Feb. 20, 2013 - Issue #905: DOA No more - Trading in punk for politics
Students for justice
University of Alberta groups and clubs working to make an equitable campus
February 20 was proclaimed World Day of Social Justice by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007, and the annual event was first celebrated two years later. It's a day to recognize the efforts of organizations and people who are working to eradicate poverty and to promote gender equity, full-time work and access to social well-being and justice for all. It's a day to celebrate victories, while also acknowledging the work that still remains.
Social justice means respecting every person's basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, regardless of their gender, race, religion, culture, age, disability, sexual preference or ethnic affiliation.
At the University of Alberta, students are well aware of the remaining workload to ensure social justice. On campus alone, there are between 15 and 20 clubs and groups addressing different social justice issues. Make Poverty History, Engineers Without Borders, Amnesty International and the Ainembabazi Children's Project are just a few. In the last five years all of these groups have been brought together by one over-arching coalition called the Student Umbrella for Social Justice (SUSJ). The coalition was started by a group of students who saw a need for collaboration between social justice groups.
"What we are hoping to do is build a stronger network," says Mike McGinn of SUSJ. "We had groups all over the place doing their own thing and a lot of them faced similar challenges, just regular student group challenges, like fundraising, administration, that type of thing, and also just advocacy. So with the SUSJ, we figured if we were able to form a coalition and have regular meetings, we would be able to exchange and support everyone in their initiatives."
One of those initiatives is helping OUTreach—a group that provides a queer-positive atmosphere and meeting place for students on campus—lobby for a larger safe space for the campus's LGBTQ community, McGinn says.
"One thing that's nice about the SUSJ is we have a little bit more lobbying power because we're a larger organization, so we're lobbying the Students' Union to create a larger safe space on campus for the [LGBTQ] community."
Another project SUSJ is working on is making the university a fair-trade campus, like the University of British Columbia, the first Canadian campus to do so in January 2011. To be recognized as a fair-trade campus, the university has to meet availability and visibility standards set out by Fair Trade Canada. That means educating the public about fair-trade products—goods that farmers have been paid a fair price for—and making those products available on campus.
Another campus-wide initiative the SUSJ is working on this year is creating a campus decolonization tour to take place during orientation week each year. For that, SUSJ has combined forces with the Alberta Public Interest Research Group (APIRG), the Students' Union and numerous other groups.
"APIRG has been doing this decolonization tour on campus every year for the last couple of years now, just showing different aspects of campus that reflect how it is a colonial institution and how it might make some of the indigenous populations feel uncomfortable and unrecognized," explains McGinn. "So we're looking at building that into orientation week so that we can at least bring light to the situation for students who are coming onto campus. With the Idle No More movement going on right now it's a really good time to bring these types of issues up."
Ideally, McGinn says those tours will begin next September, but it's just a matter of figuring out the logistics and going through the appropriate processes with the university. The work being done by student groups and clubs to fight for social justice on campus can sometimes be thankless work, he adds. But being under one umbrella over the last number of years has made a significant difference.
"When you have a community together, you have a much stronger support structure and you get to share in everyone's success, so when someone else has a small success, you get to share in that together."
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