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Combining Mutual Aid and Collective Action: Students for Consent Culture Canada

An interview with Chantelle Spicer, the former Co-Chair of Students for Consent Culture (SFCC) Canada, a grassroots organisation dedicated to supporting anti-sexual violence advocacy and activism on campuses across Canada.

Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Chantelle and Camille smiling on zoom.
Top to bottom: Chantelle Spicer and Camille Schloeffel
“It's not like I came into post-secondary education to become an anti-violence activist. I came here to go to classes and get educated. After what happened to me and so many of my friends, I was forced to do this work. Now, I think of it like a beautiful obligation. I do this work because I don't want other people to experience what I did. The generosity of a community is really what drives me to do this work. That's why I show up in my work and conduct myself in ways I expect others to conduct themselves. We're not going to build the world that we want to live in by duplicating harmful organising structures.

Chantelle Spicer is one of my personal heroes in how she does activism and the way she brings about change through collective action. I was able to meet Spicer for dinner but of course we were chatting too much and forgot to take a photo! For me, it's always such a relief to talk to somebody who just gets it – particularly around how universities treat victim-survivor activists.

Spicer was the Co-Chair of Students For Consent Culture (SFCC) Canada (previously known as OurTurn). SFCC's overall goal is to build relationships of solidarity across social justice movements and organisations to support cultures of consent on campuses and in communities across Canada. They do this by serving as a hub of resources, tools, community and institutional memory for student engagement.

Student activism across the nation

SFCC made a big splash with their OurTurn National Action Plan, a national student-led action plan to end campus sexual violence. This National Action Plan came out just a few days before #MeToo in 2017. In early 2016, there was a group of students who were organising against campus sexual violence in Quebec, specifically at Concordia University and McGill University in response to some high profile cases of student athletes and professors perpetrating sexual violence at the time. This organising across campuses on the lack of institutional policies and processes to address sexual violence led to SFCC members developing their National Action Plan. The Plan included a scorecard which graded Canadian universities according to how they were responding to sexual violence. This scorecard gained national attention. In response, some universities started to fill the gaps that had been identified. 

One of the main purposes of SFCC is to serve as a hub of institutional memory for students on campuses across the country. This entails collating information and resources in one place so that each year students can learn about the activism that occurred before them. This is important because of the high level of student turnover and the way that administrators can use this against students to delay actions. This is particularly relevant to students with positions in their student union, as they often join the movement in a very active way but for the short period of their term (usually nine months to one year).

SFCC has three main portfolios:

  1. Education, which includes the creation of training, popular education materials, research and reports for students to access and use on their campuses.

  2. Outreach, which includes mobilising and facilitating the network of connections between student groups and other organisations, as well as the work of 'grading' sexual violence policies in collaboration with student groups.

  3. Advocacy, which includes researching to support reforms and advocating for systemic changes at the campus, provincial and federal levels to institutions and governments.

Most of SFCC's active members are graduate students who do research that tends to overlap with their studies, which explains their focus on projects that require research and writing, like their Advocacy Toolkit. SFCC also partners with organisations working towards the same goal, such as the Alliance of BC Students and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network.

Embedding care into the work

“The work can be really isolating, subjective and exhausting. So we started to build mutual aid amongst student survivors so that they know they aren't doing it alone.”

Spicer and the broader SFCC membership have a really strong emphasis on community care, in recognition of anti-sexual violence activism often being unfunded, unpaid and undervalued. Some of the main ways that SFCC builds this community is through hosting monthly community care sessions open to all members to attend. Everyone takes a turn in organising one of these community care sessions so that it doesn't fall to one person. They usually look like seeing a movie, doing art, playing games, getting a professional to come in to do mindfulness and meditation or just getting together and talking.

Spicer spoke about how the SFCC team always prioritises care over projects. How this works in practice is that no projects have deadlines unless they are attached to government funding. For example, their Open Secrets report was supposed to be a year-long project but it turned into a three and a half year project. The deadline kept shifting as they built a lot of care into the project and allowed people to go at their own pace. This was particularly important for this project as it explored the scope and impact of sexual violence and harassment by professors against students.

“We try to build a really strong community of care and support.”

Spicer's largest inspirations are Black and Indigenous theorists that are leading social movements that centre care, community and relational work. This is how Spicer seeks to turn up as an activist. Genuine and meaningful relationship building with victim-survivors, activists, advocates and community organisations should be a number one priority for universities to take accountability and reduce future harm. However, this is rarely the case.

This is why Spicer and the SFCC team build peer support networks of mutual aid and community care which institutions fail to provide. As students, we also shouldn't be solely responsible for having to do it, but it's our reality. This is also the case in Australia where informal peer support networks are built amongst student communities to supplement the lack of care provided formally. Spicer describes this care as essential while also advocating for universities to take on this load in a meaningful way.

