Welfare & Equality race: Chloe Staunton wants students to “see what TCDSU can do for you”

The incumbent Disabilities Officer believes “I’m compassionate and approachable enough for this role”

Chloe Staunton is no stranger to the realm of student welfare. Most prominently, she is the incumbent Disabilities Officer of Trinity College Dublin Students Union (TCDSU), as well as being a current member of three of the union’s committees: the Welfare & Equality Committee, the Access Committee, and the Communications Committee. Outside of TCDSU, she is the secretary for Student2Student (S2S) Society, having served as its equality officer last year, and is a head mentor and the first ever ambassador with the S2S Office. As well as these roles, Staunton sits on the student partner committee for the Inclusive Curriculum Project, an initiative of College “which seeks to embed principles of diversity, equality and inclusion across all curricula at Trinity.”

While she points to her role as incumbent disabilities officer as the beginning of her “hands-on” engagement with student welfare within TCDSU, her interest in the area goes much further back.

“I suppose on the welfare front, I’ve always been involved,” Staunton says. “I did mentoring in secondary school, I’ve always been a very caring person.” She mentions also that, as someone who was adopted, she has a personal familiarity with social work and foster homes. “So I think it’s a very personal [thing], that element of caring and understanding people’s different experiences and backgrounds.”

As well as her welfare experience, Staunton is keen to emphasise that the welfare & equality officer, as the name suggests, has responsibilities on two fronts: “The equality side, I guess, is something that kind of goes hand in hand…It’s all fine and well caring, but if you’re not striving to be more equal, inclusive and diverse, you’re not going to get much done.”

On whether she feels her status as a union “insider” will make her more appealing to voters, Staunton says that her familiarity with the inner-workings of the organisation would be an advantage to her in carrying out the responsibilities of welfare & equality officer: “I think I kind of pointed to it because I understand the structures. And that would be more pointing to the equality side of the role, of knowing how to implement change within the union structures.”

While she acknowledges that union-specific experience may not always be necessary to deal with welfare issues, Staunton believes that her S2S background will stand to her in this regard: “I think that is important, because that’s dealing with casework, that’s dealing with students, which is a huge part of the role… At the end of the day, most of the welfare & equality officer’s day is taken up with dealing with those emails, and talking to students, and being on the ground for casework that comes up. So I think that’s very important.”

Asked whether she would feel the need to take the role of welfare & equality officer in a new direction, Staunton firmly commends the current officer, Sierra Mueller-Owens, and indicates her intention to continue the work done by Owens if elected to the role herself: “I think we’d be similar in that, that she is very good at working behind the scenes and getting things done.”

“At the end of the day, most of the welfare & equality officer’s day is taken up with dealing with those emails, and talking to students, and being on the ground for casework that comes up”

Where Staunton believes the bigger issue may lie is in students not being aware of the great work that does get done behind closed doors: “I think especially in the past year, there has been a lot of talk about that, of, you know, why haven’t the TCDSU been seen doing it? And I guess a big issue was like in person classes, and then exams, there was a lot of kind of public discourse about that. But like, I know, and I was involved, you know, a lot of that does go on, and a lot of it is chatting to staff and doing things that can’t always be an Instagram post… I think it is. It’s striking that balance of like, doing that work, getting those chats in…because at the end of the day, it’s for the students and it’s for their benefit.”

One way in which her manifesto proposes to create a “union for all” is through expanding the service visibility project which Staunton started with Aoife Cronin, the current Communications Officer, and the Communications Committee. The project aims to create short informational videos explaining what services are available to students, and how to avail of them: “The basis of it was I wanted to use TCDSU as a kind of central point of information. So people come to the union to kind of get signposted elsewhere.”

Staunton explains that the project grew out of a realisation as Disabilities Officer that many students were unaware of how to access the resources available to them through the Disability Service: “It kind of made me think of, you know, there isn’t really a central point of information. Obviously, if you go on to any of these websites, they’re dying to tell you and you know, that’s great, but sometimes you do just need that two minute quick info.” Staunton lists just a few of the services that are available through the union alone: “Even in House 6, there’s the Refresh service, we have like our Leap cards, we have the shop – loads of little bits that some people just don’t know, and to be fair, I’m still learning this year.”

