A few weeks before the by-elections last month, a passionate post from last year about the importance of voting and the corruption within the UBCSUO showed up, pinned at the top of the UBCO Class of 2021 Facebook group. It was written by Casey Stein, now a 4th year PPE major, who was re-elected Director at Large in 2019.
The post is far too detailed to reproduce exactly here, but it essentially pointed out that the SUO elections have had a low voter turnout in the past, especially at the by-elections, which has, in his words, “resulted in corruption and some pretty bad people coming to office and using your money for personal gain”. This piqued my interest about what Stein’s opinions would be on the 2020 SUO By-elections, at a time where the US--his home country-- goes through an extremely important presidential election.
TW: suicidal ideation and sexual assault.
The Phoenix: To begin with, what made you want to get involved with the SUO and the Director at Large position?
Casey Stein: I had worked in both advocacy and politics in my home state of Texas before coming to university. Although I hate Trump, I believe the problem [with the United States government] is systemic and that it originates in the way America has governed itself for decades. Hearing that the SUO had similar historical problems with corruption and financial mismanagement made me interested in getting involved. Then VP-Internal, Patience Spinoza mentioned I should run for the Director at Large position. After I was elected [in 2017] I got the privilege to serve in a true team effort over the next year to begin the process of reforming our policies, internal structure, practices, and political culture. I was invited back to do more policy work for the SUO over a co-op term, and at the end some of the staff and executives encouraged me to run again. I struggled with the decision but decided to do it, and thus ran in the 2019 by-election for Director at Large.
TP: What student issue were you most passionate about and what changes did you want to see?
CS: Mental health. It has always been what I've been most passionate about due to my personal experiences with depression, anxiety, and OCD. To be honest, in terms of mental health advocacy, I viewed the SUO more as an avenue for making changes to the university as a whole. Unfortunately, I personally know more UBCO students than I can count on my fingers who have struggled with suicidal ideation and felt they did not know where to go. I developed a relationship with some of the folks at mental health resources like Health and Wellness and VOICE Campus Health, and pretty quickly I came to learn the effect sexual assaults at Frosh and Recess were having. Every single year, the week after Frosh would be the week Health and Wellness had the most students reporting suicidal ideation.
The SUO still spends tens of thousands of dollars on two parties (obviously the pandemic has meant this is not true this year). Still, [some] factions on campus want it to go back to hundreds of thousands of dollars of student money like it was before we started to reform. The idea that I don't get to keep my student union fees from going to events that cause the highest rates of suicidal ideation every year has always enraged me. I will never stop saying we need to stop spending student money on these parties. It makes me sick to know all of my friends and I, who have struggled, still have to contribute to that.
I have a lot of respect for most of the folks at the SUO, but the ones who work in the office know how strongly I disagree with the fact that they let these parties continue without adequately addressing the sexual assault/suicidal ideation rate connection.
TP: Your post in the UBCO Class of 2021 group, as you know, is why we wanted to talk to you. Amongst other things, you said this about the by-elections: “It should not be a popularity contest. It should be about as many students as possible voting, not just those in one clique”. Do you think this has been true this year? Do you think there has been any change?
CS: I do think there has been a lot of change. I think that when any institution appears to accomplish significant reform and drift away from bad practices, voters have a tendency to stop paying as much attention because they think the job is done. I am pulling for Biden in the U.S. this year but I'm worried the same thing will happen if he wins.
This concept also applies to the SUO. It's at least as important as voting for reform, if not more, to be a vigilant voter after reform has begun. Otherwise you get a vicious cycle of voter apathy, corruption, instability, and a loss of faith in the institution. Then people are elected to accomplish reform, only to see those either fail to address the source of the problem or introduce new ones. The reason why I think there needs to be a lot of diversity in the type of students who vote is [...] that a vast majority of voters don't feel like their vote is actually important because they don't like any of the candidates enough. It is the minority who is radicalized by certain candidates who show up.
