Balanced Communities and Western’s USC Election

On Thursday, February 4, 2016 the LYAC councillors met to discuss the housing balance in London, as well as the USC elections taking place at Western University. The housing balance involves the balance between long-term, and short-term residents in neighbourhoods in London. This mainly involved talking about student communities around Western university, as these areas have a high population of short-term residents. Additionally, the councillors discussed why so few women candidates, in comparison to men, run for Western’s USC president. This involved a lot of talk about stereotypes and stigmas surrounding female leadership in today’s society.

Who should read this?

  • Those who live in a community populated heavily with both students and long-term residents

  • Students of Western University of Fanshawe College

  • Property Managers and Landlords

  • USC Members

  • Western students interested in student government OR the USC elections

Balanced Communities

We sat on semi-comfortable, orange, eyesores of chairs, in a stuffy room with inspirational posters strewn about the walls. The irony in this setting is that it resembled the living rooms of thousands of student homes in London, homes that, as the conversation would tell, were becoming an issue for those defined as London’s long-term residents.

A “balanced community.” What exactly did that mean? Many of the councillors were openly confused by this term. The councillor leading the discussion filled everyone in by explaining that a “balanced community” is a community with a “balanced-mix” of both short-term and long-term residents. Short-term residents are those who are renters, and not planning to stay in an area for a long time. Long-term residents are often families and older individuals who have been living in a neighbourhood for a while, and don’t intend on leaving anytime soon. The councillor leading the discussion had attended a city meeting on this issue, and laughed as she explained her biases in terms of this discussion. As a group consisting of a lot of students, I think most councillors held the same biases. The leading councillor talked about how at this meeting, there were a lot of middle-aged London residents, and no students. This is pretty unsurprising. I think many students probably don’t know, understand, or really care about these issues, despite the fact that something like this may affect them directly. For example, one attendee of this meeting suggested that the city should set a ratio of 1 short-term household per every 5 long-term households. This would really limit the amount of short-term residents in London neighbourhoods, and drastically change areas around Western or Fanshawe. Hearing this, everyone looked at each other; mouths wide, eyes rolling in consensus that this suggestion was a tad extreme, especially in a city with both a university and a college. Given this information, the councillor leading the discussion provided a couple of statistics so the group could better understand why long-term residents were having issues with the dispersion of short-term residents. The rental population in neighbourhoods surrounding Western is about 46%. This is high in comparison to the citywide percentage of 37%. Stats like this raised concern among long-term residents about the stability of neighbourhoods. In general, the “negative” effects of too many short-term residents have on a neighbourhood such as: stimulating community instability and inflated property prices and taxes. Given all the information, it appeared a bit more understandable to the group as to why London’s long-term residents would be vying for changes.

Are Communities Lacking a Balanced-Mix Stable

Communities are different everywhere. This is what many of the councillors tended to agree upon. For example, one councillor discussed his experience living on Essex street. Just off of Western road, this area was basically all students. Clearly, a neighbourhood with just one type of tenant is not a balanced-mix. He maintained that not having a mix didn’t affect the “community” negatively in anyway. Essex street was just a different kind of community. The councillors agreed that it isn’t necessarily bad to have different kinds of neighbourhoods throughout London, even those heavily populated with students. These neighbourhoods still have the potential to function stably, around a core group of individuals who are all fairly similar.

But this example was a bit of an exception. Areas around the school are bound to attract more students and less long-term residents. What about downtown areas which are more mixed? Or, areas close to Western with both families and students? Does consistently changing neighbours negatively affect community stability or health in these areas? Is the safety of your home, family or neighbourhood compromised if you don’t know exactly who lives next-door? Many of the councillor’s agreed that this concern was a little far fetched. While a few councillors claimed that they were extremely close with their neighbours, this wasn’t a majority consensus. A lot of the councillors admitted to living in communities with several long-term residents and still never knowing their neighbours. The councillors who brought this up seemed to believe that this doesn’t really affect the “health” of a community. It can still be safe, healthy or stable even if you’re not best friends with the “Johnson’s” next-door.