Last year was the first time since 2017 that the Welfare & Equality election was contested. Staunton acknowledges that the pandemic has perhaps brought an increased emphasis on welfare and equality issues. “I think one kind of positive of the pandemic is [that] it has opened a lot of people’s eyes to issues going on in college,” Staunton says. “Specifically, I guess I’m coming from a disability perspective. In particular, a lot of students have spoken about materials of class, like even recordings, of closed captioning, of elements like that, that before would be very specific to certain kinds of cohorts with some disabilities, and things like that, I think have opened our minds to these issues.”

Going forward, Staunton stresses the importance of taking these lessons on board. While many welcomed the move back to in-person teaching, it left many students feeling uncertain and unsafe. Staunton says of the college’s handling of this transition: “I think it’s important to note there’s a lot of people and bodies in college that are advocating for everyone and wanting everyone to feel safe. That’s the number one priority.”

Concerning the decision-making process in such situations, Staunton feels that taking student experiences on board is crucial: “it’s probably said a lot about how we have these plans and how quick we can implement those changes. And how should we go about it? Who should we be consulting? How included should students be in that conversation?”

Responding to the recent survey by the Department of Higher Education which found that over half of students have experienced sexual harassment, and more than a third of female students have been raped, Staunton firstly remarks that the figures are likely much higher than this, given the proportion of assaults that go unreported or even unrecognised as such. Acknowledging that it is a systemic issue which calls for more fundamental change than TCDSU is capable of implementing in the short term, Staunton believes that there are ways the union can support students who suffer from sexual violence: “I think one thing we need to work on is how our report structures work. A lot of students, you know, even with current situations, they don’t know how it works, they don’t know how to report it.”

She emphasises also the need to improve the formal avenues which address these topics in college policies: “A huge thing that goes hand in hand on that is we don’t have any mention of assault or consent in our Dignity and Respect policy at Trinity, which I know is something they’re working on now, I’ve been feeding into it myself, of making a consent policy, which I think is very important.” Recognizing that there are criticisms of this approach, she says: “I know some people kind of look at that and say that It’s not fixing the issues. But I think it’s part of the process of addressing the kind of formal side of it of having something so then you know exactly when something goes wrong that this is not allowed, this is specifically not okay.”

“I’d like to think that more people feel TCDSU is for them. And that’s a very broad notion.”

One such “formalising” aspect was a motion passed by TCDSU earlier this year to create an anti-spiking policy. Staunton points out that the difficulty is communicating to people responsible for spiking that it is not acceptable and that it won’t be tolerated. “In the long term, I think TCDSU can facilitate that kind of conversation about it and [open] it up…In the short term, I think what TCDSU can do is they can have that more hands on approach. For example, at union events or Ents events, they’ll have more people looking out for this, they know what to look out for, and if someone gets spiked or something happens, [the perpetrator] can be kicked out, and possibly something can happen, then at college level could be brought to the Junior Dean.”

One achievement that Staunton would like to be able to look back on after a year in the role would be to have fostered a feeling that the union is for everyone: “I’d like to think that more people feel TCDSU is for them. And that’s a very broad notion. But I think it does point to a lot of the ideas I have that are kind of tangible, small changes.” Staunton would like to see more engagement with the Union on a casual basis; as well as getting involved as a class rep or a member of a committee, that students feel comfortable to “hop in to get advice on things, get that support, chat to some of the officers, see what TCDSU can do for you.”

Asked to sum up what makes her the best candidate for the role, Staunton offers two key aspects. Firstly, her experience: “I have a lot of experience, not just TCDSU specific, it’s broad, and I think that’s very important to have broad perspectives.” Secondly, she emphasises a personal affinity for the role: “I really care about this role. And I care about students, and I think I’m compassionate and approachable enough for this role.”

“At the end of the day, I can have all the experience and all the knowledge in the world, but if a student doesn’t feel like they could come into my office and chat to me, then there’s no point. I’d like to think that I am approachable, and I’ll leave that to the student body to decide, but you know, I make a great cup of tea. I’ll always welcome you in, I can show you pictures of my cats, and I think on that personal level I am fit for this role as well.”

Campaigning for sabbatical officer elections will continue until March 3. Voting will run from March 1 to 3. Students have until noon on March 1 to register to vote.

How are you planning to vote in the election? Fill out Trinity News’ poll and help us understand how students feel.

David Wolfe

David Wolfe is a Junior Sophister student of History and Political Science. He is the current Social Media and Managing Editor of Trinity News, having previously served as News Editor, Assistant News Editor and copyeditor.