In this TCS exclusive, our Interviews Editor Molly Bolding speaks to the incoming Union officers of Easter term 2019 about their plans for the term ahead.
The Cambridge Union opens this Easter term with yet another round of new committee members, and new campaign promises to fulfil and build on. Yet this term’s committee can make a unique boast – as the first majority BME and majority female committee in the Union’s 204-year history, the organisation has literally never seen anything quite like it. In spite of this, there is a clear consciousness among key members that they and their aspirations for this term are not to be defined by this fact. I sat down with the President, Abdullah Shah; Executive Officer Haneen Zeglam; and Speaker’s Officer Adam Davies at the beginning of term to find exactly what their aims and actions were going to be.
This term’s committee can make a unique boast: as the first majority BME and majority female committee in the Union’s 204-year history, the organisation has literally never seen anything quite like it.
As a second year HSPS student, Abdullah is well-versed in the practice of student and real-world politics. Unassuming and quietly confident, he was previously Social Events Officer at the Union where he helped co-ordinate the 2018 Fresher’s Ball. Now, he is stepping into the esteemed office of President, at a surprisingly early stage in his university career. Following in the footsteps of two fourth-year Presidents, I wondered how he felt about taking on such a momentous role at such a crucial time.
“I think one thing is that…less the second year part, but I wasn’t involved in the Union for a very long time, I will have spent a year total when I finish [my term in office]. It really allowed me to bring a fresh perspective – I didn’t have a long time to form an impression of the Union, so I kind of made my own in a way. So that definitely helps. Also, because I was Social Ents, not Speakers or Exec, I brought a different kind of view [to the role] and I got a chance to put my trust in committee more and let them really take on things.”
When I ask Abdullah how he got involved in the Union in the first place, he looks slightly sheepish. “It was Lent 2018, I was like ‘I’m gonna get involved with the Union’, I readied my application [for committee] and stuff. And…” he hesitates, “then I took a nap. And I missed the deadline. I sent it anyways, but they never got back to me. So I didn’t make committee that year, but I got on well with the [Freshers’] Ball side [of things] and then I ran for election. That moment when I ran for election, it was really interesting for me because it wasn’t something a lot of freshers do, but…for the first time I felt like it was my Society. I have ideas, I want to implement them, the people were nice – so I went for it…A Speakers or Exec role wouldn’t really have worked for me…it’s not my niche. That’s why it’s great to have committee.”
With all that in mind, I was curious how Abdullah felt about the presentation of the Union thus far, and what he wanted to achieve going forward into his term.
“I feel like, when I joined the Union it had the same reputation [as the University itself] – sort of closed off…a place for one type or group of people. In recent years, the traditional ‘black-tie’ Union has had a reputation for being [the place for] middle-class career hacks and that sort of thing…it’s always been between career hacks and traditional politicians, which is not a great trade-off anyway,” Abdullah laughs gently. “I think one thing we’ve really gained this term, and that is a fact of the term-card, is that it’s really a place for everyone, and you have speakers who are on the right of the spectrum and are controversial at this point, but also people who are extremely far left of the spectrum and everything in between…we wanted to make it seem like the biggest student society in Cambridge can’t be for one group or two groups, it has to [include] as many as it can. The job’s not done, nowhere close, but we’re getting there.”
The physical building of the Cambridge Union is currently undergoing massive, multimillion-pound redevelopment programme – as many members may have noticed – but under the Easter committee there has also been considerable internal reshuffle. I asked Abdullah to briefly explain the new committee structure, and his motivation for such an overhaul.
“The committee structure, another radical change, is a change to accommodate for what’s happening to the building, and not just the building now but what the re-development is going to be, and what the Union is going towards – more flexible, giving members and committee more ownership of what’s going on. So we given members [the opportunity to run panels] and we’ve had some of the best take-up on our panels because of this. We’ve also made committee more flexible, in that you don’t have to a publicity person to do Publicity and you don’t have to be a Standing Committee elected officer. There’s no Union ‘career path’ like there used to be – if you want to do things with members’ money and you want to have good ideas, you can do that in any capacity you want.”
From his explanation, the new structure basically gets rid of the conventional posts for Press, Publicity, Events Management, and so on, by creating what have been termed ‘Generalist’ roles. As I understood, the people in these roles will have an opportunity to try out and train for a number of different skills, on a weekly rotation. Abdullah commented that “no role is fixed – which is what kind of informed the committee structure, and I think that’s where we see the Union going. It’s supposed to be like any other society, I don’t know why we get caught up in labels and arbitrary niches of people’s roles. What the Union is supposed to be – that’s the big thing – it becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy that we think the Union is supposed to be this big thing and those narratives get peddled, so people who would’ve got involved don’t, because they see it as ‘that kind of place’. Just this week, we’ve had students debating in the US with the Bar Prison Initiative; schoolkids coming in after the debate, doing workshops, seeing the Chamber; [a Union+] speaker event yesterday…just the number of things we’re doing both inside and outside the Chamber really adds to this thing that the Union isn’t your stereotype, and the only way to know that for sure is walking through that door.”
