Monthly Archives: December 2015

Public Statement on Campus (Un)safety

University of British Columbia
xʷməθkʷəy̓əm Musqueam Territory
socialjustgradstatements@gmail.com / socialjustgradstatements.wordpress.com

Note: The views in this statement are solely of the authors. They do not reflect the views of all faculty, staff, and students at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice Research.

Recently gaining public attention, student activism at UBC has illuminated the ways in which members of our community are engaging in contentious issues about the way the university handles structural violences on our campus. As graduate students at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice Research, these issues are of particular importance for us as we try to think through and navigate what it might mean to live in a socially just world and university community: how can we engage in collective care and ethics of anti-oppression in the world broadly, but first and foremost, in the space in which we live, teach, and learn? In this piece we draw attention to two issues specifically that stand as impediments to creating such a community, and the urgent need for redress.

On November 21st, UBC President issued a public apology to the women students who came forward with sexual assault complaints about a graduate student in the History department, Dmitry Mordvinov. Upon investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), it was found that at least six formal complaints had been filed against Mordvinov over the past two years. UBC made the decision to quietly expel him in mid-November, though he will be appealing. It should be noted that research and experience show sexualized violence is not a neutral social phenomenon that occurs randomly, but is largely committed against cis women, trans women, and non-binary people that are read as female/women in the dominant culture, often by people that they may know. These cases continue to be viewed as isolated events, rather than as symptoms of a larger rape culture on campuses across North America. In the United States, 85 higher education institutions are under federal investigation due to the mishandling of sexualized violence cases. On those campuses not yet under the spotlight, cases continue to be tucked under the carpet, with universities and colleges fearing that they will be outed next. Earlier in 2015, the CBC launched an investigation into sexual assault on campuses in Canada and found that sexual assault was (and continues to be) widely under-reported, and that across 87 universities/major colleges, only 8 had specific sexual assault policies. In our own review, we find that most campuses use the language of sexual harassment, which typically identified the main issue as relation to the workplace and university/college employees (rather than students). The recent investigation of sexual assault by UBC is reminiscent of a similar case at the Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry, whereby an all-men Facebook Group titled “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” who posted sexuality explicit material about their women classmates was exposed by a whistleblower, who then reported these posts to a female classmate, who further reported it to Dentistry administration. The fumbled University level investigation ended with agreement on a restorative-justice process (argued against by many feminists in addition to many of the women members of the Class of DDS 2015). An external report of the investigation, titled ‘Report of the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism, and Homophobia’ in Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry, was put out in June, 2015. In another UBC example, an English department graduate student, Lucia Lorenzi, wrote an open letter to the Vancity Buzz in reference to a post titled Where to Hook Up at UBC. In this post, the blog describes five places on campus where one can “bang”, including the English department lounge. The blog goes on to state, “having sex in public spaces could be the most fun you’ll have in your four years as an undergraduate”. We, along with Lucia, find this troubling given a) Lucia had been sexually assaulted in that exact location and b) this third-party blog and its employees are offering “unsolicited advice to disrespect community spaces”, creating dangerous environments for everyone. Vancity Buzz has since cut its list down to four, with no mention (and in fact an erasure) of Lucia’s experience or concerns.

These instances illustrate that we cannot address sexual assault by appeasing each case at a time to then proceed with business as usual. These piecemeal solutions continue to create a culture of silence around sexual assault on campus. As an example, one can provide self-defense classes for women, which might ‘help’ the situation in a certain sense, but it then becomes the fault of the woman assaulted to fend off her attacker. In this example, without addressing the fact that men should be taught that they do not have any entitlement over other people’s bodies, we normalize a world in which certain feminized bodies will always be taught to defend themselves while others still retain the implicitly played message that masculine bodies are innately and unchangingly violent. This violence is where we must focus our attention. We must ask, what are the conditions by which certain people feel as though they are entitled to have sex with others without consent? Indeed, any past and future act of sexual violence (and many other forms of violence) requires the use of a sex/gender-, race, and class-based lens. We believe that reforming rape culture on campus requires judicious reflection and discussion among all members of universities and colleges about not only sexual assault, but ongoing sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, transphobia, ableism, colonialism, imperialism, and other systems of oppression that live within academic institutions.

