The Way Must be Tried.. Over and over and over again.
What is that old adage, oft used but rarely followed? "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
It seems that our administrators at York University, who exalted the past during York's Anniversary, are refusing to learn from history at all. For several years, like most Universities, York has experienced a very serious issue with sexual assault of all forms. From groping to stranger rape, York has seen it all. This isn't a new phenomenon: sexual assault is common on all campuses, in all towns and cities, and in all people's lives. What should be new is the way we approach this issue.
Yesterday the University and our illustrious President Shoukri help a Forum on Community Safety for students, staff, faculty, and community members. Instead of being an actual open Forum for questions and serious discussion the event was a mere publicity stunt; an opportunity to reveal the University's "new" security measures and dedication to safety.
At the open Forum yesterday President Shoukri announced that the University would be graciously spending over $10 million on safety and security on campus. Shoukri not only announced that the money would be spent, but that he has "embraced" the effort to increase safety on campus. The promised funds have already been allocated, with no real input from the University community nor those who are experts in gendered violence. Not once has the President, the Dean, or any VP stepped up and said "Hey, Women's Studies students: What do you think we could do about violence on campus?" Not once have they seriously approached any anti-racist group on campus and asked what those students would consider meaningful safety measures. Unfortunately for all of us, York has a bad track record when it comes to dealing with safety in all forms despite taking a hardline stance. We've seen over and over again how they deal with sexual assault and more often than not it entails telling the ladies on campus to "be aware of their surroundings" and to "lock their doors." For real, several years ago Alex Bilyk of York University told women that the moral of the story (because sexual assault is a story with a moral other than "don't be a rapist") that they need to keep their doors locked. He was responding to a stranger assault in a University residence, perpetrated by someone who did not live in the dorm.
In almost every Security Bulletin we receive about an assault on campus women are advised to buddy up, to be aware of their surroundings and the people around them, and to report suspicious people to York Security Services. This is an outdated approach and hopefully the new Security strategy takes this into account. It does not matter how aware you are of your surroundings or of suspicious people, it does not matter if you buddy up, if somebody wants to assault you they will assault you. The most recent assaults on campus have been in daylight at busy times -- one of them occurred in the lineup for the 196 York Rocket bus, one of the longest bus lineups of all time. A person who will assault a woman in broad daylight, surrounded by people, is someone who knows that the culture on campus permits them to do so -- they know that they will not be stopped and they will not be caught, they feel invincible.
This has nothing to do with how many Security guards are around or how well armed they are. It has to do with the culture on campus that does not take safety seriously, or racism seriously. It's about being part of a campus community that doesn't educate young men about misogyny or assault but, instead, chastises women for not being aware of their surroundings. We are part of a campus that allows sexist advertising to pervade. On a broader political scale we are part of a University that has only had ONE female President and in which some Faculties have never had a female Dean. We are part of a University that discourages students to stand up for themselves when they are harassed by Professors or employers. We are part of a University whose Administrators treat students, staff, and faculty with outright scorn. There are parts of campus that still aren't wheelchair accessible. We are not part of an inclusive, respectful, anti-sexist, anti-racist campus.
The Open Forum on Community Safety shouldn't have been an opportunity to smile at the cameras and pledge your allegiance to the flag of safety, President Shoukri. It should have been an opportunity for students to voice their discomfort, their feelings, their ideas. Instead, when a group of students came to the forum to express their concern about racial profiling on campus they weren't given space, the moderator instructed the microphone runners to ignore certain questions, and VP Morrison smirked the entire time they spoke. A culture that doesn't accept sexual assault also encourages respectful dialogue and this is just not occurring at York. President Shoukri claimed that the "floating" microphones were used to address accessibility issues but when asked how the moderator planned to manage the questions queue he had no response.
So the University will spend $10 million on re-training Security Staff, arming them, and giving them the power to arrest people. They will install more emergency phones. They've created new staff positions and renamed committees. Nowhere does it say that York is committing itself to ending sexism or racism on campus. Nowhere does it even mention gender. It's great to increase Inclusivity training, but what does that really mean? What we need is York to take a political and ideological stance against what really causes assaults and violence: power imbalances.
I wrote this two years ago, about York University, and in the years since then nothing has changed:
"Sexual assault is an epidemic in Canada and York needs to address the culture of sexism on campus more than it needs to release the metrac report. Sexual assault is not leverage. It is not fair to say "sorry you were raped, young lady, that could have been prevented with more lighting". We need to think, "hey, maybe we need to educate ALL students about sexual assault." Maybe we shouldn't cut funding to women's studies programs, maybe we should increase education around the politics and issues behind sexual assault instead of just acting like cameras and lights are going to save the day."
What is the point of re-training Security officers when you're not educating students?When you're not combating rape culture, sexism, and inequality on campus?
York's motto is "The Way Must Be Tried." This way HAS been tried. It is time to recognize, once and for all, that women have taken responsibility for their own safety and that telling us to be aware of our surroundings will not save us from being assaulted. More Security will not mean less assault, because more Security does not mean less sexism. More heavily armed Security personnel will only increase violence against University community members. It is time for the University to stop calling itself innovative and actually innovate new responses to violence on campus.Yes, prevention is the key but prevention cannot occur until we begin to seriously address the sexist and racist culture on campus. We can't let the administrators, and whatever corporations or political interests they may serve railroad true change just because they hold a community meeting and grace us with their presence. These "safety" initiatives are not enough, we need the University to commit itself, once and for all, to social justice. We need education and cultural shifts, President Shoukri, not more Security guards with tasers.