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Judy El-Mohtadi is a third-year criminology and women’s studies student. Photo: Matt Gergyek/Fulcrum

El-Mohtadi looks to launch anti-oppression training for entire U of O community, free childcare service

The Fulcrum is interviewing each of the five University of Ottawa Students’ Union (UOSU) commissioners as the school year begins. On Thursday, interim equity commissioner Judy El-Mohtadi touched on implementing anti-oppression training for the entire U of O community, her goal to give students access to free menstrual products while pushing for more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, and her plans for the upcoming byelection.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The Fulcrum: Can you tell me a bit about yourself, Judy?

Judy El-Mohtadi: I’m a third-year criminology and women’s studies student.

F: Why did you run for the interim equity commissioner position? 

JE: Last year I worked at the Women’s Resource Centre and I did a lot of really cool projects that are equity-related. With the start of the new union, I think we really have the opportunity to make some really good changes in terms of the kind of equity that’s on campus and to the systems of oppression that are embedded in our institutions. I have a lot of great ideas that I want to bring to life and this is, I think, the best way to do it.

F: For people who don’t know, what does your position entail? 

JE: My position is basically representing students on matters of equity. So I advocate for marginalized students on campus, I oversee the equity building services, which are the Racialized and Indigenous Student Experience Centre, Multifaith Centre, Centre for Students with Disabilities, Women’s Resource Centre and the Pride Centre. The Women’s Resource Centre and Pride Centre are now combined to be the Sexual Health and Wellness Centre. 

A lot of my work is just about implementing an anti-oppressive framework on campus and just making sure that it’s as discrimination-free as possible by working to try to dismantle the systems of oppression that are embedded in the way our institution functions. 

F: I know you touched on working at the Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), but what experience makes you well-suited for this position?

JE: The Women’s Resource Center was my first equity-related job, which I think went really great. I just wanted to make sure students were getting what they deserve in terms of what the service offers. So I remember for Women’s History Month, which was October, we had an event every single day for that month. It was a lot of work and a lot of commitment.

We also organized TEDxUOttawaWomen. I was the licensee and the lead organizer, and I did it with Jade Sullivan, who also worked at the WRC with me and who works there now. I gained a lot of leadership skills and learned how to work under pressure. I feel like that project alone made me a more well-rounded person. I also expanded my knowledge and education by meeting people who have different experiences than me. I think the fact that I’m in women’s studies helps bring that theoretical and academic background I can apply to the work I do.

F: What do you think makes the equity commissioner position so important?

JE: We can’t deny systems of oppression exist and we need someone who’s representing marginalized students that are affected by these systems of oppression. It’s having someone who can coordinate the needs of students who are marginalized and making sure these needs are being met and listened to. 

F: What are your plans for the position? I know you mentioned introducing widespread anti-oppression training to the university at the Sept. 15 Board of Directors meeting? 

JE: I think it’s important everyone has anti-oppression training because all staff and professors interact with students on a daily basis. Every day, there are people who are talking to university staff and the fact that these staff don’t have anti-oppression training just shows that they’re coming here with all their prejudice and their bias and they’re dealing with students and they’re imposing that prejudice and bias onto the students. So I think it’s so important that the university makes this training mandatory for all staff and students.

F: How would this training look in practice? When would you hope to get it started? 

JE: By the end of my mandate, I hope that this is something that at least the university is in the process of considering. In terms of what things I think should be covered, it would go over what are the systems of oppression and how staff and faculty can make sure the work they do or the lectures they give don’t incorporate these systems by making sure the language they use is gender-neutral and not racist. Considering the society we live in is a white, settler, heteropatriarchal society, then we can’t really expect that of everyone. It’s definitely important that the university does take measures to ensure they’re creating a safe space for their students.

I actually think it would be important for the university to implement yearly anti-oppression training because things change all the time. So what could be a pressing social justice issue now might not be in one year. If a professor got hired 15 years ago, their training isn’t relevant anymore. It’s not a one-time thing where one training is going to eliminate all the prejudice and bias that people have. It’s something that should be ongoing.

F: What are some of your other plans for your mandate?

JE: I want to focus on a campaign that will be coming out of the WRC called #endperiodpoverty. It’s about making sure menstrual products are accessible on campus, adding them in all bathrooms and ensuring students are able to get free menstrual products with consistent access. Last year, we tried to do this as part of the WRC but it wasn’t consistent. We used to get a lot of women that would come and take pads, and then as soon as we closed, which would sometimes be 1 p.m., women don’t have access to menstrual products anymore.

