I volunteered for MAC Bread Bin in second year, and I helped run an event called Feed the Bus. We parked a school bus on campus and asked students to donate food and spare change for Hamilton food banks.
I was a SOCS rep then, too, so I talked to one of the vice-presidents of SOCS about helping me promote the event by spreading the word among reps.
The response was incredible. A crowd of reps, who brought with them their orange jumpsuits and Welcome Week enthusiasm, congregated outside the bus every day for the week, soliciting donations from passers-by. We wouldn’t have raised near the amount of money that we did without them.
SOCS still helps out every year for Feed the Bus. Why? Because SOCS reps care about feeding the hungry in Hamilton, and they do something about it by supporting MAC Bread Bin. That’s just what it means to be a rep with the off-campus students society.
Fast forward three years to the MSU’s general assembly on Tuesday. After last year’s attendance of over 670 students, this year was an embarrassment. Only 60 people showed up, and no more than 30 voted on either of the two motions.
To be clear, a well-attended general assembly is not the end goal. It shouldn’t be about quorum for the sake of quorum, or direct democracy for the sake of direct democracy. It shouldn’t use gimmicks to boost attendance. But it has the potential to be a big opportunity for student ideas to get some attention, and people need to be aware that it’s happening.
Promotion for this year’s GA, though, was awful. Intentionally or not, the MSU made little effort to tell students about an event that, just a year prior, they felt was worthy of a major marketing campaign. The date announcement came late. There weren’t many posters. There wasn’t even a Facebook event.
There’s no question that the poor promotion was responsible for the low turnout. But, more importantly, it meant that only one motion was on the table at the start of the meeting.
In years past, the motions were what drew the crowds. Last year, the Welcome Week fee proposal got reps to attend. A motion for the MSU to recognize the Greek Life Council got fraternity members out. The McMaster Marching Band went to see their fee request pass.
It wasn’t about attracting students one at a time. It was about finding where they were already engaged and meeting them halfway.
And despite the problems with the 2012 general assembly (see last week’s editorial), it got that right, even though our students union usually gets it wrong on political student engagement. Be it in General Assembly or the SRA or other avenues, they don’t go to where their members already are.
It’s not that students don’t care. The term “student apathy” is an ugly one – it misplaces the blame.
The problem is structural. If you’re on the SRA, you might be involved in some other segment of campus life, but only by coincidence. At Mac, student government is just another thing to do.
Students care about their societies, clubs, rep groups and social circles. That stuff comes to constitute a person’s identity. I wasn’t just a Mac student. I was an ArtSci, and I lived off-campus, and I was – and continue to be – a Silhouette editor. And because of those things, I found new ways to engage. I found new things to care about.
And that’s why, if the MSU really wants to know how students are feeling or what they want, it needs to connect itself to other groups.
In the same way that being a SOCS rep has become synonymous with caring about food security in Hamilton, being a part of some facet of campus life should fit naturally with political engagement in the MSU. A change like that could ensure better use of student money. It could improve student life. It could turn unilateral lobbying efforts into movements.
It won’t be easy. It could mean re-making a decades-old student government structure to incorporate student leaders from other parts of campus. Or it could mean that the MSU should absorb faculty societies.
But if the MSU wants to be seen as a viable means through which its members can improve their undergrad experience, change is necessary. The MSU can’t be isolated. It can’t keep splitting the attention of students who want to be engaged.
And it can’t keep trying to fight this enemy that is so-called student apathy.