In the initial meeting I will personally admit I was not very happy with the status of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at the university when I first started off as a student representative. When I came into the role, I was fresh off campaigning about the restructure where, due to a “mix up”, accessibility staff members jobs were on the chopping block. As an avid user of this resource, and honestly empowered by a staff member (I will not name here, honestly it would just make their ego bigger), I set out to understand the problem and see how I could, in my naive mind back then, “fix it”. I had no idea at that point what I really had gotten myself in for.
Imagine this; I was a 2nd year Bachelor of Science Student, 19, and sitting in a meeting with DVCA’s and PVC while not even knowing the difference between them. To say I was overwhelmed would be putting it mildly. First, I noticed very quickly that most people I were talking to don’t often engage with students, much and even less with students from minority backgrounds. There were certain comments and suggestions that were completely unnecessary and sometimes downright insulting. At the beginning it didn’t help that it was a very small group, we were missing some key roles and therefore, there was a bit of a confusion over what the committee goals were and what we were doing. Which really helped my confusion. But one thing was certain; we needed a policy that defined the direction of the whole university EDI – which at that point, was a lot of different pockets of EDI that didn’t have much of a connecting thread. I was a big believer that if we were going to do EDI well, we needed a holistic strategy that connected all of these areas together to centralise funding and resources.
I also saw this as a pivotal moment at the university. Because of the restructure, and later the enterprise agreement, both students and staff were losing faith that the university was equitable. I felt that moving forward, the university should deal with the issue by respecting that pain existed, identify the needs of how to move forward and put steps in place to make sure this never happened again. My strategy was not even considered.
For some reason, it felt like the university had such a big problem acknowledging the workplace culture that they had created. Because no matter how you felt about the restructure or the enterprise agreement, it made the place unsettled. And unsettled and uncertainty always effects the group with the least amount of power the most. In the first few months of getting involved in student politics, I watched a lot of amazing student leave. Students who were driven, ready to take on the world’s biggest problems and actively engage with their local community. People, I still argue to this day, that were the ideal types of student UON would have wanted as graduates. But they all left, and I quickly found myself being the only left from that era. It was honestly one of the strangest times as I was meeting all of these fundamentally different people, hearing stories of downright horror and in all of it, there was a strength that wanted to fight against it. Now, I didn’t get involved much with the staff union, but it was in escapable. From lectures, to strikes, and even walk outs. It was a wild time.
Whilst all of this was happening, we had our first EDI strategic plan workshop. With the help of the EDI unit, I organised for a bunch of students to also come to the meeting so we could have student involvement and all that. I didn’t just choose anyone, but some of the most effected students of the poor EDI policies in the past. First Nations students, students who were disabled and, in a wheelchair, and students who had been here for a long time. Students that I had found to be just as passionate as me about making a change. One thing became apparent when we met; the higher level of the university became aware of the actions from the restructure, from weak EDI policy to the enterprise agreement and the effect it had on the student population. We told of how racism existed, ablism straight from the top and of the scars which they had left on all of us. There was a lot of work that needed to be done to turn all this around and we were only just identifying the problem.
I will say the first EDI workshop did have a strange feel to it. We were sitting with some of the most senior executives of the university, students from the student union and a bunch of students that I had invited. Now the students from the union weren’t aware that executives would be attending and later said they felt, unsupported and thrown to the wolves. This example highlights the importance of supporting students within their abilities of representatives.
As time went on, the EDI institutional committee began to find its place in the university, and I would like to think so did I. We had a lot of challenges that came up in meetings, like having a senior member of the meeting completely walk out of one of the meetings, someone falling asleep in the middle of another, and a senior member of staff raising their voice in frustration at me in another meeting. But through it all, we did manage to create a variety of sub-committees that had their own goals and objectives which further created resources and policy that fed back into the EDI committee. After much hassling on my behalf, the DIAP committee was formed which, in my opinion, looked at the least explored minority community which I found to be a great improvement. AcessAbility also got slightly more staff, the disability confidence training was launched as well as staff with disability network. This gave me a lot more hope for the university. There is a lot more still to be done, but when I started there was a lot less.
Some students were lost from the committee, some because of lack of support, others from lack of hope that change could occur, but throughout it all, I currently remain the only student representative between the selected member and UNSA representatives that stayed and will serve a full term.
The next workshop of EDI strategy was very different. It felt a lot less interpersonal. Most of it was writing anonymous text which I felt, was to be explored and infused into a narrative in the end. At least we explored a lot of the complex structural problems in the first workshop which resulted in a discussion.
I do think my voice mattered and I will say that the follow up personal meetings to each person was a great idea but there was something that never quite carried through from the first workshop, the student engagement of students as PARTNERS. And that showed a lot in the launch. It was a policy launch that was very staff focused. There was a guest speaker, and the Vice-Chancellor was there, which neither had really been involved with the policy. The only student on stage was indigenous and the only thing they did was give the acknowledgement of country which felt very tokenistic. The speaker talked about how the university had always been so welcoming and so amazing and now they were just doing more of that great work.
I couldn’t help but feel invalidated from all the experiences that students who had worked on the project had gone through. It really felt like a celebration of just how good the university was instead of a policy that looked to address the needs and wants of staff and students, those who had been marginalised and sometimes straight up traumatized due some poor EDI policies in place or those that didn’t exist at all. I knew we all had to start somewhere, but it hurt sitting in the crowd only to listen to more of what I had criticised in the first workshop of this exact policy.
And while I don’t completely think that the process was perfect, I think it was a worthwhile experience. No policy will create change to an entire company. I do believe relationships, empathy and greater understanding will. It is currently the biggest project I have been a part of, and one where I have learnt a lot. Not just about business structure and how policies are created, but also how to articulate myself more to varied audiences, how to work with people with different views and personalities, and when to use vinegar and when to use honey to catch flies.
One thing I have learnt, which I am not sure how I feel about, is that people respect you for your position or title before your merit.