Recently, there was a study that showed that one-third of women under the age of 25 have reached the point where they weren’t able to afford menstrual products. So they end up resorting to doing things like using a paper towel, which is not healthy. That’s something I want to work on with the university, just making sure there’s this financial commitment to consistently offering free menstrual products in all bathrooms for folks who need it.

I want to see a campaign out of the Pride Centre focused on gender-neutral bathrooms. We don’t have enough on campus and the ones we do have are usually hidden in some far corner that is not accessible to everyone, and you have to walk 10 minutes to get to the gender-neutral bathroom. I want to make sure it’s a lot more widespread and available in the same areas you would find the gendered bathrooms.

The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls came out recently. Under Article 11.1, they do have demands for educational institutions. Some of these demands involve raising awareness and making sure we include Indigenous folks when in creating curriculums and also educating folks on Indigenous law and Indigenous practices. I really want to try to work on pushing the university to take that into account and to start implementing that within their way of governing.

I really want to work on creating a childcare service. We did childcare as part of the WRC but it impeded on the other work we were trying to do. It was definitely important work and that’s why we were doing it, but I think it should be its own separate service. There are a lot of students that end up missing their classes because they didn’t find someone to watch their kids. A lot of people choose to not even enroll in university because they have children and because they can’t afford childcare.

Lastly, I want to create these committees that run out of each of the five equity services. Those committees would be made up of between five to 10 active students who aren’t representatives of the services. The point of the committee is to make sure that the kind of equity-related work we do is coming from the students. I haven’t experienced a lot of the things that marginalized folks on campus might have. My perspective isn’t the only one that encompasses what the student body needs. So these committees can capture students’ perspectives or gather students’ input on the things they need so I can adapt my work and implement initiatives that respond to those needs rather than the things I think students need.

F: Two of the big equity issues on campus right now are racism and discrimination, especially since the carding and handcuffing of Black student Jamal Boyce by Protection Services in June. What are your thoughts on the university’s response?

JE: I feel like the university tried, but they tried for the sake of saying they tried. They implemented these so-called measures and they wrote all of these things in emails using big words and making it seem like they’re doing so much when they really aren’t. There’s just so much more they need to be doing to address this particular incident but also all the incidents that have come before and the constant cycle of discrimination that happens on campus.

F: Did you want to touch on the four measures the university has implemented

JE: One of the measures they mentioned was the interim directive on the interpretation and application of Policy 33. So they said they’re limiting the power of Protection Services, but in reality, they’re not. If you go into that interpretation, it says that Protection Services should limit their use of power that they have to card students to certain instances. They gave reasonable examples, like one of the examples was if students want to access spaces that the general like student population doesn’t usually have access to. But the way that they’re phrasing it is still giving protection services the power or discretion to choose when they think a situation is worthy of asking someone for their card. So at the end of the day they did nothing, they just said Protection Services should be limiting their own power, but they’re still giving them the power to choose when they can or can’t (card). The policy should read Protection Services does not have the right to ask students for cards, unless it’s for these defined exceptions.

The university also said that they gave (unconscious bias) training to Protection Services. First of all, what is that training and who gave the training? How can we know that all these officers are suddenly void of all their prejudice and bias because of this one training that they took with god knows who and that consisted of god knows what? We need to make sure the training takes place yearly and is public, as in we should know what is happening in those trainings and who the person is leading the training. 

We also need accountability measures. What are the consequences for officers if they don’t abide by the so-called measures the university has put in place? These are the kind of things I thought about when Jamal shared his story. It’s a continuous cycle of discrimination happening on campus. I’ve heard countless stories from my friends telling me that they experienced discrimination and the university just doesn’t prioritize that as much as they would prioritize increasing their own salaries. 

F: The UOSU’s byelection is slated to take place between Oct. 15 and Nov. 15. What are your plans for then?

JE: What I understood at the BOD meeting on Sept. 15 was that if no one runs, then my mandate would continue until the end of the winter term. But if someone does run then I would run again.

F: Is there anything else you wanted to add or want students to know?

JE: I know I didn’t get elected, I was appointed by the board. That’s why I really want to make sure that my mandate is super student-centred. I really encourage students to come see me if they ever need anything or if they think what I’m doing is not right. Please hit me with that criticism, it helps me become better.

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