TL;DR – try for that new opportunity you’re intimidated by but can’t seem to get off your mind! You are qualified, valued, and capable. Don’t be afraid to lean on your community and ask for help along the way. It’s how we all get through it :)
“What stands between you and the world you want to live in?” A dear friend of mine recently shared her answer to this question that her professor posed in class. Her answer was simple: representation. While this isn’t a groundbreaking answer, her simple answer made me reflect on why representation is so important.
Growing up in Markham, I was surrounded by diversity – in people, in peers, in teachers, in role models. I never had to think twice about the colour of my skin, or the composition and tolerance of other people in the room. Coming to Western and entering post-secondary, where odds are stacked against racialized people, women, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, I realized I took my upbringing for granted.
This year, as OUSA President and Vice President of External Affairs at the University Students’ Council, I have had the opportunity to enter spaces I never imagined would be open to me. I have had the chance to amplify student concerns to decision-makers, making tangible change to legislation that affects students across the province. While this has been an incredible experience, each milestone has been accompanied with shock, nerves, pride, and everything in between.
Prior to any stakeholder meeting, I find myself worried about whether or not the other people in the room will value my voice and contributions. As a young woman of colour, not many decision-makers look like me. Most rooms I’ve entered this year are filled with older, white men. I have approached this year with caution and vigilance, collecting all the knowledge I can to back up my views because I expect to be underestimated or questioned.
The opportunity to step into these spaces is an absolute privilege I cannot take for granted. Generations of student leaders before me have built up OUSA and the USC’s reputability in the post-secondary sector, and it is my job to maintain and strengthen that credibility. More importantly, so many incredible women and people of colour before me have cracked into these spaces, making this opportunity more accessible to me. Take last year’s OUSA President for example. Eunice is more than just a role model for me; as OUSA’s first Black woman president, beyond her incredible work during her tenure in student government, Eunice contributed to a cultural shift.
Like Eunice said, having racialized student leaders is crucial. We contribute to a cultural shift that calls attention to discriminatory practices, informs policy change that draws from our lived experiences, includes the voices of underrepresented communities, and inspires another cohort of student leaders. Women and BIPOC individuals deserve to take up space and have a seat at the table. Our experiences should be heard and should be considered at the forefront of decision-making processes. We deserve to enter spaces without worrying about the way we’re perceived, but rather, focus on the work we do.
With all that said, being a part of this much needed representation can be exhausting. It is simultaneously a privilege and a burden to represent the communities I am a part of. Equity-deserving groups often take on a lot of emotional labour in trying to dismantle the very things that oppress us. For example, as a student whose post-secondary education was almost entirely funded by financial aid, I have had to draw on my own personal experiences and challenges to get people to care. While I may not have been able to go to university without financial aid, most decision-makers I speak to come from affluent backgrounds. When it comes to identity-based topics, the emotional labour is tenfold. It is rewarding, but taxing, to speak on the intersections that make up who I am.
We’ve been told to take pride in breaking the glass ceiling, or to bring a folding chair if they don’t give you a seat at the table — and we absolutely should. However, we also have to recognize the toll it takes on us as individuals. Oftentimes, we run on the desire for change, the desire to represent our communities, and the desire to dismantle inequitable systems. These are powerful drivers, but they alone cannot fix your burnout and compensate for your emotional labour. As women, people of colour, or anyone from marginalized communities, we must take care of ourselves before taking care of others. If you are a student leader from a traditionally marginalized community, be intentional about setting your boundaries. For everyone else, please be critical about why and when you ask for the perspectives of marginalized leaders.
A big help for me this year has been my support system. I’d like to shout out Home Office (Malika, Irum, Octavia, Eddy), my fellow USC women executives (Cameron, Keemia, Lauren), and the women on OUSA’s Steering Committee this year (Ana, Elizabeth, Kayla, Sahiba, Stephanie, and honourary Ontarian, Erin). We’ve been breaking the glass ceiling, but the shards can certainly cut. In moments of self-doubt and unease, you have all inspired, empowered, and encouraged me to take pride in myself and the work I do.
If you’re reading this and thinking of running for student government, pursuing any form of leadership, or really just trying a new thing, this is your sign to do it. Take pride in the experiences and intersections that make up your identity. Take up space in the spaces you want to occupy. More importantly, lean on the people you meet along the way. You’re not alone — there are so many people around you to uplift you, to empower you, to take pride in you. Don’t forget to do the same for your communities, and seek solace in your support system. We’ll figure it out together. We’ll be okay. You’ll be okay :)
Jessica Look is Vice President External Affairs and President of OUSA's 2022-2023 Steering Committee.
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