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- VP Welfare and Community Laura Elizabeth Barr Candidate Interview
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Wessex Scene interviewed Laura Elizabeth Barr, who is running for the role of VP Welfare and Community in the 2019 Union Spring Elections.
What makes you an ideal candidate for Vice-President Welfare and Community?
Over the last three years of my degree, I’ve already achieved a lot. When I’m speaking to people that might be voting, I say look at what people have actually done to promote welfare and to promote inclusivity and diversity, rather than just saying it for elections. So, for example, I started the sexual health conversation in my first year. I won an Excellence in Volunteering Award for that and obviously, lots of people know me from being President of Sexual Consent Awareness. I led and started the first-ever consultation on sexual assault that the University is currently doing at the moment, so I think that’s what makes me an ideal candidate and separates me from the others.
How will you handle the responsibilities that have been added to the position due to the merging of the roles of VP Welfare and VP Student Communities?
The way I see it, the position is not me representing students, I can’t tick every demographic, I can’t tick every box, and I wouldn’t want me, as one individual, to represent 21,000 students. A lot of my vision for this role is to facilitate giving the voice to other students, the respective communities of different minorities and different groups of students need to be the ones leading and forming and actually being that voice, because I don’t want to be and I can’t be the voice of everyone. That’s how I’d deal with the added pressure, I’d give the voices, instead of trying to be them.
Overall, your manifesto and a previous student media interview saw an overwhelming focus on the Welfare side of the role’s remit. Indeed, your Facebook campaign omits Community out in the title. Could you outline a bit more some of your ideas for the student community side of the role if you were elected – for example, how will you engage the University’s international student population?
There is a big debate over how far we need to accommodate international students. With translations, for example, some argue that we need to be helping students learn more English and become accustomed here, but others argue that we need to accommodate them with more translations and more assistance that way. I think finding that healthy balance would be useful and we kind of see Highfield Campus as the hub of all the Union and I want to try and get rid of that notion. So, if I get VP Welfare, I’m proposing my role being on a different campus two days a week to promote campaigns, to talk to students. So I’m on Highfield for 3 days and on a different campus for 2 days, so for example, WSA or NOCS, or Southampton General Hospital. Engaging international students; I think we just need to try not to project what we experience and have grown up with onto international students and really understand from their point of view the accommodation that they need, especially with access to mental health because that is a really massive barrier for them. This includes lobbying support services so they are accommodating international students in the sense that the way an international student experiences mental health is going to be different to the kind of standard way a British person that’s come to Southampton University [experiences it]. It needs to work on both levels, both through accommodation from the Union but also an institutional change in support.
How are you planning on extending this to LGBTQ+ students and disabled students?
Basically, the same way. I fully believe that issues like mental health, suicide, sexual assault, affect literally everybody, but it doesn’t affect everyone in the same way. I think I want to take an intersectional* approach.
LGBT students need to feel accommodated, so support services need to be trained and aware of the difficulties they face. It’s not just about understanding that if a transgender person went to a supports service, not all of their problems stem from the fact that they are transgender, just as the fact that it wouldn’t be the same for anyone lesbian, bisexual or anyone within the LGBT+ community. And like I said, also facilitating them being able to lead these campaigns and informing them from the right perspective. I can’t lead a transgender campaign because I’m not transgender, but I’ve helped facilitate transgender campaigns in the past and since I was 14, it’s been a massive passion of mine and I’ve had people that were close to me that go through this stuff. So, just making sure that they are given the platform, given the voice to be able to say what they need to say and call on better support and better information and better treatment of them at University.
*Editor’s Note* : This article when originally published stated that Laura said ‘intersexual’ and later on in the answer, ‘sports services’. We are happy to clarify that these were incorrect and apologise for the errors in transcription.
You state in your manifesto that you will give BAME students more of a platform rather than talk for them. How will you do this?
So the way I see it, feminism needs to be a lot more intersectional** and where white women are having progress made– for example, the sexual assault conversation is very white-dominated and the person that created the #MeToo movement was Tarana Burke, who was a woman of colour who made it for women of colour and it’s kind of been dominated now by white feminism. Being a white woman, I can’t speak for women of colour, but I recognise that I do have a bigger platform and a bigger privilege that they don’t have because of societal, kind of conditioning, so I want to use my platform to make sure they are given a bigger platform to speak about these issues. It doesn’t mean I’m talking for them, it doesn’t mean that I’m saying “look at me, I’m giving them a platform”, it’s just saying “Look, this is an issue that affects you, you need to be able to give this voice because I’m not speaking for you”.
**Editor’s Note: This article when originally published stated that Laura had said ‘antisexual’ and then ‘intersexual’. We are happy to clarify that Laura said ‘intersectional’ and apologise for the transcribing errors.
