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Win, lose, pass or fall – our spaces must feel inclusive and welcoming

Monday 10-04-2017 - 17:21

We’re proud to be one of the largest unions representing students across the world. And proud to create democratic spaces for student representatives and activists to come together to debate issues about education, society and the wider world that are relevant to students and students' unions' and to elect their national officers for the year ahead.

In just two weeks’ time,  - our sovereign decision making body and the largest annual democratic gathering of students in Europe, or some say the world - will take place in Brighton.

This will be my second National Conference as NUS’ chief executive. I want all delegates to have a positive experience - whether your preferred candidates win or lose their election, whether the motions you support pass or fall - the experience should be a good one. One that you would want again or recommend to a friend.

And yet, we know too often debating, agreeing and disagreeing is not an easy experience in the student movement, particularly at National Conference.

I am getting lots of feedback that the spaces NUS creates for representatives and activists to come together can feel difficult and painful as a result of the behaviours of delegates. The Runnymede Review was clear that the culture of our political spaces can mean people do not want to engage because it impacts on their wellbeing.

Similarly I have been told by people with different political beliefs from right across the UK that sometimes delegates are so focused on their candidate winning, so focused on making sure a motion passes, so focused on proving that the 'other side' is wrong and or bad, that the atmosphere can be horrid; it can be difficult to develop your ideas and understanding, unacceptable to say 'I don't know' or 'no' and worrying to express a view. 

In that climate, it can be difficult to focus on what unites us a movement and remember we are all there because we want to improve students’ lives, build ever better students' unions, strengthen your national union and make the world a better place.

NUS is an educational union. Core to our belief is education as a transformative experience. The student movement is one that believes in dignity and respect for difference; a movement that values diversity and inclusion, and a movement that treasures people's learning journeys.

Learning happens best when we feel safe. When we feel safe we are able to listen and hear. We are able to challenge ourselves, be challenged by others, affirm our beliefs and change our minds. That is why the spaces we create for representatives to come together to discuss and debate must be welcoming and inclusive for all.

They must be spaces where everyone is and feels able to express their view without fear of recrimination or attack on or offline. Social media has added a new dimension in recent years. It is overwhelmingly a force for good. But too often it is used in ways that are deeply problematic. Whether that is delegates themselves, or people joining in the debate from afar. When there is tension in the physical space - which is of course to be expected at times - the added heat from social media can make it unbearable for some.

Whether at National Conference in Brighton or other on and offline spaces, in the coming weeks and months I am asking all of you to play your part in creating inclusive, challenging and brave spaces for discussion and debate. I ask you to remember that we won't all have the same beliefs and views. I ask you to remember we won't all have the same experiences. And to remember that we will be at different stages of our learning journeys.

Our culture is set by the worst behaviour that we are willing to tolerate or condone. In practice this means everybody taking responsibility for their behaviours and their posts, and thinking about it through the lens of somebody looking in and wondering whether they can or want to participate in our democracy.

The student movement can come together and be an unstoppable force for change, but only if we are willing to listen, to learn and to understand from each other, and only if we are willing to accept that diverse views and beliefs can be our strength not our weakness.

The onus is on everyone to come together at National Conference and bring our values of collectivism, diversity and inclusion alive. Values we can touch and truly experience.

The power to do so is in all of your hands.

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