Home News CSU President Khaleed Juma: Year End Interview Exclusive with Tobi Elliott – Part I

CSU President Khaleed Juma: Year End Interview Exclusive with Tobi Elliott – Part I

by Archives April 11, 2007

Part I – The Overview: The Good, the Bad, the Tragic

What’s the year been like?

It’s been fantastic, but nothing comes without challenges. It’s been a year where you find a whole new set of limitations you didn’t know you had. A lot of meeting new people, learning new ropes, getting to understand this university and its complexities and how we are a very unique institute. I’ve visited a lot of other unis, in the country and abroad… and we are our own entity and I don’t think Concordia can learn lessons from anyone other than ourselves right now.

It’s been difficult, because Concordia is carved into so many different niches, everyone wants so many different things from their institute and when you compare McGill and Concordia, [at McGill] it’s much easier to find a blanket solution to any problem. At Concordia we have so many of these specific reasons, it’s hard to cater to all these different demographics. It’s that uniqueness that’s our greatest strength. The cultural diversity is probably my favorite thing about it and what I love about it when I go outside to represent our university.

Do you think you were well-equipped for this job when you stepped in at the beginning of the year? What were your qualifications that helped you and what could you have used more of?

Being a people person was the greatest asset I brought to this job. Being able to try and understand where people come from. . . it’s what I needed to do this, to get through the campaigns, through the summer and the duration of this year.

In terms of not being necessarily equipped, I wish someone would have taken the time to tell me what this job really, really was. At the same time, I don’t think I could ever describe what this job really is to the next president. Every year is different and you face so many different challenges.

This year, we got slammed with some pretty big things. We got hit with the student centre in the first 3 months, the Mezz within the first two months, we got hit with Taylor [Noakes] the first 6 months, Earl disappeared, there’s a lot of challenges that popped up out of no where. I guess it’s hard to tell someone what the challenges would have been. It made the job pretty damn exciting.

Do you feel the battle for the Mezzanine derailed your priorities in office?

If that had happened in September, we would have been a lot worse off. During the summer, the organization period of the year, we look at our ideas and the goals are for the years, look at our networks. It gave my executive and I a chance to really feel what it’s like to have to fight for something we believe in. I’m glad that it happened so early in the game. It gave us a) a little bit of faith to see what it would be to accomplish a goal like this and b) to see that we were capable of this. If this had happened in October, I think it would have blindsided us a bit, we would have be riding off Orientation, smiling, not as ready to dig our feet in as in the summer when this was like defining who we were and what we stood for as an executive.


What are three – and only three – of the things you’re most proud of this year.

One – THE HIVE

One of the things I’m the most satisfied about is the Hive, it’s pretty damn cool. It’s probably the worst way I could have expressed it, but for the past four years people have been trying to do something with this space and bring something to Loyola.

The thing we brought the most to Loyola and the thing we were criticized for at different points in this executive was – student life and parties. Loyola in the past has been neglected in a variety of ways and that’s not to say we automatically upped the office hours to 5 days a week and brought an advocacy centre here, but what we did do is find 140 Res[idence] kids who needed something to do once a month and even if it meant us running around to the SAQ and to Reggie’s to pick up supplies to throw them a limited event, we did it and they all came out till three in the morning. Because nobody had ever done that before.

And as we did this momentum started to build up about ‘the Hive the Hive the Hive,’ something needs to happen to it.

I’m in love with this space, it’s gorgeous, like this big, beautiful aquarium that looks out over the campus and I think it’s a shame that the space isn’t more accessible, it’s something we’re going to work on in the second phase of this project. I’m really excited that students will have an alternative to Chartwells, a place to hang out other than the G-lounge, a bar, but more than anything, we now have a staging ground for recreation and athletics.

We can have pre- and post- parties to build that student identity that I think this university has lacked for a long time in terms of it’s athletes. The athletes are one of our biggest external forces, they represent us wherever they go. They are one of our “best feet forward” especially when you look at their track record this year. Based on Concordia as an institute, it gets really lost here, because people come here with such a focus that you never see the university as a whole.

Number two – THE COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT

That’s something the executive has been struggling with for 4 years now. It was put in place as a kind of a ‘fuck you’ to incoming executive by the outgoing executive. Before the first evolution executive came in, the outgoing [Executive] said, ‘Here’s our collective agreement and you’re going to love it because the employees have all the rights in the world and you as managers have nothing.’

We weren’t able to do our own hiring. We sat at a table where every employee could block our hiring process. I guess the best example was that during orientation every year, we try and hire as many students as possible to work BBQs, set up crews work the bars. But because they weren’t part of the bargaining unit, we used to get grieved [grievance process] every time, instantaneously, when we hired 60 students. It was a direct violation of the student agreement, but I was never not going to hire students. Especially when half or a third of our employee base wasn’t students. We had to hire as many as we could.

But when we did, we’d have to pay double that back to the union. All the potential money that they would have lost. They get paid for doing nothing. That’s the biggest example of why it was so frustrating. The last two years, CSU execs have tried to negotiate a new agreement, but they got roadblocked every time.