The interesting thing about student union elections [...] is you don't necessarily have to have a candidate who is using inflammatory rhetoric to have a certain population over-represented in an election. You can just have a candidate with a large group of friends who all know each other and said candidates have frequently won past SUO elections despite their actual policy/platform proposals being sub-standard. People weren't paying attention to the 2019 by-election (and based on the recent by-election results even less so this year). I was in [a] situation where I personally felt I was the most qualified and had the best platform, but I was up against several candidates who had large groups of friends who were going to vote for them without weighing the platforms of each candidate like a voter should, and [...] I recognized that despite being the incumbent I was at a disadvantage. Thus I had to make that frankly aggressive post to mobilize the electorate, because low turnout would be bad news for me and I at least wanted voters to do their research before deciding who to vote for.
TP: You also mentioned the SUO’s corrupt past and you said, “Students aren't paying attention to this by-election. [...] How do you believe the corruption was allowed to take place the first time?”. What was your first experience of being faced with this corruption within the SUO? How have you seen it evolve over your time at UBCO?
CS: The process of cleaning out the corruption had started with the board the year before I was elected, when the former General Manager was dismissed. The political culture in prior years was not concerned with advocacy to the students. There were beers bought with student money in exchange for board votes, political pressure on the CRO to disqualify a candidate or lose their position, executive (student-funded) credit cards being used for luxury purchases, etc. Most of these problems were caused by the combination of the toxic political culture and inadequate policy. The policy committee addressed the problem by rewriting our regulations and looking at more functional student unions for ideas, and committees like the Campaigns and Campus Life committees started the process of making SUO services more accommodating of previously underrepresented segments of the student body.
Overall, I would say the SUO is in a much, much better place than it was three years ago, thanks to a lot of individuals who were passionate about transforming it into a better organization. I would be hesitant to say there is still corruption in the organization. I think our current General Manager, Lori Stevenson, is excellent at her job and perfect to be leading the organization. Although members can have biases [...] which can result in disputes, I believe Lori makes a conscious effort to be a leader who looks past politics and sees the value in each individual as a human being.
TP: As a past candidate with an insider's perspective on the election process as well as the functioning of the SUO itself, what advice would you give to students who want to campaign to be candidates in the future, especially with the challenges of appealing to cliques they are not a part of?
CS: It's hard to give one answer. However, I would first say before you even plan campaigning, ask yourself why you want to run. Is it because you're passionate about helping others and making change, or is it because you think it'd be cool to have your face everywhere and be in a position of power?
In regards to actually campaigning, never, ever be afraid to put yourself out there. The reality of politics is if there's someone out there doing more than you are they're going to beat you. If you're running because you want to help others it means your heart is in the right place. And if you're running against somebody who is running for more selfish reasons, you can bet they'll probably be willing to put themselves out there because that's what they're doing it for. If you want to make a change, you deserve that spot as much as anyone, so swallow your fear and go out there to make sure you don't lose because you're too concerned with offending people.
TP: With the pandemic, a lot of the campaigning, the debates and the marketing were all online. Did you find this change to contribute to the elections or do you think it was more a detriment to the process?
CS: The by-election results are out so they confirmed it was negative but I suspected it would be a detriment to the process. There's no substitute for [in-person] interaction.
TP: Are you hopeful about the future of the SUO? Why or why not?
CS: I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm pretty pessimistic about politics in general but the changes we were able to make, and those that are still going on, blew me away. But seeing the by-election results as low as they were this year is disappointing. Unfortunately, students don't appreciate the degree of the impact the SUO has on our lives until we become a part of the process. This is why I am really encouraged by the new student at large positions on the committees. One of my buddies was probably the most pessimistic person about the SUO you could find, but I convinced him to apply to the policy committee and his whole view changed once he was involved in the meetings and decision-making process and saw what we were actually doing. [...] The SUO is actually a lot more complex and multifaceted than most people think.
The above interaction was conducted over email and has been edited for clarity and brevity.