Sexual assault on campus is a topic covered in most VP Welfare and Community candidate manifestos. How will you address this topic exactly?
Yep, it’s actually been really amazing seeing loads of manifestos outside of VP Welfare also including this conversation, so there’s been a lot in the presidency as well. It’s basically what I’ve been doing the last two years, so as I said, I’ve led the first-ever sexual assault survey consultation at the University and I’m currently in the sexual assault working group right now- actually today, we’ve just secured funding to run a pilot scheme within medicine for consent workshops, so that’s a massive change that we’ve already done along with a student called Sarah Eames who’s in medicine. In my manifesto I say I want to bring in a clearer reporting procedure that we’ve also already been talking about and bringing in specialised and expert sexual assault advisors, whether that’s legal or counselling, into the university so there’s a direct point of contact.
Also, outside of the institutional side, I’m carrying on leading other campaigns, so everything you’ve been seeing with SCA, that’s been me leading it and planning it, and I want to change the conversation to be educational, not following this really toxic call-out culture. I want to educate people and make them realise, you know, we’ve all made a mistake, we’ve all crossed a boundary because we’ve not been educated not to, and we need to foster this conversation where people are learning, are developing and then coming advocates for the cause in that kind of sense.
In terms of sexual assault, rape and hate crimes, you’ve spoken about a review of the current disciplinary process. This is something, however, that has already been worked on in the past academic year. So, to clarify, are you planning to build on what review work has already taken place or start entirely from scratch again?
I’m not going to start entirely from scratch. The people that have already been doing really great things at the University need to be developed upon and the current review process has been really useful. The way that I’d develop on this is talking about how, you know, special considerations- wait was it special considerations or disciplinary you said?
Disciplinary; so we’ve already been in talks with someone in disciplinary because the current situation with sexual assault, for example, sometimes it does come down to a “They said, they said” kind of situation and that’s not the way it should be because you know, we need to foster an attitude where we are believing survivors and we are believing victims. Not all of this stuff is evidence-based, like when you’ve been assaulted, you don’t immediately think “ok, I’m going to do a rape kit”, you don’t think “I’m going to call the police”, that’s not how it works.
I’ve come up with a kind of strategy where disciplinary is dealt with either in three ways. There’s removal, rehabilitation or disciplinary, where disciplinary is complete expulsion, removal is removing them from the situation, the class and who is accused of it, and dealing with that way and rehabilitation I want that to be in all 3 of those outcomes anyway, trying to make the person understand this is what they did wrong, trying to make them understand the situation and kind of build on that. But with things like disciplinary there are so many different legal policies out there, like students, staff, people external, it’s not something I’m going to be able to do in a year, I recognise that, but it’s something I can work upon with the help from all the other students and with other people at University.
What element of experience do you have for the role?
Ahh, how much time do you have?
Since I was 14, my first campaign in activism was LGBT+ awareness. When I was 14, I was in an abusive relationship, both physically and emotionally, and he was trans. That’s not relevant obviously to the abuse, but the way I kind of dealt with that abuse was I saw how hard things were for him, I saw the way his family treated him, I saw the scars he had on his body and I just saw like, that’s an injustice, that’s not right and what he did to me wasn’t right, but I focused on, oh my god, there’s this person that’s suffering, I need to do something about that.
When we went to some LGBT support groups as well I met someone, another trans-woman called Rose and she is this absolutely, angelic, wonderful woman and she helped me inform all the kind of stuff that I wanted to do at school, so I brought LGBT into the informal curriculum in citizenship when I was in secondary school and I won a community award for that. Then I brought that work to my Sixth Form and I did the same thing there, where it was like a little, small countryside town which didn’t know what LGBT was in any sense, just thought it was a jumble up of the alphabet.
Then obviously, when I got to first year, I won an Excellence in Volunteering Award for my sexual health campaign in Chamberlain Halls as Welfare Officer. I’ve been President of Sexual Consent Awareness for the last two years and we’ve done loads with that. I also was the intern behind the STRIVE scheme, which recognises volunteers with the sort of open badge system and I interned for Student Minds for their male mental health project. I’d say I have a lot of experience and research experience and knowing what the situation is, how to analyse things, how to bring everything into the picture so we can get the most informed result.
In your manifesto you specifically cite addressing certain aspects of mental health, for example, male mental health and suicide. Why is this (do you feel that these mental health areas are particularly unaddressed currently at Southampton)?
So, I mean they’re unaddressed everywhere. But when I say I want to focus on male mental health, I don’t mean I want to detract attention from female mental health or from any other communities, because in this kind of community that we have, just in Britain and in the world, it kind of feels like there is a competition for resources and attention, because there isn’t enough resources. But I’m not taking away anything when I focus on male mental health. 75% of the suicides in the UK are committed by men and there is – so when I was doing my male mental health research for Student Minds, there was basically this kind of outcome where there was a lot of socialised behaviour that men take. Men are more likely to turn to substance abuse rather than go to therapy, they’re less likely to do talking therapy as well, because the kind of counselling we’ve had at the moment is seen as “feminine”, in the sense that females are more likely to talk and be able to recognise what they’re feeling, whereas men can’t.