At the same time in which we find ourselves and UBC in the midst of exposing rape culture, we also have seen the unsettling emergence of a UBC “White Students Union.” Over the past two years in the United States, there has been a rise in the #BlackLivesMatter movement in response to increasing and continuous police brutality. An unarmed Black body is killed at the hands of a police officer every 28 hours in the United States 1, and the Black women who started the movement began to organize – there have been over 1200 #BlackLivesMatter protests in the past ~500 days. Importantly and at the same time, movements across campuses have been emerging – racialized students are asking their administration to address the institutionalized racism and oppression that they face in their universities and colleges. Many of these movements are imbued with the power of #BlackLivesMatter, the largest anti-racist political movement in the U.S. since the 1960s. And further, many of these university movements draw historically on demonstrations, protests, and sit-ins that took place on their campuses from the Black Power liberation movements to inspire their own activism. With the rise of this political action, white terrorism is also rampant in response – death threats towards student protesters have ensued, Black demonstrators were shot by white supremacists in Minneapolis, and White Student Unions have been forming all over the United States. The latter most emergence, the White Student Union, has also made its way to multiple universities in Canada, including UBC.

There are rumours that the almost infectious way that the White Student Union (WSU) Facebook pages have been forming is no coincidence, with people in these groups calling for students everywhere to create more of these pages. However, in an article entitled, No, Buzzfeed, White Student Unions are not ‘Hoaxes’ Created by Racists, one of the founding members of UBC’s WSU was interviewed and himself emphasized the fact that the page was creating for those who are are “afraid to speak out publicly.” The UBC WSU page writes:

“campuses across North America are facing an ideological onslaught which considers whites to hold a moral responsibility for many of the world’s ills. Whiteness itself is thought of as something to be “deconstructed” because it is tainted by history. However, this is a one-way assault. No one believes that Coast Salish identity should be deconstructed due to their history of keeping slaves, or that Turkish identity should be deconstructed because of the Armenian genocide.”

The page goes on to detail that it has formed to create a “safe space” for white students, arguably similar rhetoric to that used by students asking for inclusivity on their university campuses. While we understand the need of a dialogue between white people for navigating their whiteness, the WSU’s missive appears to come from a place of misplaced victimhood. By insisting that social justice movements have dismissed significant contributions of white people to the world, the WSU forgets that every historical account in schools across the world acknowledges and glorifies them. Even in history books of formerly colonized countries like India, the space given to historical accounts, achievements and contributions of white men is in abundance. Furthermore, what the White Student Union fails to address is the fact that is that the university is always-already a white space. It is this culture of whiteness that demands interrogation. The expectations and standards of university life are based upon the cultural codes of power of what it means to navigate, or “succeed” in college. From the “proper” way to answer emails, perform certain behaviours in the classroom, right down to the traditional lecture style of the classroom, all of these standards are and have been historically set by those for whom the university was built – white people and the elite. The WSU notes that whiteness is “tainted” by history, when in fact, whiteness is the very foundation upon which our histories were built. That is, from the enslaved labour that built physical structures, intellectual labour gone unrecognized and co-opted by white scholars in history books, to institutions made on the very premise of the exclusion of certain (racialized, gendered, classed) bodies. Whiteness as an ideology is that which needs to be deconstructed.

To argue that deconstruction is not needed because it is a ‘one-way assault’ is at most generous misguided and truthfully ignorant. Colonization was a one-way assault. Slavery was a one-way assault. Settler Colonialism is a one-way assault. Many, if not all, of these unjust and violent processes are still ongoing. Social Justice movements and studies are not – contrary to public opinion – about reversing the discrimination process and shaming. They recognize, address and fight back against oppressions that affect us all. But we must begin that process by taking into account, unhesitatingly, the ills that have been and continue to be committed. There is already a place for living, being and celebrating whiteness. It is the world we live in. What we, and the students who are protesting white supremacy are saying is that the world is should not be equated to the world that ought.

