Five student advocates share their perspectives on the structural changes that are needed to advance equity work.
The voices of women of colour need to be at decision-making tables – but representation is not the endgame of equity work.
In high-stakes, high visibility spaces, women of colour are subject to unique pressures as the intricacies of race and gender interact with one another. It’s easy to idealize the women of colour in politics or leadership roles who navigate these spaces with grace. After all, these leaders – simply by virtue of occupying offices that were built to exclude them – are engaging in acts of resistance and bringing historically excluded perspectives into the conversation. In taking on these leadership roles, they illuminate the possibility for young people who identify in similar ways to follow in their footsteps. But when we assume that representation means that the work of equity, diversity, and inclusion in our political systems and organizations is over, we fail to recognize the systemic and structural nature of discrimination within our colonial institutions.
As five elected advocates who are women of colour working in the realm of student politics, these challenges are all too familiar to us.
As the Vice-Presidents of our respective student government organizations, we represent the voices of students on Western University’s main campus and its three affiliate colleges (Huron, Brescia, and Kings), amplifying student recommendations and feedback to university administrators and municipal, provincial, and federal levels of government. We serve on a variety of boards, committees, and working groups at the university level and within our community, meet regularly with senior leadership and administrators on our campuses, and occupy leadership positions in lobbying organizations in order to advance priorities that are important to our student body.
As students, these roles are incredible opportunities to enact meaningful change on a variety of issues impacting the student body, including affordability, sustainability, mental health, student safety, equity, and more. But occupying positions of power as women of colour is a trade-off: running in elections and taking on advocacy work means we also have to contend with consistently being dismissed, undermined, and tokenized.
Though we are passionate about our work, it can be intimidating moving through campus spaces that have been built and shaped by heteropatriarchy and whiteness, knowing that the Eurocentric buildings around us were not intended to educate or support people who identify in the ways we do. As Vice-Presidents of our respective student government organizations, we don’t have the luxury that white and male advocates enjoy, of coming into meeting rooms and decision-making spaces as blank slates with the freedom to make an impression on people based on our individual values, ideas, and expertise. Instead, what we say and do is used as a tactic to gauge the interests of racialized communities.
Whiteness is the default in our Canadian society; as such, the work women of colour do becomes linked to our racial identities, and often the ownness of leading equity work is placed onto us. Many politicians and leaders are able to debate the merits of affirmative action or the validity of social justice movements as concepts without grappling with a personal connection to these policies. However, for leaders whose histories, communities, and everyday lives are tied to these ideas and movements in personal and intricate ways, advocacy cannot be decoupled from our identities or neatly tucked away when we go home for the night.
While we will often talk about the importance of diverse leaders shattering glass ceilings and the need for different voices to be at decision-making tables, what we don’t often consider is how painful the process of breaking glass ceilings can be when the shards of glass come raining down.
Navigating a white and male-dominated arena as women of colour takes its toll in often unseen and unspoken ways. This work can be triggering, exhausting, and isolating. Before we can even begin to advocate on behalf of the people we were elected to represent, we have to advocate for ourselves to be taken seriously in rooms and meetings where we are almost always the only woman of colour present.
But occupying these roles can also be incredibly rewarding. As far as we know, this is the first time all five advocacy Vice-Presidents from our four student councils at Western University have been women of colour. Taking on these positions has given us a unique opportunity to encourage other equity-denied women to enter the world of student politics and make visible the rewards and challenges that come with doing so.
It is imperative that diverse lived and learned experiences inform advocacy efforts in institutional and societal spaces. It’s empowering to see equity-denied women occupy roles that have historically been reserved for affluent white men and shape the policymaking and programming that governments and organizations are responsible for. We’ve seen powerful examples of women of colour within the Canadian political landscape – Jody Wilson-Raybould, Laura Mae Lindo, and Jyoti Gondek are among the resilient leaders who have carved space for themselves in politics and have laid the groundwork for future generations to do the same.
Particularly given the events of the last two years – wherein anti-racist and anti-sexual and gender-based violence work has been at the forefront of student advocacy efforts at Western University and post-secondary institutions across Canada – the voices of women of colour need to inform and drive these conversations.
But while the presence of women of colour in leadership positions makes a vital difference in decision-making spaces, representation does not equate to structural change. As we encourage more women of colour to run in elections and take on leadership roles in organizations, it’s important to also recognize the work that our institutions and political systems need to do on themselves to become more equitable and accessible spaces for women of colour.
Ziyana Kotadia, Vice-President University Affairs for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University
With contributions from:
Eunice Oladejo, Vice-President External Affairs for the University Students’ Council (USC) at Western University, Prescient of the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance, Secretary-Treasurer at the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities
Urvi Maheshwari, Vice-President Student Affairs for the Huron University College Students’ Council
Nivi Varagunan, Vice-President Student Life for the Brescia University College Students’ Council
Roshaydia Morgan, President-Elect and Vice-President Student Affairs for the King’s University College Students’ Council