The University Students’ Council has called the resignation of a student coordinator unfortunate, but see it as an opportunity for needed improvement going forward.
Jessica Tong announced her resignation Monday as coordinator of Western’s Sexual Health and Consent Education Service and the I Know Someone campaign against sexual violence in an open letter to the USC’s vice-president of internal affairs, Sam Krishnapillai, who oversees the service and the campaign. In the letter, Tong outlined some of her grievances with the USC structure and its treatment of service coordinators.
Both programs are run under Western’s Peer Support Network, which is overseen by the USC.
“It was a difficult thing to read,” Krishnapillai said of the letter. “We’ve been dealing with it by trying to learn from it, and I think Jess’ experience really showed us the big gaps that our volunteer management program has, and that’s something we can now work through to get ready for September so all of our commissioners and coordinators can have a fulfilling, meaningful experience.”
Tong explained her goals as coordinator upon assuming the position.
“My goal as coordinator was to give the members of the marginalized community their voices back,” Tong said in an e-mail. “Our community accesses the service as a platform for discussions and for sharing stories that would otherwise be silenced. It’s about respecting the community and valuing their input.”
Tong resigned in protest over the “oppressive” way she felt Krishnapillai was running the internal affairs portfolio. In one example, Tong said Krishnapillai demanded she cut ties with the Sexual Assault Centre of London (SACL). Tong had wanted to consult the organization about changing the name of the service— The Sexual Health and Education Service and the I Know Someone campaign were previously simply called the I Know Someone campaign.
“I had wanted to make sure that SACL could give their input on an appropriate name,” Tong said. “The VPIA’s response was that she would not give me permission to consult SACL. I believe her understanding was that [I Know Someone] and the service belonged to the USC, with no other stakeholders. When I mentioned that SACL has always provided our disclosure training to our executive members, she said that she wanted that to change.”
“Attempts at removing connections with expert community organizations are troubling, and it takes us in the wrong direction,” she continued.
Krishnapillai denied she wanted to shut out community resources.
“I’m a little bit surprised by that one,” Krishnapillai said. “I am especially committed to working with our external partners.”
“There’s no way that the Peer Support Network can provide actual, direct support for students without reaching out to external partners, to community partners, [...] so that’s something that we definitely want to focus on,” she explained.
Communication issues also played a role in Tong’s decision to resign. According to Tong, she had been uninformed and excluded from important decision-making procedures. Tong cites an instance following the name change when she was unable to log on to her Service e-mail. Confused, she contacted the information technology department, where she was informed that the username had been changed to go along with the new name—without her knowing.
“The two key issues moving forward are service autonomy and USC transparency. Something that needs to be recognized is that the VPIA is an elected advocate for these issues and should not be mistaken for an elected expert,” Tong said.
“From a historical viewpoint, the I Know Someone campaign was built and developed by students and community members. This needs to be acknowledged by the USC. The service was and still is a community-driven initiative.”
In her letter, Tong also stated that she was concerned that she had not been allowed to take positions on issues such as abortion and birth control, issues she felt were relevant to the coordinator position.
Pat Whelan, USC president, elaborated on USC policy regarding political stances.
“As an organization, we are bound by what council wants us to advocate for, so typically in the past, USC councillors have steered clear of getting involved and taking a stance on charged political issues,” he explained. “It can be isolating to students who disagree with that political view. We represent all 30,000 students, so in the past we have stayed clear of that.”
Jess Reuger, the previous I Know Someone coordinator, commented that despite the unfortunate situation, it may provide an opportunity for improvement.
“I do think that this is a really good opportunity, with the exposure of this oppressive system, for the USC to come together, with students, with their volunteers, their coordinators, their execs, and even with community partners [...] to have an open, honest, and constructive dialogue,” she said.
“I think this is something we can only find a solution to by working together.”