute to an unsafe campus climate for students.
In discussions about social justice, both on and off campus, we often discuss the structural nature of individual experiences. We discuss how addressing racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, Islamaphobia, anti-Semitism, etc. at structural and institutional levels will impact individual experiences. Many solutions to social injustice are based in eradicating these systems of oppression at systemic levels, as they should be, but this panel reminded me that all of these systems live in individuals. With that being said, one of the ways we can create a safer campus climate is addressing the individual actions of students and faculty.
While the eradication of oppression needs to happen at a systemic level, there are very simple things individuals can do to change students’ experiences of campus climate. Eradicating systems of oppression are long and hard-fought battles that will continue beyond our time at Ryerson; I commend all student activists who are fighting to address the heart of the matter which is systems of oppressions entwined in institutions. Ryerson does not have a shortage of these activists, but if we want to see an improvement of student experience, individuals need to do some reflection and change their behaviours. During the panel, I heard students share heartbreaking stories of their experiences on campus that ultimately reflect the individual choices of students and faculty in how they will interact with students.
Students with service dogs are being told to leave because their dog is scaring people; students without disabilities are taking the accessible seating in lecture halls and when asked to move, claim they got there first; trans students are being harassed for the clothing they wear and are concerned for their safety when they wear what they want; professors are using incorrect pronouns despite being told of the pronouns individual trans students use; students are being spit on and harassed while holding an event on campus; students with disabilities are being told to use the stairs to access the Student Learning Centre; students with disabilities that impact their vision are being told their eyes are scary; women who wear the hijab are being harassed on their way to class. This is just a few examples.
All of these experiences which impact campus climate and a sense of safety at Ryerson are the result of individual actions. While micro and macro manifestations of oppression are inherently related, one can change their individual actions. Everything I described above manifests from the actions of individual people in the Ryerson community and they can change their actions at any time.
While the eradication of systems of oppression at institutional levels and the liberation of peoples affected by those systems is crucial, we can’t wait for widespread change. Current students are unsafe now and they are impacted daily by the violence I described above. A partial solution to a safer school climate lives within the individuals who hold privilege and attend/ work at Ryerson. Those that hold privilege based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, ability, etc., are making this school unsafe through individual actions. This is violent, unacceptable and we need to do better as a community at Ryerson.