Election Interviews: Welfare and Campaigns

This year The SOAS Spirit decided to go further in our election coverage. The SOAS Students’ Union elections can be intimidating, whether you’re a candidate or just a regular student voter. Campaigning is intense, with much of candidates’ success being weighted on who has the widest friendship circle or the best ability to produce a fun video, catchy hashtag or flashy poster. With all of this considered, we decided that the best way for students to get to know their Co-President candidates would be through in-person interviews, which we’ve presented here in the form of profiles.

Interviews by Mel Plant, BA Arabic and Turkish

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“I wasn’t aware of the importance of campaigns like Justice for Cleaners and Fractionals for Fair Play until last year,” says Ayesha Abassi, but now she is ready to be “the voice of the students” if she is elected Co-President. “It’s all about awareness,” the Law student says, “and making everything more inclusive and accessible.”

“It’s kind of boring,” she says, but Abassi’s favourite member of staff at SOAS is property law professor Anne Street, “she’s the most down-to-earth person, really approachable and motherly.” This approachability informs Abassi’s perspective on the Co-President position. She sees the role as essentially political, a position whereby she would be “pushing for change,” however, she sees the key to “pushing for change” in being “accessible,” making the wider student body aware of the severity of the course cuts situation and making sure there is a good support system in place.

Abassi sees mental health care as key to making a sustainable student support system. She wants to make SOAS’ mental health services more accessible for liberation groups, such as LGBTQI+ and BME students. Likewise, she seeks to tackle attainment gaps and make education more accessible for BME students. She highlights one of SOAS’ biggest problems as the high dropout rate, especially among BME and other marginalised students. One of Abassi’s big aims to bring the Amos Bursary for African-Caribbean men to SOAS.

In the same vein, scholarships for refugees are crucial for Abassi. “They need to be brought to the forefront as a campaign,” she says, “we need to bring the institution up to the high standards of the students” and provide scholarships for refugees which cover living costs as well as tuition fees.

She has always found UGMs to be “intimidating” and dominated by a group of regular students. “I’m someone who stresses over little things, or even big things,” says Abassi. Despite describing herself this way, she’s made the decision to stand for Co-President and deliver a speech at hustings, an environment not dissimilar from UGMs. Her growing awareness of the importance of campaigns around SOAS, as well as involvement in chairing events for the South Asian Diaspora Society and a passion for Decolonising SOAS, has changed her mind. She now wants to “hear everyone’s voices” and represent them.

As well as fostering a more accessible environment in which students can share their opinions, Abassi wants to show that campaigning is not just “limited to protesting.” On course cuts, she seeks to lobby the mass body of students to work with staff in campaigning against them. In regards to Prevent, a key point on her agenda, Abassi wants to develop student and staff working bodies to formulate new strategies of resistance against the policy, as well as continuing the Union’s ‘canary statements.’ Amongst campaigns on her agenda, such as Justice for Cleaners and Decolonising SOAS, she also mentioned BDS as a “historical motion” that has to be continued.

“My favourite thing about SOAS is the diversity of the students,” comments Abassi, “I came from Oxford and I was the only Muslim and the only brown person in my entire school, from year 7-13. I just felt so alone and obviously you have to assimilate to an extent… coming from that, to have this diversity, it’s so nice.” This diversity shows through in her dinner guests: she would invite Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pablo Neruda and Lauryn Hill. When asked for her favourite piece of advice, she replied, “on a more personal level to me, religiously, just the fact that what’s meant to be is meant to be… it really helps me get through a lot of hardships in life.”

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“The best advice I’ve had is probably from my dad. He’s given me like two bits of advice in my entire life… when I was 12 he said, ‘don’t mix beer and champagne,’ and he was right because about 4 years later I did and I broke my toe,” says Tom Costerton. You might recognise Tom from the Students’ Union, where he’s acted as one of this year’s accommodation officers. An affable character with a warm smile, he says that he decided to run for Co-President not too long ago.

Despite this being, in his time at SOAS, the “most tumultuous and divided year” yet, Costerton is determined to “make the best out of a bad situation” if he becomes Co-President. He pointed out the increasing severity of the situation at SOAS in the proposal of “drastic, unnecessary cuts” by new Director Valerie Amos and the rest of SOAS management. Costerton pointed out that next year will be “harder” and “crucial” in fighting for the rights of staff and students.