The collective agreement was signed in February. We went to council four times with different presentations. At the table itself, we spent from August to February, meeting regularly, then in January and February we were meeting 3-4 times a week to discuss it. At the end of the day it was agreed that union would get higher salaries and we would get back management rights. It was a bit of a trade-off but at the same time the management rights were so important.

Number three – PULLING IT TOGETHER

Then, it was pulling it together when we lost two people. I didn’t think we’d last. The job needs to be done by about 18 people. It’s that big. It’s really as big or as little as you make it. We came out with some pretty big promises this year. And I don’t like failing, it was a big uphill battle. Getting us all into the mind frame where it was OK with us that we were in the office for 16 hours was tough initially, balancing our personal lives on top of that. Proud of the team that I had an opportunity to work with this year. Probablly one of the most hardworking groups of individuals I’ve ever come into contact with. There’s no doubt in my mind that at some point in my life I’m going to do great things with every one of them. just holding that together with six, when in years past it was eight, no questions asked, was a pretty crazy feat.

Number Four – DAWSON

The last thing, one of my proudest days as a Concordian but also one of my darkest days was Dawson. It’s really unfortunate that a sense of community was forced out of something so terrible and negative. I saw Concordians, the CSU executive, the university as a whole, pull together in a way I had never seen before. Somehow, managed to drop whatever they were doing and come together. And the reason I dwell on this and I still think about this, is because on that day there were about 16 people who had no contact with each other who were all working toward a common goal which was to accommodate these students and make this easier, and not one of us talked to one another. Angelica popped out of nowhere with 16 cell phones for people to start calling their people. Fabio threw 150 burgers on the BBQ so people could get fed. Blankets came out of nowhere. And bus passes appeared and spaces were cleared.

You often find that when you work that way balls get dropped because you aren’t communication, but on this day it didn’t happen, it was a pretty crazy experience. I think it definitely was a defining moment. It made this so much more real to us. grounded us in a very strange way, that there was a greater experience outside the Concordia community. For the past five months prior to that we were in our bubbles, we were doing orientation, the agenda. All of a sudden this opened up our eyes to the greater community, set our eyes in a different direction.

The biggest disappointments of the year?

Now the things that I’m not so proud of, the things I didn’t get to do? I’m really upset over the way Taylor [Noakes] worked [out] and that whole situation. I don’t believe in giving up on people. It’s not in my nature. I push and I push and eventually with my fingers crossed and sweat on my brow we usually get somewhere. And Taylor – it just didn’t come together in that fashion. And I’m upset at the way that it came out and he said what he said and he did what he did and at the end of the day everyone is entitled to their opinion. He did work hard with us when we campaigned and he did share the same vision and I think that something just clicked in his head.


Did Taylor have grounds for those accusations?

I promised myself that I wouldn’t talk about this on the record because it is someone’s personal life. So I’d rather not. He was a hard-working kid and he had a lot of great ideas and then something just changed and I think that he lost interest in what he was doing to a certain degree. But I think a large part of it was that we all picked up the pace and started moving a mile a minute and I don’t think that he could keep up. He kept kind of dropping balls on projects and it became kind of negative for us as an executive because he became someone you couldn’t depend on. And when you’re a unit of six-seven people and you can’t depend on one, then it often makes more sense to pull that person out of the unit because at least as six we know what we can and cannot do. And there’s no doubt in my mind that if someone says they can do something they’re just going to go out there and do it. And with Taylor… it was beginning to hurt us.

Was it his leaving that hurt your team, or more the subsequent accusations and the whole scenario around it?

To be honest, I’m still here and my executive is still working hard and it didn’t hurt. It hurt personally more than anything. Newspapers can write what they want to write and if they’re unsubstantiated facts and accusations that have no grounds, we hope that the people we are working for will see that. And we’re still here. People tried to impeach us, and that was definitely a nerve-wracking point in my life. But then I started to learn about this gentleman named Ethan Cox, wandering campus to campus to stir shit up and I realized it was just another day in his game. It wasn’t to be taken seriously and it wasn’t to be taken as more than someone just looking for something to do. On that note, it was almost opportunist the way that whole situation turned out. People were looking to break our credibility from the minute we got elected. All sorts of people, people that were vying for the same office we were.

It was a really weird, bittersweet victory we had that [election] night. I went over to congratulate everyone else on a great campaign and I got nothing but venom and vinegar. And people just walked away and they wouldn’t say ‘Congratulations’ or ‘It was a pleasure running against you’ and last year was a pretty crazy year and it was a really heated election. And I thought that we would be able to kind of step away from this and it was what it was and it happened the way that it happened. That’s not to say that we weren’t able to work with some incredible people we ran against last year.

When Dawson happened, Arielle [Reid] was the first person at our door and when it was time to throw a concert, Andrew popped out of no where and helped us nurse be biggest concert I think any Canadian university has ever seen for quite some time. Sammy T, he was a pretty big part of student life in terms of what he did for Reggie’s.


Any more disappointments – the bus shelter?

I’m not disappointed about that. It’s something that I wanted to start and it would have been a great asset to this community. But I think that I go back to the fact that I didn’t understand the job as well, and nobody really will, but to take on that many building projects, it’s just not possible.