There is space that has been made and is continually being made to dismantle these structures and processes. Just in last few weeks, two events were held on UBC campus that address the politics of community solidarity for battling racism and other forms of oppression on campus. On Thursday, November 26th, keynote speaker Harsha Walia, a local environmental activist, and panelists Dr. Sunera Thobani (UBC), Raquel Park (Rising Tide), and Jasheil Athalia (SFPIRG) pressed the importance and impact of organizing against what they call the “root causes” of inequity – namely, capitalism, colonialism, hegemony, and patriarchy. Specifically related to the current campus climate, their collective response was that these ideologies and practices have created a culture of fear and violence on our campuses that needs to be broken. The following day, on Friday, November 27th, lead by Black students, an event was held to show solidarity for the #BlackLivesMatter, #Mizzou, #feesmustfall, and #studentblackout movements. After an afternoon of inspiring performances by racialized students and community members, a group of students of colour, Indigenous students, and friends marched across the UBC campus to the President’s Office to deliver a message calling for the subversion of white supremacy and institutional racism on campus. These events draw attention to the continuous exclusion of racialized persons (especially Black and Aboriginal peoples) from administrative positions, faculty positions, and even admissions to UBC.

These two intersecting issues on campus must be processed with the understanding that sexual assault is not simply a tool of patriarchal control, but also serves as a technology of racism and colonialism. Moreover, that racialized relations are in turn gendered and sexualized. This raises the question of solutions and the way forward – how, indeed, do we develop anti-oppression strategies that move towards aims of social justice and liberation? This is where the challenge lies…We encourage all members of the UBC community to show solidarity against structural and cultural forms of violence on our campus. Though we may not have a solution yet, it is through collective action that we can can hold our faculty, administration, peers, and ourselves accountable. As the term comes to a close, we will take the time offered to us (free of exams, papers, teaching, etc.) to concentrate our energies towards mobilizing a plan of direct action, critical dialogue, and grassroots organizing. For those who would like to be involved or who would simply like to offer some words of support, please write us at socialjustgradstatements@gmail.com.

Community Speaks Out Against Displacement in the DTES

It has been more than two weeks since the City of Vancouver’s decision to crack down on survival street vending on 0-400 blocks of East Hastings St. According to the City, the once-common act of selling wares on the sidewalk will no longer be tolerated, as police presence is set to increase in order to drive vendors into city-sanctioned markets.

The Downtown Eastside (DTES) community has been concerned about the new policy, claiming that the ban is a tactic to clear out street vendors and homeless people  in order to make way for gentrification condominium development in the area.

On December 3rd, a “community speak-out” was held at the Carnegie Community Centre. Organizers hoped to open up dialogue and implement next steps through which to counteract the policy. Earlier that week, community groups staged a “vend-in” protest and issued an open letter to the City of Vancouver.

During a meeting on November 17th, Tobin Postma, the City of Vancouver’s Communication Manager, stated that tickets will not be issued to enforce the policy, but some community members have expressed doubt.

“The City has vowed that the movement of people off East Hastings is voluntary,” said Douglas King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, “but this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Many vendors are being forced or intimidated by the police. Some have even had their possessions confiscated.”

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Police have been intimidating and confiscating possessions from vendors in the DTES

King also stated that the Vancouver may be taken to court regarding the ban, which could be in violation of the Charter. Section 7 of the document ensures one’s “right to life,” and a large number of vendors sell goods in order to buy food and other daily necessities. Last fall, a provincial judge dismissed a similar challenge regarding the vending by-law.

Tracy Morrison, president of Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society, expressed that the ban hasn’t only taken a toll on vendors means of survival but has greatly impacted the community.

“I never thought I’d come out here and see a ghost town,” she said. “I used to be able to walk around and see people I know, but nobody is out anymore. They’ve completely taken away our community.”

These sentiments were echoed by an organizer of the event, Karen Ward, who noted the important social element of East Hastings St. “For many of us, the streets are the only place where we can see the people we know,” she proclaimed. “We are losing not just a place to sell to buy and sell things, but our right to freely assemble. Once we are pushed out, we are invisible. We lose our presence and voices.”

After the primary speakers, the crowd was asked to share how the ban had personally affected them. One man, who makes a humble living selling hand-made art, expressed that he can no longer afford rent because he cannot sell his wares on East Hastings St.

