By Anna Liz Thomas
This is the third in a series of interviews that have been collected from some of the outgoing members of the GISA Board. The first and second of these interviews can be found here, and here. These interviews are not meant to reflect the individuals holding these positions. Rather, they are a way to contain institutional memory: of what it means to represent students at the Institute.
Okay, so just to start off how would you describe your role within the Gisa board?
I’m the events coordinator and it’s a big role. I’m in charge of all the room bookings that come from the students at the Institute, specifically at Picciotto, Maison de la Paix, and Grand Morillon. I’m the liaison between the housing administration and the students who are organising events on campus. In terms of other responsibilities that have fallen to my lap, this includes engaging with the 38-40 Initiatives we have, and providing them with as much support as I can in order to ensure that they’re able to carry out their goals and their events for each semester.
How has your experience been so far?
Honestly, it’s been kind of traumatic. I got really close to quitting multiple times. I think that there are certain things that are structurally flawed in GISA’s design. I really hope that future students are able to take the initiative to understand and work to create change so there’s less stress on the people that occupy these positions. The GISA Board is a really small group of people with a lot on our plates. For example, my coworker Madi, she’s doing everything related to Comms, ranging from website updates, to newsletters. If you think about it, a whole team should be doing this work. Right now, the Board is too small relative to the work that needs to be done. So I believe we’re being set up to fail.
I also think that people come to these positions with different training and backgrounds. I experienced this with student unions during undergrad and with the Canadian Federation of Students, wherewe received training and capacity building for the work we do. Whereas, my experience at GISA was that we received no training. The P&F (Planning and Feedback) Meeting, which is a strategy call to work towards the Board’s long term goals, has not taken place since October. It’s evidence of how much the board is not really working together. I’ve repeatedly asked for this especially because we’re supposed to have a P&F every time there’s a new board member added. But over time, when you’re the only person who’s bringing attention to this and you’re not being listened to, you just wonder how much of this you can do.
I also think there are issues in how GISA is politically used by this administration. I think that’s really important for the Institute and the student body to tease out the role of GISA, and whether it is a student union or if it is a mediator of the Institute. At the moment it kind of falls on individual students that are elected to choose their approach. I found that there was really just a lack of bold leadership in my board. The way I always understood my role was that I was elected by students, and therefore representing the students, and not to be the mouthpiece of the administration or work to appease it. I think that in the GISA Board, there were certain members who saw themselves as employees of the Institute, and then there were others who saw themselves as student representatives.
The other place where I think it’s flawed by design is that it’s absolutely ridiculous that we have new board members elected every semester. It’s hard in a team to constantly have new members, and to give them institutional memory every semester. There’s no consistency.
I think the institution very much uses this to their advantage because there’ll be a different Board after seven months, and then the institution can continue to treat the next group the same way they treated us. So it gets difficult to do long-term advocacy, if you’re not organizing P&F meetings, and sitting down and connecting previous board goals to the next board goals.
There came a point where I kind of stepped back because I realized that there wasn’t a team. What ended up happening was that we were fulfilling our individual roles and responsibilities, but there isn’t a Board position on things, and it is visible. It’s a really big shame because I think at the beginning, we were doing more outreach and connecting with students. I did my best, I organised Initiative days, and GISA 101s for students.
The Board also has to be present and active to build trust with community members. Why are black students not showing up to our events or our meetings? It is important to connect turnout of students to trust in leadership and institutions. If we organize enough and if we’re present and showing our face on campus…it’s very much a reciprocal relationship and I really dislike this defensive position that the board often took when they thought the students hated them. Just because someone critiques you, it does not mean they hate you. And it’s really not that personal. We study political science and I feel like it kind of gets lost to students while they’re practising it. I don’t take criticism personally, because I don’t think students know me enough to critique me personally.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but if I were to take one thing, I want to discuss the lack of student participation within the spaces that GISA has created. I would think that you, as the Events Coordinator would have seen the amount of student participation when it comes to Initiatives and events on campus. In complete distinction to that is the absence of students running for elections (there were three positions where candidates ran uncontested), and minimal participation at general assemblies, town halls and GISA meetings. What would you make of this contradiction?
You have to be present, and active. I really think the Board is not active. You can read through meeting minutes where they’re complaining about students not showing up to GAs, but then students do show up, critique, and want motions added, but they’re not treated kindly. I’ve seen GAs turn toxic from both sides, not just the students, but also in how GISA receives feedback.
Since I work on the events side of things, I am very connected with students. So I’ve told the Board to come to these events that Initiatives are organising, because it’s really important for these initiatives to see our board members. During welcome month, I organised GISA 101s, which was a fun workshop on GISA rules and bylaws, and a lot of students came for it. There are lots of students who are interested in learning about how GISA works, but those spaces need to be facilitated and created. At the end of the day, I didn’t see that happening from all the board members, or that they were present and engaging with the larger student body. I work part-time, but I made an intentional decision to not take an internship while I was working on the Board. In September and October I was working 50 plus hours a week for the Board, and it’s incredibly evident when there’s someone on the Board who is only putting in 2 hours a week.