Also, that it took longer than I would have liked to learn how bureaucracy works, and more than that, how to cut through bureaucracy. Orientation is a great example because we tried 17 diff locations around Montreal as well as on this campus for where to hold the concert. Every time we’d go to someone, they’d be like, “Ah, go see them’ and then ‘Go see them.’ Orientation taught me a lot about how be works on a variety of levels but I wish I could have learned that before orientation. There were a lot of things that could have been done more stealthily, more efficiently, if we had just learned how to cut through the bullshit.


Any more?

Our ‘achilles heel’ throughout the year [was] when we slimmed down to six, we had to make a lot of decisions about what our priorities were for the year. We could have just done everything: take on the max amount of work and just focus on getting things done. Or we could have just do not so many things, but work on publicizing the things that we did so students understand what you’re doing.

You can do a lot, or find that medium in between, which is what we didn’t find. We did a really, really poor job of communicatng with students what we were doing for them all year. That hurt us as an executive and it hurt our relationship with students at the end of the day. We stuck our heads into it, just plowing through to get things done, instead of taking two hours every day to think about how we would communicate what we’ve been doing. To get students to understand what a collective space agreement is, what the changes to the Academic Code would do. we might have been better off.

And I hope it’s something that people learn from in the future, because it needs to be a balance. I don’t want students to vote in an election because there’s prizes, but because they understand what we’ve done for them, what we’ve tried to achieve.

And I don’t think we did a very good job of communicating that. And I think that’s why on a personal level, it hurt a bit more when we took potshots from media on campus and from other students. because we were doing all this stuff, we were just doing a poor job of telling students what we were doing.


Angelica, the incoming president, has a VP Communications this year. Was that a recommendation from this executive?

That’s definitely something we’ve spoken of all year. At one point we were going to hire a director of communications because the team was so small but it’s a tough position to put someone in as staff and not as part of the executive. As the executive, you fly together, you fall together, you have a certain responsibility to one another. As a staff, it’s tough not to be an executive and live through everything that we’re going through, then you’ll never be able to effectively communicate what it is you’re doing because you’re not a part of the decision-making process at every step.


When you can look back, do you think you could have hired someone to pick up some of the work?

In terms of a proper researcher [archivist], we did OK. We got things done using the people around us. For the first time, without having to pay someone to do it. For example, instead of using the researcher to call around to all the schools in Canada to find out how they did managed their fee-levy groups, Justin Levy sent out an email through the listserv of the lobby group (CFS) asked everyone for the student centre agreements and for information on their fee levy groups. And through we got some information on both. Same thing with FEUQ, we were looking for information to put together for fact packages about tuition, and we went to our people.

The reason I hesitate to answer that question, is that with a director of communications or a general manager, they need to intimately understand the message that we wanted to communicate. We couldn’t have hired a staff person to take that on because I don’t think we would have taken the time, the 6 of us, to tell that person all that was going on.


Anika Henry (VP Academic) said that the Administration sometimes takes advantage of the fact that students aren’t that organized or with it. Do you agree?

Oh, for sure. I don’t know if I want you to use this, but I’ll say this – I don’t blame them. If you’ve got an agenda and your job is to pursue that agenda and your livelihood depends on pursuing that agenda then take advantage of a bunch of kids running around like a bunch of chickens without their heads. It’s the way of the world; it’s how everything outside this little microcosm works. I feel it’s unfortunate sometimes that we get stuck in our idealism sometimes at the university. It’s really easy to become one, especially at a university like Concordia where everyone is championing so many different things. Attach yourself to a cause and make it happen, but you lose a very real perspective on the world when you do that. I think that when all these people say, “The administration this. that.” Stop for a minute and fucking think, I could have told you they were going to do this, and so could have you if you’d stopped to think about what their greater goals were and what their agenda was. That’s their job. They have more money, more resources, more connections, more power than we’ll ever have. We operate, in a weird way, on their campus. But at the same time, it’s our campus, we pay the fees, we pay with our taxes and it’s really weird back-and-forth balance. If I were a student union executive for life, it would be a very different battle to fight. If everything that I was, was this job, I’d be fighting a very different fight.

[more on the Administration later]


How?

Because I’d be equipped. I’d have years of institutional memory. I’d have an army of tools and resources that I’d know how to use. Even with my executive, it took us a while to find out what everyone was best at. . . I’m the most ready to do this job, right now. In a year from now I’ll be even more ready to do this job, and that’s what I’m getting at in terms of taking on the administration. If you take them on knowing everything you need to know and being as well-equipped as you possibly can be then it’s a very different fight because you have a very different set of resources.

How did you prioritize what was most important to students?

As an executive we had a set of priorities and as individuals we had a set of priorities. Executive priorities definitely took precedence, but that didn’t stop Mark Small from going to every CCSL meeting he could get to and saying the words ‘bus shelter’ and talking to Pat Pietromonaco about it and getting funding for it and talking to President Lajeunesse about it to okay the project. And the bus shelter is essentially built. it’s got money, it’s got a design, everything is essentially in place. it’s just not there. But all the legwork was done – Mark did a lot of this on his own because he believed it was a great project.

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