Another woman said that at times when she didn’t have enough money, many vendors would let her buy food on credit. She is worried that the ban will eliminate this informal safety net which has for years ensured her something to eat. Additionally, a survey of more than 50 street vendors found that the community has been gravely impacted by the new policy. 

While many people asserted that pressure must be put on the City to repeal the policy, others were quick to bring up the bigger issue. “Vending is not the central point here,” said Dan Wallace, a prominent First Nations activist. “Vending is a symptom of homelessness, which is the real problem. If the City looks after its own residents, if they provide them with the necessary assistance, then people wouldn’t even had to vend in the first place.”

A riot squad of the VPD raid Oppenheimer Tent City

A riot squad of the VPD raid Oppenheimer Tent City

According to the most recent homeless count, there are currently 1,746 unhoused individuals in Vancouver, over 800 of whom live in the DTES. Seven years ago, Mayor Gregor Robertson claimed that he would end homelessness in the city by 2015.

Once the event came to a close, many attendees expressed that there is still much work to be done. Despite numerous protests, the City seems firm regarding the street vending ban. However, the community has vowed to continue to continue to place pressure on city officials and the police until the policy is lifted.

Pedro was born in the jungles of Paraguay but currently lives in Vancouver. In his spare time, he likes to eat cheesecake and release electronic music under the pseudonym LUSK.

Special thanks to Jakub Markiewicz & Maria Wallstam

there’s the rub;

TW: rape, secondary victimization/victim-blaming, PTSD, dissociation

do you remember when the nightmares of your childhood
were the only notion you had of the existence of
evil
where you’d stare wide-eyed
(doe a deer a female deer)
into the eyes of your monster while your mouth,
an open grave,
tried to give voice to the singing, stunning terror
resonating through your tiny body
like some deadly surge of energy your fragile self might not survive?
except you found yourself
voiceless
unable to deter your monster or delay your inevitable demise
your mind screaming for your mother or your god or the morning light
til you opened your eyes and found yourself
bathed damp in your cold sweat and your hot tears
to find,
in a rush of relief,
that there was no monster at all
that you were safe
that the night terrors were just that;
night terrors,
and evil remained but a
concept.

of course,
what is adulthood but the incarnation of nightmares?
I should not have been surprised to find that monsters do not disappear when you open your eyes;
instead they stare back at you
with a cavernous smile,
a grinning skull
telling you how they will
“make it hurt”
heavy, brutish paws pinning down your fragile wrists
so that you may scream for your god but he is
dead
and your mother is gone
and nobody loves you
you are alone in the night and in the world and
though you still wish for the morning,
dawn is no longer your saviour
because when the first rays of light slit your body into disconnect,
he does not disappear
you lie beside your monster like
carcass alongside predator
except he threatens your empty shell,
“you better not have gotten any blood on my sheets,
christ,
virgins are just asking for it,”
as if he had the right to demand a sterile crime scene
as if the sacrificial lamb asked for its slaughter
as if being too pure was a crime punishable by death
after all, Jesus himself
(post-massacre)
was careful to leave no trace of his
remains
on the altar.
you are the Chosen One
“you should be grateful”
you must be taken apart
but leave nothing behind
you must die
then get up and walk
away

I suppose it’s not too much to ask;
when I rose again I knew nothing so much as I was
empty
blank eyes void of meaning
of emotion and understanding
no tears to mark the completion of my nightmare
–oh, it wasn’t over!
I’m sure you have experienced waking from a dream only to find yourself in
another
and another
and another
because what difference did it make if I walked out on my monster
“hey, let’s be fuck buddies!”
he laughed
you call that an escape?
an escape,
to stumble out past the monster’s jeering roommate
in last night’s neon pink clothes
face blackened and smeared with old makeup like
bloodied battered bruises
and bloodied battered bruises aside,
heels that pinched and screamed of
“slut”
and let in all the rain
while I wandered through a cold, unfamiliar country
–I’d only been here three weeks, let’s call it a wasteland
–so numb I could not distinguish
the cold and the wet of
‘Vancouver weather’
from the cold and the wet of
the shame and the loathing that seeped into the corners of my heart
until the foundations were
rotten and unstable and collapsable
not fit for use
but what’s in a heart anyway?
I learnt to throw it out.