Now approaching the end of his Politics degree, Costerton had a quick introduction to SOAS’ political atmosphere in his first year, when the cleaners were on strike. Given the pressing situation at hand with the Justice for Cleaners campaign, he says that he has “a lot of confidence” in the campaign. Not only does Costerton take this confidence from how hard the campaign has pushed to bring the cleaners in-house, but also from how “adaptable” it has showed itself to be over the years. The Co-President candidate sees this adaptability of tactics as crucial for the Students’ Union in winning battles with management as well.

However, Costerton does not see the Co-President Welfare and Campaigns role as “just a political” one. While politics inevitably informs campaigning not only for issues such as Justice for Cleaners and Fractionals for Fair Play, he also infers that politics informs the fight for student welfare at SOAS, despite the fact that student welfare in itself is not a political issue.

In improving student welfare, Costerton will seek out a “diversity of opinions.” Crucial to this, he thinks, is an innovation of the Union General Meeting (UGM) format. He would prefer to move the majority of the UGM online in order to make it a more accessible forum for the majority of students. A constant focus of our conversation was student inclusion and accessibility within Union decision making and operation.

Costerton sees improving student mental health services as a top priority. Though he plans to lobby management for greater resources, he seeks to create weekly workshops and support groups for liberation groups within the Union in order to support students were budget-cut university welfare services may fail. Likewise, Costerton sees student involvement as crucial in fighting against Prevent. “The NUS has failed,” he says, “so we need to work with other universities in creating a union-led strategy against Prevent.”

Another top priority for Costerton is lobbying management to improve SOAS accommodation services, something he has already worked on with students and the Union this year. He knows the next 2 years to be crucial in the formation of SOAS’ housing strategy, and is determined to fight for a specific space for SOAS students, instead of seeing us split between several intercollegiate halls.

“Without the Union this year, SOAS would’ve been much, much worse,” he said, when asked what his favourite thing about SOAS is (his least favourite was inevitably Vernon Square). This centrality of the Union to Costerton shows through in the rest of our conversation, as does his honest approach to politics. He doesn’t want to promise anything he can’t give.

When asked which 3 people, dead or alive, he would invite to dinner, this same balance between the ideological and the knowledge of the every-day fight ahead came through: “Joe Strummer, Thatcher and Malcolm X – that’d be the most entertaining dinner party I could think of.”

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“This is my whole life,” Hannah Short, a Chinese and Development Studies student says as she dashes to my table with a clipboard in hand, “sorry for being late. Let me show you how I organise everything.” Even though she left her clipboard, heaving with various scraps and papers, in the JCR, her organisation is clear: her least favourite things about SOAS are the management, the poor admin and how hard it is to find a well-taught course.

“The reality is we have finite time and resources,” Short comments, “[especially] with everything working against us.” Despite her packed manifesto, she’s trying to be practical and strategic in her aims. “My priority in welfare is to support students being failed by SOAS,” she says. These students include those the current harassment procedure has failed, as well as those struggling on waiting lists due to a chronically under-funded (and now budget cut) mental health service.

In tackling mental health services, Short would lobby for further funding and space in the North Block and seek to “embed support beyond professional services,” for example by creating a ‘tranquility/chill room’ and creating mutual support groups amongst students. She also seeks to monitor the Union’s new consent training to make sure it is sustainable.

Though Short’s background is in environmental campaigning (she’s one of this year’s Environment officers), she says that environmental consciousness at SOAS is low. Though SOAS management promised to become ‘Fossil Free’ by 2017, £1.5 million assigned to this task has now been moved elsewhere.

Short also states that campaigning and activism at SOAS needs to become “more inclusive” and less “cliquey.” She seeks to achieve this by introducing campaigning and activism workshops at the start of the year. She’s drawn to the role of Co-President because she is “in love with SOAS… I want to see it become the institution it sets out to be.” The central Justice for Cleaners campaign has proved to Short “demonstrative of the relationship between the SU and management.” “SOAS is at a crossroads,” she says, “we have an extremely challenging year ahead” and cohesion amongst the student body is what is required to push back against an “ideological” management.

Though Short’s background outside of social justice campaigning shows when she lets slip that she didn’t originally include ‘Preventing Prevent’ in her manifesto, she notes that the importance of this “thinly veiled form of racism” has become clear now she has talked with more students throughout her campaign.

