DUS President: “I don’t want the Union to become a meme”

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is not your usual Durham Union President. The Second year Law student at Cuth’s “was a bit of an outsider for President, considering my background as an international student – and I’m a different ethnic background to what people usually relate the Union to”. Profile spoke to him about the Union’s reputation and recent controversies, how he got there, and about a Union gone virtual for the Easter term.

From Colombia to Klute

After graduating from high school in Colombia, Rotary International offered Edo a scholarship to study in Georgia. “I was there in the year of Trump’s election”, he noted. “The racism is a lot more open and personal in the US – the race element is so embedded in the culture. When I walked into class, races would naturally sit in different groups”. While abroad, Edo realised “I wanted to something with law, but America was too expensive, and the scholarship only covered one year”.

Unlike most Durham students, Edo never applied to Oxbridge. “I didn’t think I was going to get in, to be honest”. But there’s still hope – “I’m thinking of applying for a masters, so I could end up an Oxbridge reject in Durham after all, who knows”.

Race in Durham

When accepting his offer, Edo “thought Durham can’t be that bad for racism, it’s a safe Labour seat, and so I assumed people would be more open to diversity in the North compared to other places”. He was disappointed – “the university itself has a different feeling to it, and different sentiment among the students and sometimes the staff as well”.

In England, Edo feels “discrimination and racism is way more discrete” and it’s “amplified when it’s politicised or when there’s alcohol”. Though he maintains that Durham isn’t an inherently racist place – “Durham is very well-rounded on the whole, but there is a lot of unconscious bias, and everyone is guilty of it; I’m not exempt.”

The line-up is impressive – Noam Chomsky, Gina Miller, the son of Pablo Escobar…

As with many international students, a personal story accompanies. “I was in a college bar, and someone came in and asked where the bathroom was. I pointed him the way and he said ‘I don’t listen to you; you’re ISIS’. I laughed awkwardly and explained I was Colombian, and the guy shoved me and started insulting me. If I didn’t have friends with me, the situation could have escalated. It’s at that point I realised something isn’t right.”

The Union echo chamber

“I was dragged to the Union by my college dad”, Edo recalls. “It was a learning experience, I was adapting to the British way of life, understanding the debates”.

It wasn’t long before he noticed something was off. “I started seeing some of the conflicts in the Union and its reputation and thought it was a shame. It’s such a good tool and platform for people to come and discuss their ideas, but people weren’t coming and using it”.

“We shouldn’t create a welfare position so that we can say that we have a welfare position. It’s about actually making it work”

“It’s cyclical”, he muses. “People don’t engage with the Union because there’s a prominence of a certain view or certain types of people. Then, by not engaging, it legitimises that viewpoint, because there’s no-one is asking questions. It becomes an echo chamber, but a very important one”.

He has aimed to change that – “The Union has had a trend of just inviting as many speakers as it can. I’ve tried to invite speakers that don’t speak to a political affiliation, but more about socially substantive issues. People of colour and disabled people especially. They may or may not be politically involved but ultimately, they have an important story to tell.”

Coming back to earth

The President recognises some of the excesses of student politics. “The place doesn’t have the magnitude that some people inside it think it has. They live in the Union and everything they do is the Union. They don’t interact with people outside their political spheres”. Asked if he’s ever considered leaving it all behind, he admitted “I have to convince myself that what I’m doing has value aside from what I can stamp in my CV”.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really nice institution, we have a building, a bar, an office, it’s the biggest student society in Durham … but in the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing, it’s just a debating society. It’s no different from debating societies at other universities. What’s different about it is because it’s Durham we can invite prominent figures and have really topical and interesting debates.”

Sometimes, there is “no need” for Union tradition. “I have black tie, in most Union pictures I’m wearing it, and I understand that it is tradition. But I feel there’s a lot of people that are discouraged from coming in when they see that. It’s not a ball. I understand you’re inviting prominent figures, but you’re not supposed to dress for them, you’re supposed to dress for the occasion, and you should come in what you feel is appropriate.”