The “Value” of a Neighbourhood

Even though councillors agreed that communities could be healthy and stable without knowing who lives next-door, there was still the concern among London’s long-term residents of housing and street value to discuss. This was probably a bit harder for the group to discuss, as many are university and high school students, and most likely aren’t homeowners. In essence, long-term residents believe that high numbers of people consistently moving out of neighbourhoods inflates housing prices. Luckily, one of the councillors knew a lot about how housing prices and street value are determined, so he filled the group in on some common misconceptions. Essentially, properties are assessed by a board that tells residents how much tax they have to pay. Since this is decided by a board, a lot of talk about housing prices being raised or inflated isn’t really accurate. Generally, it’s the residents assuming that their prices will increase or decrease because of something changing within the neighbourhood. Changes such as getting new neighbours every May 1st. The concept of street “value” appeared to bother a few of the councillors, especially how it’s related directly to the capital value of a street, house or neighbourhood. Some councillors questioned why a street can only be considered “valuable” based upon how much it’s worth. This went back to the whole balanced communities argument, and whether or not communities needto be balanced in a certain way in order to be considered stable, or healthy, or in this case, “valuable”.

What Should London Do With Students?

What should London do with students then, if long-term residents want to decrease the numbers of short-term residents in their communities? The councillors took a bit to process this question, a question with many possible solutions. Eventually, a solution that sparked a general consensus among the group was for the city to work more with landlords and property managers to establish bylaws and rules that would stimulate a balanced-mix in communities. One participant explained the policy of her apartment building, which related to this idea of landlords working to balance the mix of tenants. The property manger tended to rent to only graduate and professional students. She almost wasn’t able to rent the apartment because the manager thought that just because they weren’t grad students, they’d be loud, or irritating to other tenants. This shows how restricting certain types of people to rent or live in areas can limit the mixed-balance of neighbourhood and communities.

The Western “Bubble”

If students are unable to form viable communities, then how does one explain the Western “Bubble”? The “bubble” is essentially the area surrounding Western, where many, many students live. The great thing about the bubble, for some people at least, is that it has everything students need to survive without ever having to venture out into the rest of the city. One councillor said that Western makes it possible for students to never leave campus – especially in your first year. You can live on campus, eat on campus, buy clothes, go to the dentist or doctor, there’s a grocery store, a hairdresser, a gym, and so much more. Why would anyone interact with London then, if everything is right on campus? And why would Western’s faculty, and administration push students out into London, if they provide all basic necessities right on campus?

Interacting Within the London Community

With that said, the “bubble” has its issues. For one, it can be the reason many students fail to get involved in, or interact with London. The councillors struggled to analyze whether or not it’s OK for students to just stay within the Western bubble while living in London. Is it actually that important to have them interacting with the city? Getting to know it? Do Londoners even want students to interact with the community? These questions prompted a change in the conversation, one that was well-received among the group. Leaving the whole, “balanced-mix” topic behind, the group began to question not only if students should get involved in London, but whether or not Western has a responsibility to ensure students are involved.

Many councillors seemed to almost blame Western for not providing enough resources or connections for students outside of campus. Many councillors who are former or current Western students had examples of how this is stimulated within their classes. Professors generally don’t push for student interaction outside of campus. One councillor talked about a class that discussed issues that directly related to issues occurring in London. The prof however, didn’t relate anything in the class to what was happening in the city. Another councillor brought in Fanshawe teachers to prove his point. He claimed that if you’re a prof at Western, you’re a prof at Western. That’s what you do, that’s your thing. If you teach at Fanshawe however, you most likely hold another position within the London community. This means that as a teacher, and whatever other title you hold in London, you’re better able to help connect students to resources and opportunities within the community. The consensus appeared to be that students, especially those not from London, probably won’t go out into the community unless they’re encouraged to, which, Western doesn’t really seem to do.

Connecting Students with the Rest of London

Western students pay a lot of money to go to school. You could also say that Western students pay a lot of money for a promise that after 4 years, they will be employed. It was mentioned that because of this “promise”, students will often focus solely on their academics and nothing else. Getting good grades is everything, and involvement in the community falls by the wayside. The funny thing is, a lot of employers won’t care that you just have good grades. Many employers want to see extra-circulars, volunteer work, past experience, something that indicates that you are a well-rounded individual, and more than just your 4.0 GPA. Again, many students don’t get involved because they’re not connected to community resources, or information and, well, professors are inflexible. One councillor claimed that professors don’t care if you didn’t do the reading, or finish the assignment because you had work or volunteering. All they care about is that you did the assigned work, and that you did it well. This inflexibility gives rise to the notion that students don’t have time to get involved, and more so, that they shouldn’t because their grades will suffer.

