Well. What a week that was!
Allow me to elaborate: you may have been aware that I was running for the position of Equality and Diversity Officer in the Queen’s University Belfast Student Elections as part of the REUNION ticket of fellow committed activists seeking positive change for all students. Two weeks ago marked the commencement of canvassing and carrying out the campaign within the public sphere, aka engaging with the student electorate. Two weeks agoalso marked the three days of voting, and results night. And what a week it was.
Now, before I launch fully into this blog post, sharing my campaigning experiences, I will state that unfortunately I was unsuccessful in my candidacy. I lost by 372 votes in a tight contest which I am proud to have taken part in, and even more proud to have had such an opponent in the eventual victor. I know that the post will be in safe hands next year, for all that I will no longer be at QUB to see it happen.
Truly, I know not where to start in regaling my readers with my tales of campaigning and canvassing. Honestly, the days seamlessly blurred into one, or so it feels to me. I found myself running from one area of the QUB campus to another, delivering numerous lecture shout-outs and constantly being on my feet as I spoke to one student after another. I found myself running a social media campaign, posting on behalf of the ticket on both Twitter and Facebook. I found myself surrounded by the greatest, most dedicated and passionate team of canvassers any aspiring candidate could dream of, and I cannot thank them enough for their enthusiasm and assistance.
But first, let me start from the beginning of the election season at my university.
I found myself on Wednesday 24th February making my way to the SU Marketing team to be filmed for short promotional clips, which would be disseminated online via Youtube and also through Snapchat story. The university was undertaking this filming for all candidates, and it marked the first time that such assistance was provided to candidates in the SU elections. It was a wonderful experience, albeit it initially felt quite surreal to stand before a white screen and be filmed whilst discussing my main policies. You can access the video for the Equality and Diversity candidates here.
Thursday 25th February, exactly one week until Results Night, marked the official commencement of sorts of the 2016 elections. It is an infamous day in the university SU calender, known informally as ‘Poster Apocalypse’. This day essentially is the day when candidate posters shall hitherto paper the walls of the Student Union at my university. Certain walls and areas are more visible and as such more cherished. Thus it is not unusual to see candidates rally their troops in the early hours to camp out, guarding jealously the prime locations. The ticket I was running with had wonderful stalwarts who were sitting in the SU from eight in the morning until late afternoon; I found myself joining them in the afternoon and camped out myself. In addition, all candidates were required to attend an Equality and Diversity training session/general SU Election meeting that evening where we were informed as to election regulations and procedure in relation to campaigning and canvassing. Upon the conclusion of this meeting, we were provided our the campaign materials the SU kindly provides. Our names were randomly drawn, and one by one we were allowed to leave the room… And sprint to the nearest team canvasser and begin sticking our posters to walls, borders etc. I must confess that I never thought I would see the day when I would run down several flights of stairs, my arms filled with posters, and frantically tear and roll Blu-Tak as though my life depended on it. (It felt as though this was the case at the time.)
The weekend of that week was packed with planning, researching and drawing up canvassing schedules for the following week. Not to mention team meetings, too. I suppose I realised at this point that it was going to be a long couple of days until Results Night, involving travelling between my home and Belfast repeatedly, many a taxi adventure and long nights of chats, and engaging online with potential voters. I did however reach another moment of realisation: that of being part of something bigger than myself, an inspiring idea. It was certainly something to see the election material around the SU, and to see my manifesto online on the SU website. It was the feeling of having achieved something; of drawing people’s attention to issues I feel passionately about and desire positive change in.
This feeling was heightened upon the commencement of election week itself. For on Monday 29th, it was Candidate Question Time! This was an event for all students to take to the stage, and to answer questions from the floor and submitted online. All candidates had a maximum of five minutes to speak; I used my allocated time to outline my motivation for running, including mentioning the parallels I feel are forming between the US higher education system and that in NI, namely increased tuition fees and reduced government assistance which is only to the detriment of students, both present and future. Then, it was on to answering questions, and here I must say that time was a flat circle; my opponent and I must surely have been on the stage for over forty minutes. The questions covered topics as diverse as how to address women’s reproductive rights, to representing disabled students to tackling ‘political influence’ in the SU, and finally to whether we would try to lobby to protect the Mandela Hall (a well-known venue within the SU which is allegedly facing destruction by the university.)