I would like to tell you
that ‘Sauder kid, handsome, richer than you, twenty two’
was not comparable to
‘ugly beast with fangs and claws,
horns and hoof and tongue split in half’
that after navigating the strange campus
for two hours straight
(no Ariadne to my Theseus)
I put dreaming aside and woke unharmed.
but instead I slept on
nightmare neverending
and learnt that unconsciousness is better than death,
and staring at yourself at the bottom of a bottle
is better than
looking into the mirror to gaze at your own cadaver
your sleep is restless but at least you are still breathing
you make your bed in a hospital room but at least it is not
your tomb
they will tell you to wake up,
hush little baby don’t you cry
it was all just a horrible dream but it’s over now and
Rachel,
don’t you know that monsters don’t really exist?

I cannot tell them that a gentleman is
nothing
but a patient wolf
and darling,
I’m wide awake now but there is only evil
you may turn on the lights
but my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?
give me back my throbbing heart but you will never
resuscitate the dead
nor get rid of the monster
inside of my
bed

Why I took my favorite charity to the Human Rights Tribunal

In September 2014, I took the British Columbia Lions Society for Children with Disabilities to the BC Human Rights Tribunal on the grounds of disability discrimination. I chose to seek legal action after internally voicing my concerns regarding the hiring processes of their summer camps, BC Easter Seals Camps that grossly favour able-bodied applicants. In their reply, the Society dismissed my concerns in their entirety, stating that as they have employed disabled people in the past, including myself, their track record negates the need for any official equal opportunity hiring policies. The Society seems to use its previous employment of the disabled as justification to discriminate against them. Their vehement aversion of designating themselves as an equal opportunity employer magnifies the way in which their prior employment of the disabled is merely an anomaly, and counter to their actual belief that people with disabilities are utterly incapable. Moreover, it is antithetical of an organization that aims to empower the disabled community to actively exclude members of that same community.         

After my successful employment with the Society in the summer of 2013 they gave me a positive appraisal that welcomed my return in any capacity. Upon reapplying for the 2014 hiring season at Camp Squamish, I was told during my interview that the way I advocate for myself because of my disability is too blunt for their liking and jeopardizes my ability to contribute as a member of a team. While I am of the opinion that advocacy must be relentless to be successful, I will never forget these words. They illustrate that it was how I choose to live my life with my disability that was the sole reason why I was not rehired. This criticism was in direct response to my queries concerning why my prospective personal support worker (PSW) had been interviewed before me and without my knowledge. The sole responsibility of my PSWs is to assist me in my toileting or “personal care” needs, while I am responsible for fulfilling all facets of my position, including the one I was interviewed for. Interviewing my PSW at all was an unethical departure from prior protocol. Normally, I work for an employer and my PSWs work for me. Typically, an employer would only speak with my PSWs after I have been offered a job. In this case, not only was I denied a return counselling position, but my PSW, whom I had introduced to the employer, and who was inexperienced as a camp counsellor, was offered a position in my place. Speaking up for my rights was actively held against me.          

I live with a degenerative neuromuscular disorder, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy that requires me to use a power wheelchair. As my disability has progressed I’ve lost complete mobility in my limbs and my voice is my sole means of communicating and advocating for my needs. This fact is often overlooked by able-bodied people who commonly perceive my assertive style of communication as unnecessarily abrasive, even though it is my only means of being heard.

Since the 1970s, the Society has operated three summer camps: Camp Shawnigan, Camp Squamish, and Camp Winfield that provide overnight summer camping experiences to 600 children across British Columbia. They were my favorite charity because they cultivated a space where I could be myself and felt valued. However, I eventually discovered that they believe empowering people with disabilities only occurs in the vacuum of their camping environment, where real world goals of employment are deemed unrealistic and too much to ask for.       

Prior to being accepted to work at Camp Shawnigan in 2013, I attended Camp Squamish as a child for many years and volunteered there for several more. In 2012, I co-founded the fundraising campaign Easter Seals on Wheels and participated in three consecutive 24-hour relays to raise $12,000 to send six children to camp. I am saddened that the children who told me that they would love to work there will also face barriers towards employment with the Society, as long as they continue questioning the integrity and capabilities of persons with disabilities.

