TCDSU candidates: Can’t advocate for all students? Drop out of the race.

Sabbatical officers must be confident enough to speak on behalf of oppressed students, it’s literally the job

This year, I helped host the Equality Hustings of the 2023/24 Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) sabbatical elections. Alongside some other union officers, we curated a list of questions for the candidates. These were focused upon an array of topics, including racism on campus, support for access students, as well as questions focusing upon individual policy points across the various manifestos. While putting together these questions, the three of us were purposeful in trying to ensure each candidate would be able to show off why minority students should vote for them, as well as their competency in discussing issues disproportionately affecting oppressed students within College. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed by the answers we received.

When asking candidates why their manifestos didn’t mention certain minority groups, we received essentially the same answer: “Oh well I, as a white/cis/straight/neurotypical/etc. person, I cannot speak fully for this group.” This answer was not only received multiple times, but by almost every candidate in every race. The common theme seemed to be that each candidate would “consult” or “work with” the various part-time officers in the union that represent minority students. These answers were incredibly frustrating and repetitive, so much so that I began directly saying “besides consulting PTO’s” when asking a question on actions they would take. At Council Hustings later that evening, myself and the TCDSU president went on to repeat this type of question, not once but twice, and yet received unsatisfactory answers.

Why was this? Why was the quality of answers so poor at a hustings centred around the crux of almost every candidate’s manifestos? When I was campaign manager last year for the current president, we had little to worry about when it came to the Equality Hustings. Most of her manifesto was around issues of equality and justice – so it should be a piece of cake. She was running because she felt she would be best for the job, surely everyone is doing that, right?

Wrong. Well, at least that’s what I took from Equality Hustings. On the stage were candidates who majoritively lacked fundamental understanding on the processes currently in place within College to support minority students, as well as a lack of knowledge in how to be an activist for minority groups that they themselves are not a part of. It read to me that candidates simply pushing the burden onto minority PTO’s was out of fear of saying the wrong thing or getting cancelled, instead of using their privilege to be an ally for these students. 

The idea of “consulting with” PTO’s when any and all issue comes up is not only unrealistic, but stands to undermine what it means to be a student representative. Sabbatical officers are there to act as full time officers of the union. They are chosen by the students in order to fulfil the roles that no full time student can fulfil. To rely on part-time officers to act as the sole voice for minority students, as proposed by numerous candidates at the hustings, is to take an active step against these students. To not have the knowledge in your position as a full-time, paid officer of TCDSU to fight for minority students in every room, in every meeting, within every conversation, is to undermine the position itself. 

Sabbats are often one of the only student representatives in meetings across college. What are you to do when issues regarding minority students come up unexpectedly? Or if an issue requires a further lens of intersectionality in order to see issues that an untrained eye may miss? Ask them to stop and say “sorry! I need to grab a student from their chemistry lab! I don’t speak for this group of students, #ally #recognise your privilege”. No. You should have the experience, knowledge and expertise in order to make fast decisions, as the role requires.

Of course, just as you would with any student issue, student consultation is important. There are issues you are unaware of, you must constantly engage with a students to ensure that the union is working as effectively as possible for every student. I am not saying to not talk to PTO’s and student groups by any means. In fact, as someone that has been a PTO for the last two years, I wish I was contacted more! I had to bring issues to the table myself, which, as a trans person, can feel incredibly isolating! Almost every year candidates promise to reach out to PTO’s, but it isn’t the reality.

To conclude, the choice to “talk” and “engage” is an easy promise. However, if it is your only promise, it serves little purpose. If you are a candidate that can’t advocate for every student, I struggle to understand why you are running, honestly. Read. Go to a workshop. Do anything and everything you can to make sure you know what you are talking about BEFORE you start your campaign. Consultation is important, but you have to do the work yourself too. Sin é.