Interview with the Union President, Rachel tustin
What are your plans for your term as union president?
My biggest plan is something that actually doesn’t impact my termcard or the list of speakers that our members get to see – it’s the constitutional changes that will (hopefully) pass in the next couple of meetings. I’d rather not go into too much detail as I’m not sure if they’ll actually succeed, but I want to have someone on standing committee (the committee of elected officers) with a vote, who’s sole job is to ensure a termcard that is diverse in all possible ways – gender, race, sexuality etc. They would head a subcommittee of officers that would each represent different marginalized groups. I think this is essential as while a lot of elected officers often join the Union with the intentions of promoting diverse viewpoints, this isn’t a priority for everyone so we need the institutionalization of a role to ensure every termcard encompasses a wide-range of perspectives.
Who is your favourite speaker you have got to meet through the Union so far?
Unfortunately there’s just no way I can narrow it down to one – but I definitely do have a top two. Somewhat obviously, one of them is Bill Gates – who was just really lovely and obviously put a lot of thought into answering my questions in their entirety, which I really appreciated. I also spoke to him after the event about Melissa, who I am a huge fan of, and I really appreciated the clear admiration he had for her, as well as his candid acknowledgement of what a huge driving force she had been. My other favourite speaker would be Adama Iwu, who I actually invited in my term as women’s officer, which is a long time ago now. She was one of the ‘silence breakers’ and a TIME person of the year in 2017 for her work to combat sexual assault in Hollywood, not just for actresses, but also for the working class women who were often abused by powerful men in the film industry. She’s just an incredibly interesting person and we agreed on so many things – I’m fortunate enough to have her coming back for my presidential debate (THB men cannot be feminists) which I’m also super excited for!
If you could have anyone to speak at the union who would it be?
Hands down, Serena Williams or Michelle Obama – they’re just incredibly inspirational.
The Union has a long history, what difficulties do its traditions pose when trying to progress its culture?
I definitely think that the Union very much has a usual demographic – privileged white men. A large part of that is the fact that it was started by men (literally in a pub brawl – who knew toxic masculinity was capable of being vaguely productive?), did not include women until 1963, and has a reputational issue in regards to gender balance. This statement doesn’t even touch on other diversity issues with race, disability, sexuality etc.
I do think, however, that progress is possible and not as hard as people make it out to be - it just has to be done on a structural level. In particular, I think the constitutional changes I mentioned above will help institutionalize a focus on diversity even when Presidents are elected who may not care / prioritise welcoming individuals from minority backgrounds. Moreover, my own Lent debates lineup, which was gender balanced and had 1/3 of speakers coming from minority backgrounds, shows that when an effort is made it does reflect in the termcard itself.
However, admittedly, that’s not the end of it. I also think that regardless of these changes, people occupying roles like President and Vice President have to make an active effort to engage with people from minority backgrounds on their committees and make them feel comfortable. That’s obviously something there’s no guarantee of – and I do think that with the main ‘demographic’ of the Union being white men it can arise as an issue. Obviously not saying that all white men are ignorant of minorities and the specific challenges they face, but I think it’s fair enough to say that someone in a minority themselves is less likely to be ignorant.
Do you think progression towards increased diversity lacks a focus on those of East Asian ethnicity?
This is a really difficult question in that I’m tempted to say yes, but equally I don’t want to detract from efforts made towards racial diversity. I’m also fully aware that the experience of being black or dark-skinned is completely different to that of being from East Asian descent, especially at Cambridge.
On the one hand, I do think that there is a lack of spaces for East Asian people to organise politically and discuss our experiences. Although groups like FLY are technically open to all BAME women, I do think a lot of the time the discussion is about experiences that are for black women in particular. However, I completely respect and appreciate the space that this creates for the women who attend the events regularly and wouldn’t want to detract from that at all. I think the solution is probably just for someone who feels similarly to me to create the space for East Asian women to discuss and organise in Cambridge.
I would also offer the caveat that I don’t think many East Asian women would share my thoughts on this issue in Cambridge in particular. As having personally attended school in the UK / international school my entire life, I don’t think I have had the same experiences as someone who went to Korean school, and I’m not particularly connected with Korean culture as a result. So I’m stuck in a liminal space wherein I’m clearly not white-passing, and I am not treated like I’m white by people around the university, whether they be peers or lecturers and supervisors, yet cultural societies don’t really offer the space that could help me feel at home either.
How do you think the union can increase its diversity in terms of socio-economic background?
This is a really difficult question and one that I try to be aware of in my day-to-day actions at the Union. I think on the base-line, there is a difficulty with the prices – but unfortunately, as much as people try to argue that reducing prices can solve this, the bottom line is that the Union does need a certain amount of money to run.
However, there are definitely things that we’re doing in order to make the union more accessible for those of different class backgrounds. Firstly, we’re gradually collecting data In our membership surveys so that we can implement scaled access memberships – a scheme that I tried to introduce this year, but couldn’t as the budget for the next two years had already been decided. However, hopefully once we’ve collected data we can figure out how we can ensure that people on partial bursaries get a scaled reduction of membership price in a way that’s financially viable for the Union.
On top of this, similarly to the point above about progress and adjustment in the Union, I think it’s a cultural issue as well. I do try to be aware of the different economic backgrounds that people are from and be sensitive to this in my actions – the students who stayed behind with me during the vacation had food and accommodation paid for, and the standing committee often discuss how to make events like the Freshers ball less alienating for students from working class backgrounds. However, I do think again, this is something that needs to be resolved by giving the access officer a larger role institutionally – and this is something that’s also happening over the course of the coming constitutional changes. Particularly important to me is the new schools debating workshops wherein we offer workshops to students from underprivileged backgrounds, who are able to come to attend a speaker event afterwards. I think this definitely goes some way to alleviate the perception of the Union as inaccessible, and also helps us use our debating (which was what the society was founded on after all) to help solve educational inequality.