So, should Western be accountable for students to be connected, and to get involved within the community, not just campus life? Generally, what responsibility do academic institutions like Western have to their students to better their chances at obtaining employment after graduation through resources in the community? Interestingly, one of the councillors in high school felt that her school did a good job at connecting students to the community. For example, her guidance councillor was the one who helped her out, and suggested she run for the LYAC. It’s a bit ironic that someone currently in the public education system feels better connected than those who are paying thousands for an education. However, while the councillor said she felt schools were doing a good job, she didn’t say whether or not schools were responsible for connecting students the community and other resources. The conversation turned a bit, with a few councillors relating responsibility and accountability of universities to their students in terms to the age-old, liberal arts degree lie that you will get a job. One participant explicitly said that she wished profs and others faculty members would simply “stop lying to us” about the job market. She knows her degree isn’t the most “employable”, but perhaps it could be if she were better connected to the community, if students are paying thousands to receive an education, then shouldn’t schools be a “network” of resources to ensure students are well-connected? To ensure they are prepared for whatever they want to do after graduation? Isn’t this hindered if students are kept in the dark, enclosed within the Western “bubble”?

USC Elections and The Lack of Women Candidates

The next part of the councillor-led meeting focused on the lack of female candidates running for Western’s USC elections. The conversation began with the councillor leading the meeting asking everyone what they had in mind when they were running for the LYAC. Many of the councillors were hesitant to respond at first, but found that a lot of their answers were similar. Age, where they live, curiosity, and the voting and election process were all the main aspects councillors considered before running for the LYAC. This experience was compared to the experience one might face when running for USC president, specifically looking at how the two processes are different. The core difference that the entire discussion focused on is the lack of gender equality in the USC elections.

Male Vs. Female Candidates in the Media

The councillors compared the positions of an LYAC councillor and the USC Presidency. It’s clear that the LYAC has greater female representation than the USC – especially in terms of the presidency. A few female councillors suggested that when they considered running for the LYAC, they knew that there was past female representation. With the USC, this is different. The group estimated that in Western’s history, there has probably only been about 5 female USC presidents. Many chalked this up to negative perceptions of women in high-level authority positions. For example, even in local, provincial and national politics, female candidates are treated differently than men. This is apparent largely through the representation of female authority figures in the media. The councillors seemed to agree that women running for political positions of power tended to face more scrutiny and risked exposing themselves to negative backlash, gossip or general judgement while running in comparison to male candidates.

This backlash occurs in terms of campus government as well. The councillors brought theWestern Gazette into the conversation as an example. Although just a campus newspaper, many agreed that contributors don’t have an issue with negatively portraying candidates, or the USC president, and the comments section just makes it worse. One councillor suggested the lack of women candidates might have something to do with possible media backlash in the Gazette. Perhaps women are less inclined to run because of their position as a minority. It’s probably easier for men, who hold that ever-so-desired position of “privilege” in society. As a result of this position, men are probably better able to, in a sense, “sway” themselves out of negative media situations than women. Not because women inherently lack this ability, but because the stereotypical privileged white-male has had the freedom throughout their lives to form these abilities. Why? Well, men are raised and socialized to become assertive, yet charming authority figures. This socializing prepares them to one day take up their coveted leadership roles in society – like a presidency. Women on the other hand are not often raised, or socialized in a way that promotes the freedom to form similar identities. The image of the powerful, assertive, woman leader may be threatening to some people. Our society just does not see this as “natural”. Thus women may feel hindered in their formation of these identities or personalities. So, if faced with negative media backlash, men may feel freer to be assertive, or in a sense, “charm” or “sway” their way out of issues. Women in comparison may struggle with this skill. This is evident in the ways in which men and women are scrutinized in the media. One participant suggested that when the media negative portrays men in power it’s generally on the basis of what they’ve said – promises failing to be kept and the like. For women however, it’s what they’ve done. Have they behaved in a manner that may make them appear as a stereotypical, bossy, and thus threatening female-authority figure? If so, are we willing as a society to place such an unappealing person in power?