A virtual Union

Such changes will have to wait, as the pandemic prevents Durham from having a physical Easter term. “The negatives for me are superficial; I’m not going to be able to sit in the chair, in a gown, with people staring at me”. But Edo remains optimistic; “I’m going to make the most of it while I can; one of the things I’m really excited about is that with live-streamed events from home, we’ve been able to secure speakers that would never have come to the Union”.

The line-up is certainly impressive. Linguist, philosopher and historian Noam Chomsky joins activist Gina Miller and the son of Pablo Escobar as guest speaker. Several MPs, a former Lords Speaker, the first Nigerian to come out on live television, and even a PETA lawyer working on cases of Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin of Tiger King fame, are all planned to speak in several addresses and four debates.

Edo promises to strike a fair balance between honouring members and opening the Union to the public – “the addresses and debates will be live-streamed to the member’s group on Facebook, where there will be live comments for questions. But then they will go up on YouTube, so it will be accessible to everyone in the long run”

Controversy

“You can see from everything that happened in Overheard – firstly, that people are really bored during quarantine, and secondly, that civil discourse is dying in university”, Edo said of recent events. “Terms are thrown blatantly at each other. People don’t discuss ideas, but only personal experiences. Don’t get me wrong, I think personal experiences are important. But to assume that most people are racist, or on the other hand to mock important marginalised movements and voices, is insane. Nothing will improve that way.”

“The problem is not the individuals, but the culture within the Union that needs to change”

He recognises that the issues raised affect the Union too – “we have made a decision and we have taken action. But we’re not about condemning individuals. I don’t want to ruin someone’s life. The problem is not the individuals, but the culture within the Union that needs to change”.

The motto of the Durham Union is ‘Free Speech since 1842’, but for Edo, there are sensible limits to that. “There needs to be a balance between people feeling comfortable to say what they think and people being accountable for what they say”.

“If I said, ‘agnostics are all evil’, what is the point of me saying that? What am I trying to achieve? This is especially true when positions of power are involved. If I say that, and an agnostic is thinking of joining the society, they’re going to be deterred.”

What can change?

“Welfare has been massively neglected in the Union, and I will try and change that. Solving this cultural issue is not a one-man job, but one individual can really ruin progress that has been made. Me coming here and saying the culture needs to change won’t make a new culture appear, it’s a progressive effort. People need to be more open-minded.”

That being said, “We shouldn’t create a welfare position so that we can say that we have a welfare position. It’s about actually making it work”.

The President wants to carve out a different role for the Union – “the Students’ Union has become far too political. The Union used to be the place where people debated student issues, and when the SU formed, that was meant to be the place where change was implemented, once there was a consensus between students. Now, colleges and the college Presidents’ committee are where consensus is formed.”

“The Students’ Union tries to solve issues that feasibly it cannot tackle. If you want to be political, the Union is the place for that. If you want to raise student issues, then you should be talking to students more. I think both the SU and the Union should be doing more of that.”

Otherwise…

“I fear the Union will become a meme. That’s one of the biggest fears I have. And when that happens, we’ll just disappear. 20 years ago, we had more space, and the university has gradually been taking more and more, to the extent that there was a fear of 24s being taken from us. If the culture persists, and there is that isolation, the Union will disappear eventually.”

Beyond Easter

The legislative body has been suspended for the pandemic, so there won’t be any constitutional change in Easter. Edo isn’t worried – “I’ll be sticking around; I have my proposals ready. Most of it concerns changing the Code of Conduct for officers.”

Former Presidents of the Durham Union have gone one to become MPs, Reverends, authors, travellers, even Head of the British Army. Edo wasn’t sure where he’ll end up – “I don’t know what I want to do, I have no clue whatsoever. I’d always wanted to be a lawyer – now I’m thinking journalism, academia, barrister, all these different things. Who knows? I just try to go with what I feel at the moment, and if I find a calling, I’ll take it”. Only time will tell.

Images: Eduardo Enamorado,

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