“Ultimately it’s about members seeing that it’s [run by] other students like them, and learning and communicating with them.”
“The first thing is that – away from the building, the term card – it’s more about the people, and I think that’s one of the main things I’m trying to do these days, [to ensure that people know] we’re human and we’re students. It’s really crazy: you look at the building, you look at the budget, you look at the speakers and you start to think ‘oh, it must be a company that does this’. So the aim is to make ourselves seem human and form these connections – because at the end of the day, we’re a student society, it’s something people do on the side of their degree, for fun, for a past-time, and we really want to make that echo. It doesn’t have to be ‘this is going to burden you'”, Abdullah says, putting on a stern voice, “or ‘you have to show up at seven because your friend invited you on Facebook'”, he chuckles, “which we got rid of…Ultimately it’s about members seeing that it’s other students like them, and learning and communicating with them.”
Prop or Opp? THB that Oxbridge traditions like the Boat Race have become outmoded
Opp – “They’re still fun, people still go. People still have fun – the afterparty!”
Prop or Opp? THB all colleges should pay their staff the Living Wage
Prop – “With [my work on] the Taylor’s Table and everything, I think…definitely yes they should.”
Prop or Opp? THB it is more important to hear from experts than celebrities
Prop – “Is there an absention? No?… I guess there’s only so much you can take from experts because they’ve all got different opinions.”
Dream debate team?
“I think, more than famous people, it’d be more personal. So I think one person would be my former debate coach because he really helped me get into debating…Like the Union itself, it’s about the personal…so the other one would be Joy Jia, the Debating Officer, because she’s always been someone reliable who’s had my back, whether with the election or just with Union stuff in general. She’s Queen’s [JCR] President now, but she’d be the other one.”
Next I spoke to Haneen, a second year from Murray Edwards, in her role as the incoming Executive Officer. Her title may be new, but she has become a steadfast member of Union committees over her time at the University. I asked Haneen how her place at the Union had come about.
She smiled as she explained, “I sort of ‘fell’ into the Union in a very weird way…I fell into what was actually quite a significant role. So I started off as Diversity Officer, and I’d never stewarded an event, I’d never been on full committee, and I was applying for it…I didn’t really realise how close that role would be to standing committee, so I didn’t really expect to be thrown in the deep end in the way that I was. But I think it definitely did help – I did two terms as Diversity Officer, I started off with Maria in Easter and then I decided to reapply to be Charles’ Diversity Officer in Michaelmas. And that was a bit of a weird decision at the time – everyone at the Union is always thinking about progression and ‘the way to the top’ and who’s running for what, and I said ‘I’m gonna reapply’ and I got a few blank stares, people were really confused. But I think at that time, all those roles – Diversity, Women’s and Access – they had been going a while but they weren’t fully formed yet…because they weren’t super structured yet and the Union was still figuring out what they were meant to be and Easter’s such a short term, I felt like I wanted another go to do it again and do it better….and really flesh out what I thought the role would be.”
Haneen paused reflectively. “I think it’s really great…when you see people carrying across roles, and I know a lot of people progress from Deputy to Heads and that’s really great because you do learn how to do things better.” She laughed with her next words, “on choosing to run to for Exec though, that was another massive leap of…I don’t know what you’d call it…looking back, I’m like, why did I go for it? I think you get to a point where you’ve been in the Union a while, you’ve rotated, you’ve done different things, and you want something a bit bigger. You sort of spend so much time here that you almost develop your own image for it, and being able to do it as Exec has been really fun.”
The importance of the gender and ethnic split on the committee was not lost on Haneen, but there was a cautiousness to her message. “I definitely am really proud of [that fact], it’s a great sentence to throw out there, but I am wary of a tendency to be defined by that. I don’t want it to seem like we’re saying that this has solved all the Union’s problems. Because it so definitely hasn’t…I think it’s something to be proud of in the way that it wasn’t planned, it happened organically, and the way that it happened clearly shows that there are more people of colour and there are more women, just involved in the Union and wanting to be involved at a higher level. I think that is a long-term change that we’re finally seeing the benefit of this term, just coincidentally, but I am wary of sort of saying that that has ‘erased’ any structural privileges…I think class is something we definitely need to work on tackling. I don’t want to turn it into an ‘oppression Olympics’ type thing…but our Access officers have been amazing [last] term, normally we have an outreach programme with just a few schools and they’ve taken it and done so many amazing things with it…We’re achieving [change] with some things, like a President of colour and more women on committee, but we really need to make sure we’re open to everyone, so I definitely think that there are still areas to target.”
“I think that is a long-term change that we’re finally seeing the benefit of this term, just coincidentally, but I am wary of sort of saying that that has ‘erased’ any structural privileges…I think class is something we definitely need to work on tackling.”