All of this was consistently brought back to this idea of stigma for women in power which ultimately perpetuates these stereotypes. This stereotype can easily be spun by the media as negative and impacting their choices as a leader, thus amassing into a general lack of interest among women for the position of USC president. Why would someone do something that’s going to be, well, terrible?

The USC vs. The “Real World”

Campaigning for women is simply different than it is for men. This is something the councillors appeared to agree on. A lot of this had to do with culture. Political culture, socio-cultural practices, Western Campus culture, and USC culture all must imply that women are not supposed to be in high-level authority positions. This cultural “belief” is evident in terms of  federal government as well, given the clear lack of female representation in current federal positions. Canada has only had one female Prime Minister and she wasn’t even technically elected. While there has been some strong female Premiers and MPs in government, it seems that there’s a level in which female power, leadership and authority becomes unacceptable, unnatural, or “taboo”.

Even with Justin Trudeau’s 50-50 cabinet, the gender equality issues in government are still apparent. One councillor explained his views on the cabinet as a “crutch” to women. The 50-50 cabinet creates an impression that you didn’t get the position based on merit, you got it because of your gender, because you’re a woman and someone felt bad. Women in general need to be placed in these positions – not just on the basis of gender but because we need more women in these roles. Governments in Europe, and even Rwanda have more female representation than governments in Canada and the U.S. Ironic, isn’t it? Two of the most boastfully “progressive” countries in the world yet they both lack in political gender equality. This was definitely a tough issue to discuss. It’s one of those things that no matter how you phrase it, or talk about it, you’re likely to offend someone. Not only that, but this issue involves not just changing the electoral systems in all forms of government, but changing culture.

Personal Stories

1. When discussing balanced communities, one participant spoke of a rehabilitation clinic that had operated years ago around Dundas and William. The issue with this clinic was that it was opened fairly close to a high school. Residents became worried about mixing high school students and people seeking rehabilitation from things like drugs. These two groups are both different, and vulnerable. According to the participant, the backlash from the community appeared to work, as the other day she noticed that the center was no longer there.

2. When asked what they considered when choosing to run for the LYAC, many councillors said “age”. One councillor in particular implied that age, and gender also played a role. For example, she claimed that if she had had to run against a male in university, (being a female in high school), she probably wouldn’t have run. This exemplifies the perception of male-leadership in our society, where women may not feel like they have a chance in a political race should an older male be their competition.

3. Openly discussing the stigma faced by females in authority positions, one councillor offered his experience with his managers at his part-time job. He explained that he has a few managers, some of them male, some of them female. He claims the males managers are much more “intimidating” than the females. As result, he tends to listen the orders of his male superiors more so than the orders their female counterparts. Brutally honest, this councillor explained that in his perspective, this is a result of a cultural, and social stigma attached to females and authority positions. Similarly, people are just socialized to think in this manner, whether they realize it or not.

Big Questions

  • Is a balanced-mix necessary in a healthy community? Can a community exist in a stable manner despite consisting of one “type” of resident, students for example?

  • Where do we draw the limit as to what our university is responsible for/owes us? We invest in the institution to give us the skills necessary to one day become employed therefore, what does/should this investment include?

  • If our culture, (national, and campus included), is so ingrained within society will gender equality ever really be possible?

  • Will increased female representation in federal politics inspire women in campus politics to run for positions of greater authority?

Recorder’s Notes

I’m a Western student who lives in an off campus, student house myself, so I had some pretty strong opinions about the housing conversation. My friends and I don’t live in London year-round, so it was kind of nice to get the perspective on balanced communities from those who are permanent London residents, and most likely not in an area heavily populated by students. I agreed with the councillors’ views on the balanced communities, even as someone who lives in a student neighbourhood. What I took from the conversation however, was that it really depends on the type of long-term, and even short-term residents in a given area. For example, I live in an area surrounded by both student houses, and long-term, family homes. Sometimes on my way to campus, I walk by 3 specific houses. One usually has Budweiser bottles all over the lawn, and the other has a worn-out, leather couch on the porch, and a giant Canadian flag in the window. Clearly, two student houses. I noticed one day however that a small family lives in the house smack-dab between the two student houses. I always feel a bit sorry for this family, knowing how rowdy students can be (and these two houses don’t seem to be an exception), but perhaps this family doesn’t have an issue living in conjunction with short-term, student residents. Perhaps as long as these residents are respectful, and don’t bother the family or disrupt the neighbourhood, then a healthy, stable community is possible, even with a sort of unbalanced-mix. Friends of my family, with two young kids, live down the street from my student house. They also live next door to a student household. I once asked the mother whether or not the students were an issue. She told me they hadn’t had issues, and that these students were generally respectful and quiet. They’ve lived in the area for years, so I’m assuming they don’t have an issue with the housing mix despite living so close to a university in a neighbourhood diluted with short-term, student residents. It’s just interesting how some people can really feel as though aspects of a community like a influx of short-term residents are harming their neighbourhood, whereas others don’t really seem to mind it. Then again, the conversation wasn’t really about the behaviour of students and how balancing communities would fix this. Although, I think that could have been an interesting discussion that could have spun off from the main topic.