I never thought I would be taking to a stage, talking about issues affecting students, and promoting rights and respect for all students. But being able to talk about mental health awareness, consent workshops and LGBT* recognition and the importance of a self-identification for trans* and non-binary students was a remarkable feeling. I feel grateful to the SU for affording a passionate activist such as myself that opportunity to talk about all students at QUB, and to stress the need for an inclusive and respectful campus all students deserve. (It also marked the busiest my emails/social media accounts have ever been; with so many mentions and comments about myself being posted online!)
After a long afternoon of hustings, I was then to take to Queen’s Radio to be interviewed along with my opponent as part of the annual Student Leader Election coverage covered by the Queen’s Radio team. This was again such a surreal moment; I never thought I would be interviewed on radio whilst at university, being granted the chance to discuss issues I care deeply about. It was a memorable and indeed exciting experience which I enjoyed. You can access the radio interviews conducted with all candidates here. (Personally, I do rather like the comment within the summary of the interview: ‘Leah Rea was quick to quell any accusation that her place on the Reunion ticket is a form of tokenism’. That is a story for another blog post down the line.)
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: a succession of days which seamlessly blended into a whirlwind of canvassing, leaflet dropping and student engagement. From lecture shout-outs on Tuesday, to canvassing around the student residential area of Elms on Wednesday and then being based all day in the SU on Thursday, I was scarcely sitting down. Nor could I avoid seeing my face staring back at me, whether on posters, leaflets or t-shirts! But it was a great feeling to be part of a movement to put students first, to campaign for change and to ensure respect and equality for all.
Again, I have to reiterate how fantastic our team of canvassers were. They so kindly gave up their free time to come along and canvass for us, something which I am most appreciative of. Not to mention that we had a lot of chats and laugh along the way, which surely kept us all going over the three long days of campaigning. I believe I came away from that week with many new friends.
Before we knew it, it was Thursday evening, and thus canvassing and campaigning drew to a weary close. SU election policy is that results cannot be released until all election material has been gathered and disposed of, so cue a frantic dash around all university buildings to take down posters, and bundle up leaflets. I suppose it was quite the fitting conclusion: after commencing the campaign with a frantic sprint to affix material to the walls, it seemed only right to end with a similar frantic dash to take down aforementioned material.
In due course, we soon began to make our way towards the Mandela Hall (yes, the very place where I was asked whether I would oppose its alleged planned demise during Candidate Question Time; evidently my life operates in a cyclic manner) in preparation for Results Night. I had two fantastic friends at my side, and I thought that irrespective of the ultimate result, I had been able to speak about issues such as mental health awareness, and the need to reconsider consent on campus, and that was a success in my eyes.
And so we waited.
(‘RON’ stands for ‘Reopen Nominations’, an election mechanism whereby should students prefer additional candidates to enter the political fray, or do not like the current offerings, they vote RON.)
As the unsuccessful candidate, I had to make my concession speech first, and so cue me skipping to the front and taking to yet another stage. I remember feeling very calm and relaxed; I think I was just grateful that a tiring campaign was officially at an end and pleased for my opponent. I simply reiterated my gratitude to the team for placing faith in me as a candidate, my appreciation for the kindness and support of the canvassers, and I urged any listening to be involved in student politics and activism. I also stated my happiness for the victor, knowing him to be truly sincere and zealous in his belief for equality. Truly, I lost to a wonderful fella and I could not have asked for a better opponent. And with that, I exited stage left (thankfully not pursued by a Shakespearian bear) and rejoined my friends. The rest, they say, is history.
And thus concludes my retelling of my 2016 campaign! I never would have expected to have undertaken such an experience; had you said to me in the summer of 2015 that this would be the case I would have laughed. But it was an enlightening experience, informing me about student politics, and educating me in people and trust. If anything, I think it has taught me that whilst there are those who will write you off, see your in their own terms and perspectives, life is about proving these people wrong. You must show that there is more to you than meets their eyes, and be proud of who you are and what you stand for.