Short is recognisable for the golden glitter that perpetually sits next to her eyes. She has a bright personality and an infectious energy – she’s aspires to make SOAS what it advertises itself to be. She also seems to aspire to her ISP supervisor Zoe Marriage. “She’s friendly, relaxed, approachable and funny.” Short strikes this balance of academic and commonsense approaches – she wants to research SOAS’ investment portfolio for ethicality, but another top priority is to encourage “people to love and accept themselves.”

This balance shows itself amongst her prospective dinner guests: bell hooks, Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese mindfulness practitioner and peace activist) and Ken Saro-Wiwa (a Nigerian environmental activist). When asked for the best advice she’s ever been given, Short had an answer on hand: “don’t act out of fear disguised as practicality.” So, instead of acting out of fear, she decided to stand for Co-President.

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“My least favourite thing about SOAS? Tim Miller,” says Imrane Trocme, a Development Studies and Politics student. Despite a clear stance against the “mismanagement” of the university by the chairman of the governing body, Trocme states that his favourite thing about SOAS is the “type of students it attracts,” and this diversity is exactly what draws him to representing the student body.

Trocme sees the future of decision making at SOAS as coming from students and staff. He’s keen to “decentralise policy making” by creating open-forums which involve both students and staff, as well as regular meetings between the Students’ Union and department heads, who he sees as a crucial link to management in bottom-up decision making. Likewise, Trocme seeks to innovate the current UGM format, which he says is “awful” and “cannot be inclusive.”

He would seek to operate caucuses for individual liberation groups in order to hear students’ voices in a more accessible environment, as well as introducing open forums in which students and staff can form a united front in organising for workers’ rights and against course cuts. In particular, he’d seek to reach out to fractional staff, who he sees as the “strongest link” between staff and students. Trocme wants to see the UGM as a purely “legal procedure, rather than a political arena,” which would just involve the results and representatives of various caucuses and open forums.

Likewise, Trocme seeks to integrate the needs of liberation groups within other elements of the student experience. With mental health being voted one of the Union’s top priorities, he would want to set up support groups for different liberation groups. He also sees Prevent as one of the “most worrying” things the Union will have to face, not only in terms of a fight with management and government policy, but also in terms of student mental health. Trocme states that despite the “limited means” of the SU in regards to Prevent, he would hold a large event during Freshers’ Week in order to keep students informed about how the policy could affect them, and work with heads of departments in order to push for details on how the university will operate within the scope of the policy.

Trocme says that the best advice he’s received is “standing up for yourself is always essential,” and this shows in his approach to Union politics and relations with management. He’s a gregarious character, perpetually friendly despite working long hours at the bar, but he’s also serious about his role. He regrets that the timing of elections has fallen at the same time as LGBTQI+ History Month, meaning he’s had to forsake some of his duties as LGBTQ+ officer in order to campaign.

He sees continuing the Justice for Cleaners, Fractionals for Fair Play and BDS campaigns as essential, as well as tackling the need to decolonise the curriculum. He says that while management has a “clear line” on campaigns like BDS, for which the SU has a “binding mandate,” he sees the SU has having similarly clear lines that they must stick to. Despite his clear passion for campaigns, Trocme sees welfare as being the “more important” part of the role.

While campaigns can “start and stop,” he says, “welfare has to be 24/7.” Trocme wants to foster SOAS and its Students’ Union as a place which provides “real support” for its students, regardless of whether they  belong to an “activist clique” or not. His focus on democratising the Union, providing mental health care and tackling issues such as attainment gaps emanate from his view of welfare.

Trocme named Consuelo Moreno, one of the notable figures of the Justice for Cleaners campaign, as one of his favourite SOAS staff members, saying that the campaign has proved inspirational: “after years, it comes back even stronger. It’s possible to make progress even with a terrible managerial structure.”

Something that ties together all elements of Trocme’s campaign is his desire to integrate liberation groups, yet give them autonomy. This focus on liberation and resistance, something Trocme is thinking a lot about currently as he’s rifling through suggestions for the new SU bar walls, is shown in his choice of dinner guests: Audre Lorde, Murray Bookchin and Chokri Belaid (a Tunisian politician).

Post Author: SOAS Spirit

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