Moving to the more practical issues, I asked Haneen about the practical changes she is planning for the Union and it’s traditional Thursday night debates. For her, the problem is that “they turn into six mini-speeches, where you turn up, listen and leave. The word ‘debate’ is meant to capture a conversation, a discussion, so I really wanted the amount of floor time, the amount of time dedicated to external speakers and students to be as roughly similar as we could make it. So I think we’re going to be introducing another round of floor speeches, and cut external speakers’ speeches from 10 minutes to 8 minutes, and that really does free up like another 10 or 12 minutes to hear what students have to say. We’re going to encourage more Points of Information than ever, and I really want POIs to flourish this term – I think they’re the best part about a debate, because you can literally just stand up and challenge someone…you can challenge the speaker, it’s fully within your right and it’s what we actually encourage you to do.”
She acknowledged the reasons for the reluctance to make POIs, however. “It’s difficult in itself though, like I’ve never given a POI and I can’t picture myself ever doing so. I was talking about this with the Women’s and Diversity officers just informally, and [we decided that] it is structured in a very masculine way, where you have to stand up and yell…so many women and women of colour and others who come watch the debates [would never] get involved…so I’m trying to get the Twitter more active so people can Tweet their POIs. I just really want there to be some method for everyone, and a different method that suits every type of person.”
Who from the term card are you most excited to see?
“I’m really excited to meet Natalie Bennett! Just because I’ve always been a bit of a Green, but like ashamedly…I’ve always kept it on the down-low.”
Finally I sat down with Adam – a second year at Magdalene – to find out about, among many other things, his time working Audio-Visual and how he sees his experience around the Union influencing his plans for the Speakers Officer role.
“So I was Head of Audio Visual – that’s microphones and cameras – in Michaelmas, and was Deputy Head the Easter before. I think it gives you an appreciation of the back-end of the Union a bit more…I think it makes you realise that the Union is…like it’s a professional job and we need to treat it like it. Like, there is a good way of running the microphones and a bad way of running the microphones,” he says with feeling. “I thought [being Speakers Officer] would be interesting – it wasn’t like a deep decision for me, I was just interested in doing something at the Union in a more high profile role.”
With a role as involved in the events as this one, I wondered about the thought process behind the recently released term card – why choose these people?
“[I was looking for] a few different things. I really wanted people who had insights – I think it’s often misleading to be just chasing names, and I think it’s something a lot of Speakers Officers have fallen into the trap of doing, just trying to get really big names. I obviously did try to get the biggest names, but I think a lot of it is that just powerful people are interesting and insightful people are interesting. Like Jeffrey Sachs, who’s coming in June, is like a hugely important guy, does lots of interesting things and has written lots of interesting books – but he’s not Beyoncé…I think one of the other problems is that I’ve seen some badly run events in the past, where it’s like ‘this person is clearly famous, but are they interesting? Are they really worth having here?’ Bryan Cranston last year was super interesting, very famous big name but also interesting guy. So I tried to choose interesting names. Obviously diversity too was a big priority for me.”
“I think one of the other problems is that I’ve seen some badly run events in the past, where it’s like ‘this person is clearly famous, but are they interesting? Are they really worth having here?'”
Adam’s proactive attitude on diversity of speakers has not gone unnoticed, and his system of tracking the gender of the recipient of invites – “Speakers committee…they [unconsciously] write almost exclusively to men” – builds on a long legacy of promises on diversity with measurable outcomes. “You definitely need to think more methodically about how to make diversity a priority.”
That said, whether it’s diversity on committee or of speakers, Adam was clear about the progress still to be made. “Having the people is not enough. I think particularly when you have the risk of ‘reverse white-washing’, ‘woke washing’ – you say the right words on the outside but you really stay the same sort of place – then…the big problems of the Union, ‘it’s an exclusive place’, ‘it’s socially exclusive’, ‘it’s expensive’,” he choruses, “all the main problems don’t really go away. It’s fabulous [now] and I’m so proud to be a part of the Easter committee, but there’s still a lot of room to grow I think.”
Most memorable person you’ve seen at the Union?
“The Foreign Aid debate last term! There were only like 25 people there! It was a fabulous, super interesting debate, with the civil servant in charge of foreign aid and the senior people in British Aid, and some of their most fierce critics were all there!…I also enjoyed Bryan Cranston last year because I’m a massive ‘Breaking Bad’ fan.”
Debates or speaker’s events?
“I think speaker’s events are cool…plus I really like getting one perspective on things, and being able to tease out things over an hour. I think it’s more important in some ways.”
Dream guest speaker?
“Michelle Obama? Oprah?… Living or dead? Jesus? No wait, that’s not a good one…Nelson Mandela. That one’s annoying, because he’s actually been to Cambridge before, and we didn’t get him. Ooh, Shakespeare. Let’s say Shakespeare.”