In general, this conversation went over smoothly, the only hiccups per se occurred when discussing solutions for the housing balance. It’s definitely hard to determine which group should be appeased in situations like this. It’s also generally hard to determine a fair compromise for each group – obviously a better solution to picking a side. So, do you satisfy those who have lived in London for years and pay taxes to the city by granting them a housing balance of 5 long-term houses to 1 student house? Or, should you be more lenient to the students, who pay thousands to live in London, and one day may choose to stay and become the same long-term residents fighting to keep student populations under control? It’s a difficult issue, one that needs to be debated and looked at with more attention to how a compromise could be reached. I think the councillors came up with a good solution by bringing together landlords and/or property managers and the city. The conversation however, could have focused more on solutions, and less on Western’s role in the student community.

Likewise, the conversation did mutate a bit, and by the end, it had spawned into a completely new topic, focusing more on Western’s responsibility to ensure students are linked to resources within the community. This did play a role in the main topic, but I think it could have been brought back to focus. The balanced-mix in communities issue has so many parts that need solutions, or changes. As a whole, the situation generally affects the young people of London, whether or not they are currently living in a short-term household.

With the conversation about women candidates and the USC… I had never realized how few women run for USC president. To be brutally honest, I had always seen posters and campaigns for female candidates, but I just never realized that the majority of them were probably running for lower-level positions. It’s kind of sad really, that in an age where people are really fighting for the rights of minorities that there’s still some kind of underlying, socio-cultural limitation to women wanting to run for a top-tier position.

I thought it was really good how the councillors related this issue back to other streams of politics, and didn’t just settle on the inherent problems on Western’s campus. Personally, I don’t think I would have ever thought about the reasons why so few women run for positions like the USC presidency. My own disinterest in the position lies purely in the fact that it seems like a difficult job. I wouldn’t want the media constantly trying to attack me, or asking me about my policies etc. I never thought however that maybe this disinterest stems from society implying that I shouldn’t be in a position of authority, or society making it more difficult for women like myself to succeed in these positions, or to avoid gossip and scandals perpetuated by the media.

I found this topic harder to discus in comparison to the house balance conversation. It’s really difficult, (especially in an age of staunch political correctness), to discuss an issue like gender equality in politics without offending someone. In all honesty, there were a few comments made that I wasn’t so sure about, but then again, just because I’m biased toward something doesn’t mean that I can judge someone for thinking a certain way. That’s what was good in this conversation. Things were said that some people most likely disagreed with, but everyone appeared to respect everyone’s opinions, no matter how unpopular they were.

This conversation really hit all major points. It stayed fairly focused on the main discussion, most likely because most councillors had experience with the USC, or Western campus culture in some form or another. Again, I think the conversation really benefitted from integrating a discussion about local, provincial and national politics. It demonstrated that these gender equality issues are not centralized to Western, and they can expand easily into what I’ll call “The Real World”. I really think it is about changing culture, and how society views women in authority positions, and that’s going to take a while but, I don’t think it is impossible.

What We Still Need to Learn

  • Are there students that feel the same way as long-term residents in terms of mixed communities?

  • Currently, what is the local government doing to ensure mixed and balanced communities?

  • Would past female USC presidents have the same ideas and thoughts as the councillors pertaining to the over-representation of male candidates?

  • What is Western, and the USC doing (if anything), to support women who want to run for the presidency or other high-level authority positions

 

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