Institutions must be accountable to the fact that they're making these environments that make students unsafe. Spicer said how until student activists make them accountable, they're always going to be in this position of scrambling to support one another. This is why SFCC believes that both mutual aid and collective action are needed to achieve their vision of safer campus communities. Spicer argues that we can do both when there are meaningful relationships with other groups who are doing that work too. Even though it's oftentimes really difficult to do this work, Spicer and the SFCC team know how necessary it is.

Anti-oppressive activism in practice

“We regularly have to remind people that we're all unravelling this mess of intersectional oppression.”

I asked Spicer, how does SFCC put the principles of decolonisation and intersectionality into practice?

When SFCC started building the Open Secrets report, they made a table of intersectional and trauma-informed practices that they were specifically going to use for that project. Spicer spoke about how there can be a real tendency to treat everything like a checkbox, especially when working on a report or something like organising who will be a speaker on a panel. It's so easy for everything to become a checkbox, which is when it becomes all about diversity and inclusion through this colonial lens rather than focusing on anti-oppression. As a result of this, SFCC leads conversations about these tendencies and ensures their projects are actively rejecting these colonial ideologies and practices. When organising events, they also acknowledge intersectionality by asking people what they want to talk about. This means that although a person may be Indigenous, they may want to speak about their experience of disability in relation to sexual violence instead. Putting the choice to them means that the person speaking can set the agenda and ensures that SFCC is not contacting people in a tokenistic way by dictating to them what perspective or lived experience they should bring.

SFCC also made it a priority when writing the Open Secrets report to reach out to a lot of Indigenous students, Black students, queer students, racialised students and students with disability, so that all of these voices were present from the beginning.

Trying to be anti-colonial in a colonial system

“We're not here to work with post-secondary institutions.”

A way that SFCC puts their anti-colonial value into practice is by not working with institutions. This is a firm and purposeful stance by SFCC to not work with universities because they do not see their role as to work within a colonial structure as unpaid students when administrators have resources and support at their beck and call. Spicer spoke about how they are very firm in not wanting to work within the colonial structure of the institution and make resources for institutions which often then get taken out of context or are co-opted for other purposes. For Spicer, this feels disingenuous and disrespectful to a lot of the student voices that go into SFCC's work for them to then turn around and give it to an institution to co-opt as their own.

A critique Spicer has of universities when they open sexual violence support offices on campus is how they expect oppressed students, such as Indigenous students, to all of sudden trust the university and use this service without actually employing Indigenous staff to rebuild relationships. Unlike other organisations that hire people whose sole job is to build these relationships with communities and organisations in their support for Indigenous survivors, universities fail to see this is necessary. But the reality is that you can't just make something and then expect people who have been oppressed or harmed by institutions to just show up. This relationship building is a step that universities must take so that the workers in these sexual violence offices have the capacity to build relationships in meaningful ways. 

Transferring SFCC's work into the Australian context

“It's such a gift to be trusted by so many students who a lot of the time don't even know me to do this work. The generosity of a community that has been so harmed is really powerful.”

There is no similar organisation or collective action like SFCC in Australia – although it is necessary. A major difference between Canada and Australia is the way in which in Canada there are national scale collectives of students advocating for institutions to address sexual violence in their campuses. Instead, most student activism on this issue in Australia is limited to student unions and women's/queer collectives in individual campuses. In my experience, there is also a lack of care and support built into activist groups and movements – leading volunteers to burnout quickly and have high levels of turnover.

Considerations for new work in the Australian context includes:

  1. Development of a 'scorecard' system to assess actions on sexual violence by institutions across Australia to call them out for their inaction and also to make comparisons across the sector. This would provide a central source for all community members to know which universities are taking the issue more seriously and acting.

  2. Development of a community care network for university-specific anti-sexual violence activists to come together to connect, share and support each other. This is a direct act of decolonial and anti-oppressive practice that fills a gap that the university systems do not provide.

  3. Embedding anti-oppressive, anti-colonial and intersectional values into all collective action work. This can be done through leading conversations, embedding in organisational structures, policies, procedures and value systems. It can also be done by intentionally utilising trauma-informed and intersectional practices in all stages of a project.

  4. Celebrate and lift up activists and activist movements. All parts of society have a role to play in ending sexual violence so for those that do not want to do this work directly, a way that they can assist is by supporting those who are doing the direct work. Depending on what role they have in society, it could be through funding, resources, in-kind support, developing partnerships, spotlighting work or even through emotional support and care.

I am immensely grateful for the care and support Spicer has provided me on my Churchill Fellowship journey. She connected me with so many powerful and inspiring activists in Canada that are doing work to end sexual violence across Canadian campuses. All of my conversations across Canada have reinforced how important it is to build connections and networks to gain more collective power. In turn, influencing institutions and governments. 

In solidarity,

Camille Schloeffel

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