I think the student body also needs to create rules around accountability for the people that they’re electing into these positions, because it can’t just be just up to us to hold ourselves accountable. I found it really difficult to work on a team where people had different productivity outputs.
I’m definitely not the type of person who wants recognition. I’m happy as long as the job gets done. But one of the last events I worked on was the second graduation party (the one for COVID extension students). It was 4 AM, and I was just cleaning up on my own. My friends were getting upset and saying how ridiculous it was that the rest of my team was not around. So you don’t have support from the administration or your colleagues. For all the times I almost quit, I know this sounds cheesy, but I stayed for the community.
In the context of events, I think there have been two issues that have come to light. The first is the harassment during and after events, and the second is the rising cost of using student spaces. How has it been for you to handle these issues?
The hardest part of this job was probably working with the housing administration. I love the Events Team at the Institute,they mostly do events at Maison de la Paix. Melissa Iglesias-Vialatte was one of the most competent and supportive individuals to work alongside. Whereas you have the housing team that does bookings at Picciotto and GM. I found that defensiveness is something that is uniform across the Institute. I was constantly mediating between initiatives and the housing administration. There were multiple instances where Initiatives were treated poorly by the security guards, and this is constant. We’ve had meetings with Bruno (Chatagnat) and Vanessa (Valerio) talking about housing and security. The students have highlighted how they have felt the security team treats them differently if they are francophones versus not, which is not fair. There’s a massive communication barrier. It makes the job much more difficult, and we’ve seen Initiatives being charged insurmountable security charges for organising events. The school does not understand that we are the ones organising student life. At some point, either GISA needs to come to an agreement where the Institute is at least subsidizing the security costs by half, or they have to give us more money because they’re forcing us to hire security, which can be outrageously expensive.
There’s a lot of back and forth and it doesn’t come with a manual on how to do it. I think you just have to constantly push back, which again puts you in this unpleasant space. On the issue of harassment during, prior and after events: I think the Institute needs to put its money where its mouth is. If they care about students’ safety, student life, they need to fund security, and more things related to trauma-informed, survivor-friendly consent education. I worked with Delcia from QISA to ensure that before and after organising parties, there would be discussion about consent during the Welcome Month
In my undergrad, we would do consent education constantly. We would have sexual health and consent information at parties, we had people who were paid to walk students home (after parties) along the major risk paths. My undergrad had only a thousand students. It was a no-name liberal arts college that was very underfunded. So there’s no reason for the Institute to say they’re small and can’t do these things. We’re asking for the bare minimum. I think as things like sexual harassment come into IHEID’s agenda especially with the two new people being hired at the Institute, they should also advocate for more comprehensive policies around these subjects. I’m organising parties where there are 300 plus people where everyone is drunk, and I know sexual violence takes place. I’m from Canada, which has some of the most progressive sexual violence policies on university campuses in the world, and to go from there to here is a big culture shock.
There’s also massive loopholes in our policies. For instance, there are no processes to remove a non-IHEID student living at the student residences if they have been found to have committed sexual assault. We try to advocate for change, but we have to go to an administration that is extremely defensive and anti-student, and co-workers who are compliant with the school’s position. I think it just burns you out, you know and I just really hope for the best. I hope for institutional memory to exist so that this is not lost.
Is there one thing that you would like to showcase about the work that you’ve done that has been successful?
I definitely want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed organizing parties at this school. I think, looking back, those were some of my favourite memories with my friends at the school. I’m really proud of how well the student body works together, when it’s just them, and there’s no obstruction from the administration. I would also say that the welcome month was an incredible time in terms of the events that were thrown together and organized. I would definitely look back at the grad parties, the welcome parties, the QISA and LANI parties. They were really fun and carved out a space for us in this boring city. It gave us an affordable way to have fun and jive. So, I think that even though I had one of the more taxing positions, the bright side of it is that I got to meet lots of people and enjoy that in an adjacent setting.
I’m asking everyone if there’s one thing they would like to change about the Institute and about GISA, what would it be. I feel like that question is a bit pointless since most of our conversation had been about the things that need to change.
There’s more than one thing. Perhaps I could instead answer if there’s one thing that can stay the same about GISA and the Institute?
Sure, yeah that would be cool.
I really love the rooftop at GM. If the security and cleaning costs were to be brought down, I think it’s a really lovely space. We’re privileged to have access to something like this for our events.
I think about GISA. I would say that even though I felt quite under-supported, the solidarity I had from Initiatives was amazing. They saw that I did my job and respected and appreciated it.
Picture Credits: Dario de Quarti