An Open Letter to the Incoming SFSS Board of Directors

On May 7th, 2019, the SFPIRG Board of Directors reached out to the new and incoming SFSS Board of Directors, asking the SFSS Board to reconsider the “shared space model” and to instead put the Rotunda Groups in the organizational suites in the new SUB. The SFPIRG Board also expressed an interest in rebuilding positive organizational relationships, and asked to meet with the SFSS Board. We look forward to their response.

Below is a copy of the email that was sent to the SFSS Board on May 9th:


To the SFSS Board of Directors,

Congratulations, and welcome to your new student-elected roles as stewards of improving the undergraduate experience at Simon Fraser University (SFU)!

We are writing to you as the Board of Directors of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) and as concerned undergraduate members of the SFSS. We send this letter in the hope that you, as the new Board of the SFSS, will be willing to reopen dialogue with us, and that together we can begin rebuilding a respectful and collaborative relationship between the SFSS and SFPIRG.

Specifically we ask that the SFSS reconsider the implementation of a “shared-space model” for the SUB and instead follow through on housing SFPIRG and SFU Students of Caribbean & African Ancestry (SOCA) in the organizational suites within the SUB.  In this letter we will share some of our thoughts for why we believe this is what will best serve undergraduate students at SFU, but letters can only do so much when it comes to relationship building – we would very much like to meet with you to discuss this matter further in person.

A little about who we are: SFPIRG is an independent, student-funded and student-directed resource centre at SFU, dedicated to engaging students and community in social and environmental justice. For the past 38 years, SFPIRG has represented and served marginalized communities at SFU through education, action, research, and community-building. All SFU students, both undergraduate and graduate, are members of SFPIRG.

It is worth noting is that we are one of 22 Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) that were first established in the early-70’s at university campuses across the country which all share similar structures and mandates, but that operate independently from one another.

“I first encountered PIRGs about twenty years ago after Ralph Nader had made a swing through Ontario. Over the years since, I have from time to time encountered PIRG groups on different campuses. They have always been most impressive, staffed by hardworking people who are well informed and deeply committed to important social, economic and environmental issues. I do not have any hesitation in saying that PIRGs are outstanding examples of how students can get involved in dealing with important issues of our time.”

– David Suzuki (2004) – Award-winning Canadian geneticist, broadcaster, and environmental activist

For a more in-depth description of the scope and depth of our work, please refer to the Expression of Interest we submitted to the SFSS in the Fall of 2017, when we formally applied for an organizational suite in the new Student Union Building (SUB).

The SFSS has subleased office and lounge space in the Rotunda to SFPIRG since we came into being in 1981. But for many years our organizations had something more than a sublease between us – until 2015, we had an Institutional Agreement that explicitly recognized the different ways that our organizations served the campus community and outlined ways that we could support each other in our work. Our hope is that we can return to a relationship that honors the 38-year-long connection between our organizations in serving the same 25,000+ undergraduate students at SFU.

We acknowledge that the relationship between SFPIRG and the SFSS has, for the last few years, been fraught, due in no small part to the ongoing threat of imminent eviction that SFPIRG and other equity-seeking Rotunda Groups, like SOCA and others, have faced since the former SFSS Board decided to exclude us from the SUB.

Some historical context: as you are probably aware, the SUB is a student-funded $65M project, which was supposed to solve SFU’s student space crisis. What you might not realize is that in 2011 SFPIRG and the SFSS worked to raise awareness of this crisis and ultimately lobby for the creation of a student union building. We encourage you to read this letter, written by the SFSS President at the time, which acknowledges SFPIRG’s role in sparking the BuildSFU project, and promises to recommend a lease extension for SFPIRG’s current space in the Rotunda “until both organizations move into the new student union building.”

SFU administration certainly believed, when leasing the land for the building’s construction to the SFSS, that the SFSS would continue to sublease space to the Rotunda Groups in the SUB. Indeed, it is because of the SFSS’s role in managing the headlease on behalf of not only itself but the other organizations on campus, that the University has always provided such abundant space to the SFSS – it has never been the case that all the space leased to the SFSS was intended to be used exclusively by the SFSS. In fact, the headlease for the SUB clearly states that the space will be used for the purposes of “offices for the Society and other non-profit organizations whose primary function is to serve students of the University.”

In June 2014, the SFSS invited all Rotunda Groups to meet with the BuildSFU project architects to specifically assess our organizational space needs. As a result, the building plans explicitly made space for 7 organizational suites for campus student groups, such as SFPIRG, SOCA, and the other Rotunda Groups. The BuildSFU project architects also met with Clubs and Student Unions and following those consultations designed at least 30 possible rooms that would be available to Clubs and Student Unions; these rooms include event spaces like the multi-purpose event hall on the SUB’s top floor, organizing spaces like the Club Centre, and meeting rooms throughout the building. Clubs and Student Unions would have access to all of these new bookable and drop-in spaces, as well as continuing to have access to the many other spaces that they presently use on campus.

We were excited when, in September 2017, the SFSS opened an Expression Of Interest process for campus groups to apply for the suites in the SUB. We believed that this would finally provide a timeline for when the Rotunda Groups would be able to move into the SUB, and consequently allow our organizations to start planning for what will be quite a monumental move.

Instead, in November 2017, the SFSS notified Embark, CJSF, The Peak, and SFPIRG that none of us would be allocated space in the SUB. We were informed that the organizational suites would be converted into shared and bookable space for meetings and events – even though dozens of rooms were already included in the SUB plans for this very purpose. We were deeply disheartened that this decision was being made six years into the SUB project. After so many years of supporting BuildSFU, we suddenly found our organizations barred from the building, and facing imminent displacement from the campus entirely by the SFSS.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge in the intervening time, and as mentioned, the relationship between the SFSS and SFPIRG and other equity-seeking groups on campus has become quite strained. But there is no reason for it to stay that way. We are all undergraduate students at SFU and we all want to serve our campus community well; our organizations can and ought to return to a relationship in which we support and strengthen one another’s work on campus.

We at SFPIRG remain eager and open to meeting with the SFSS Board members to discuss securing long-term space in the SUB. Despite rumours to the contrary, we have never refused to meet with the SFSS – quite the contrary – and at this time, we formally request to meet with you, the new SFSS Board, in order to solve this space crisis. We hope to move forward in a way that supports the existence of a diverse community of student organizations on campus, and that allows both of our organizations to focus on what we do best – serving the students who need us.

We have availability to meet on Tuesday, May 21st or Wednesday, May 22nd. If either of those dates work for representatives of the SFSS Board to meet with us, please let us know by Thursday, May 16th. If these dates do not work for you, please offer alternative dates at your earliest convenience.

We look forward to meeting with you soon!

Sincerely,

The Board of Directors
Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG)


For more information about the space issue on campus, please visit https://sfpirg.ca/sfpirg-campaign-for-space-in-the-sub/

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