That is a massive generalisation there, but to make it simple, men aren’t being accommodated enough for the issues that they’re facing. It’s in the same sense that trans-men aren’t also being accommodated for and again bi-men aren’t being accommodated for. Black men are 17 times more likely to be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and that comes from a racialised socialisation that we have in support services and in mental health because they’re not more likely than any other person. but they’re seen as kind of more aggressive and more dangerous so they’re treated that way.
This is all very much a cultural, like really deeply-rooted attitude that I can’t face as one person as VP Welfare in one University in the country, but I can try to make people feel heard, make the conversation more formal and we can only ever benefit from bringing more people into the mental health conversation. You don’t have to be a man to support male mental health, you don’t have to be a woman to support female mental health, you don’t have to be LGBT to support LGBT communities, we all kind of need to support each other and recognise ok, so these are the different issues that they are facing, here’s how we can tackle each of those issues to make sure it’s accommodating for that community.
How will you work with VP Sports on mental health in Sports?
What I want to focus on within sports– so I already focused on sexual consent, so SCA did this survey that found out of 126 who responded, 52% knew someone who’d been assaulted or raped within their sports team or somebody else’s. So I want to really develop that and work with them on how to make casual sports more accessible.
One of the big things I want to focus on is eating disorders within sports because the kind of body-I mean, this again is a really cultural thing, but if we can focus on, you know, Southampton and try to change a couple of people’s outlook on the way that they do sports in relation to their body, that’s going to be an impact. But I want to focus on making casual sports fun and engaging and accessible and not having to pay 200 quid for a gym membership to be able to play, you know, table tennis or go to Salsa, or do something active. I want to focus on making sport something that people can save themselves from isolation so they can go out and meet new people and make that a normalised way to improve your wellbeing rather than these constant focuses on are you looking after your mental health, because that can be detrimental in the end.
I also want to make sure that people who are in competitive sports and wanna be professional athletes after University are feeling supported, so they need to allow their academic to still be supportive and still keep up the grades as well as understand that they- I feel like in sports there is very much an attitude of all or nothing and you push yourself to the limits and sometimes that can be really detrimental so I want to make sure competitive sports players also supported in that sense.
One of the most daunting tasks a student faces is finding a house. What are your plans if elected on how you’d seek to support students in this area?
Housing is quite difficult, medics and nurses especially have found it really difficult to find houses because they have to have a Southampton address and when they’re going on placements, they’re paying for something they’re not living in, so I wanna talk to medics and nurses about that and there has been some progression on that as well. International students as well, for example, who don’t really know how it works here and with private landlords who can sometimes be really scummy and take advantage of vulnerable people, I wanna make sure that international students are feeling supported in how to find a house, how to find your housemates, all the basic life skills that you need. Also generally, promoting SUSU Lettings and promoting the Advice Centre where they can give legal, financial and useful advice. Marketing at the University and the Union is really slop-shoddy, like only 30% kind of engage really in elections themselves, let alone everything else that we do, so there definitely needs to be more of that.
Within housing, so when you’ve got the house, I wanna make sure that there is some legal support for students who maybe have rushed to rent to use the current Welfare’s initiative, and have found themselves in a case of, like harassment or bullying, where they’re now legally and financially bound to this house for a year. I want to give more support and guidance for students on how to deal with those situations and what help that they can get.
Last question. Overall, what are the main challenges you think you’ll face in the role?
I think working within the University will be a challenge. They’re notorious for being slow and being resistant, but I’ve already kind of shown that we’ve got the University to run the pilot scheme in medicine and to look at the survey and look into the results. I think a big challenge will be communication and marketing, engaging all the people that we’ve failed to engage so far because people do see the Union as just kind of a clique, to see it as a kind of small bubble and within the bubbles they’re friendship groups and it’s who you know and who you connect with.
I want to promote all the other societies outside of that and all the other students outside of that so you don’t need to have a friend in the Union to get inside of that and I want to kind of pop that SUSU bubble that people view us as and take away that kind of friendship group, clique-ey, high school weird stuff that we get. That’ll be a big barrier because that has been an issue for years and years, like since I’ve been at University and from people I’ve been speaking to since they’ve been at University. Hopefully, if I take a stance on that, that’ll work but I see that as the biggest barrier.
Find out more about Laura Elizabeth Barr and her policies by reading her manifesto here.
Editor’s Note: Laura kindly requested after the interview if it was possible to link to the ongoing SCA survey. Please click here if you have yet to fill in the survey.