The Society trains their staff to be more empathetic by having them partake in mandatory empathy exercises of using a wheelchair, not speaking, and wearing blindfolds. However, these exercises do not give able-bodied employees license to determine what is best for the entire disabled community. A community is best served by its own members, and excluding staff with disabilities deprives camp participants of much needed disabled role models and mentors who are not afraid to advocate for their wants and needs.  

Due to a large staff turnover every year, the Society regularly appoints camp coordinators who have minimal experience working with people with disabilities, let alone any experience employing them. They have admitted to routinely interviewing disabled applicants whom they had no intention of ever hiring. They view their duty to accommodate as requiring too much effort, even though there is no undue hardship in doing so. Despite being employed in the summer of 2013 at Camp Shawnigan, the entirely different coordinating team at Camp Squamish in 2014 viewed employing me as needless extra work. They spun their decision as being based on my abrasive self-advocacy, that was directly associated with advocating for my rights as an applicant and for questioning their ableist hiring practices.

The Society ostracises anyone who critiques their stagnant values and policies. Their silencing of my differently abled voice, through their criticisms of my persistent self-advocacy, is inextricably tied to the way disabled bodies are continually regarded as apolitical and lacking of individual autonomy. Attempting to speak for so many of the disabled for so long has made the Society ignorant of many of that community’s real-life concerns, particularly pertaining to employment, and, most importantly, to each member’s desire for personal agency.                    

Regardless of the Society’s opinion on employee engagement with self-advocacy, what I still find most perplexing is why an organization that claims to serve the disabled community is so against officially implementing and enforcing equal opportunity hiring policies. This is a direct consequence of the severely antiquated charitable model of disability that the Society operates on, which is decades outdated. Their mandate of “giving children abilities” is hinged on the ableist and insensitive premise that people with disabilities (myself included) lack any abilities of our own and that we are helpless and deserving of pity. The Society also continues to run its annual Timmy’s Christmas Telethon, hosted by Shaw TV Vancouver, piggybacking off of the classic pity characterization of Timothy “Tiny Tim” Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ 1843 novel A Christmas Carol. Every year, the telethon casts a disabled child as the latest “Timmy”, relying on pitiful insensitivity to elicit donations. This representation of people with disabilities is harmful and an asset to the Society would be an employee who recognizes this fact.           

I recommend that the Society swiftly re-evaluate their ableist hiring practices and values and look to their partnered organizations, Easter Seals Alberta and Easter Seals Ontario, who have both successfully implemented equal opportunity hiring policies. They evidently understand that empowering people with disabilities also encompasses employment, and that anything less is counterproductive and hypocritical.

Employment opportunities alone cannot solve many of the inequalities that disabled people face in their quest to become equal participants in society. But employment at least helps put them on a path towards a level playing field. The Society would much rather exclude applicants with disabilities than spend time and energy reconfiguring their own ableist organization. Fervent unwillingness to re-evaluate their hiring practices remains the Society’s biggest barrier to inclusion.             

While I could not prove that I was explicitly discriminated against and my human rights complaint was eventually denied, I was without question implicitly discriminated against. I took my favourite charity to the Human Rights Tribunal to hold them accountable to their alleged commitment to bettering the disabled community. Sadly, the only change that the Society has implemented as a result of this case is to no longer offer any of their seasonal camp employees year-end evaluations. This severely hinders each individual’s ability to improve and learn. The Society’s actions imply that employing people with disabilities is a constant failure because they may try to advocate for themselves and restructure a discriminatory organization. Clearly, their track record demonstrates that this perceived failure is purely a result of the Society’s own closed-mindedness and ableist thinking.
This case is just one example of discrimination that often goes unchallenged. Organizations that intend to alleviate the plight of marginalized groups often become so fixated on their own visibility that they start to forget their mission entirely, which only leads to hurting the people they meant to help most. Ardent advocacy and speaking out is crucial to progress and the promotion of change.

@lukegalvani is a disability rights advocate attending Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Communications.

Special thanks to my resident editor Kent Cadogan Loftsgard, The Talon editing team, all of my instructors at SFU for their encouragement, and those who have given me their unwavering support since day one.