Democratizing Student Life 101: Start with the Campus

A new student-led campaign wants to show McGill students how to redefine the social and spatial environment at campus. The purpose? Making sustainability and equity a tangible, visible project at McGill.

Using the words ‘reclaim’ and ‘campus’ in the same sentence could be a socially-conscious TA’s strategy to hype a Monday morning undergraduate conference. Students advocating for reclaiming a campus might also struggle to be taken seriously by the administration, at least in theory. As “reclaiming” infers that something has been taken away, how would a large, prestigious, research-based institution like McGill respond to the charge that it is taking away something from its students? But more importantly, is it?

A group of five women working under a new campaign called Right to Campus (RTC) have an innovative take on the question, one they want to propose to both the administration and student body at large: rather than working as separate entities, how can the students and administrators at McGill work together to create and foster a culture of universal inclusion and sustainability? With upwards of 40 thousand students, advocating for values of safety, stewardship, and inclusiveness on campus is no simple project, even if it is simply a matter of size and reach. That's why the women behind RTC advocate for collaboration rather than reclamation.

A core value of RTC is inspired by the international non-profit, Women in Cities International, where both co-founders Dina Al Shawwa (Major Civil Engineering, minor Women’s Studies) and Arianne Kent (Major Sociology, minor Gender, Sexuality, Feminist, and Social Justice Studies) worked in 2016. At WICI, both were exposed to innovative views about public space and safety, and came away with a shared drive to bring those values to their school grounds. Their vision is for members of the McGill community to feel safe, included, and valued in the space they regularly use and share (campus), regardless of their age, gender, identity, orientation, or anything other factor. Founders Dina Al Shawwa and Arianna Kent at an outdoor event promoting RTC to the publicFounders Dina Al Shawwa and Arianna Kent at an outdoor event promoting RTC to the public. Credit: RTC

Their first project was in collaboration with Campus Life and Engagement. The goal: to improve the training of Faculty Frosh leaders in 2016. By raising awareness of how physical environment affects an individual’s sense of safety, they would illuminate the concept of a ‘right to space’ and encourage the importance of this within the typically rowdy Frosh/orientation culture.

“Ultimately, it comes down to the culture that is encouraged,” Al Shawwa explained. “I don’t think a culture shift is the only answer, but it can definitely influence the way we organize events, or how and where the university prioritizes investment.”

The rest of the student crew - Hannah McCasland, Maxine Dannatt, and Bethy Moncion (a Concordia student) - joined the organization within the last year. Since its inception, RTC has hosted a wide variety of events, including movie screenings, safety audits, and an art show. The group’s focus for the year ahead is to expand their stated mission of a universally-inclusive campus into a visual, distributable, and regularly-updated toolkit: a manual that highlights the mosaic of students, student groups, faculty, and staff members who are actively working toward change on campus, but may not have gained much visibility. 

“A big part of the toolkit has been partnering and collaborating with student groups and admin offices on campus," said McCasland. Among their official partners are the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office, the Union for Gender Empowerment, Walksafe, Healthy McGill, Campus Life and Engagement, and Consent McGill. "It was all made possible by the Sustainability Projects Fund at McGill, which gave us funding to do the toolkit and carry on with events in the coming year,” McCasland continued. 

One of the major discoveries during the toolkit-building process was the overlap in work being done by various student associations. 

“That’s the hope for the toolkit, showing the similar work that’s being done across groups, students, and profs, and allowing people to create sustainable links between these groups, or point out that these groups should work together rather than remaining separate,” said Dannatt.

When asked how the toolkit, the values of inclusiveness and sustainability, and the right to an inclusive campus all tie together, Al Shawwa explained their views:

“[We want to create] a feedback mechanism that allows users of a certain space to identify problems in a way that’s personalized - so everyone can be heard. The efforts a university puts in to create a safer, more equitable space should be according to the needs of the students, rather than what those who are higher up deem safer or more equitable.

Space is not a static, unchanging thing, but rather something dynamic that can [and should be] adapted to the individuals it is there for. A feedback mechanism allows for that to happen - and that’s what RTC is working toward with the toolkit.”