SFPIRG’s Response to the SFSS Board of Directors’ Space Offer

The Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG) currently resides in TC 326, a lounge and office space in the Rotunda at SFU Burnaby. This space is leased to us by the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), through a Sublease. The space the SFSS occupies in the Rotunda is leased to them by SFU, through a Head Lease. The Head Lease for all of the SFSS’s space in the Rotunda has no set expiry date, extending automatically until the new Student Union Building opens and the SFSS moves into its new offices. The Sublease for SFPIRG’s space in the Rotunda expires on June 30, 2018, and would only be extended if SFPIRG received new space from the SFSS.

Going into September 2017, the issue of long-term space for independent student societies on campus remained a pressing concern, as detailed in a September article of The Peak. That month, the SFSS put out a call for expressions of interest for the organizational suites available in the SUB. The call said that “there will be lots of space in the SUB for students to enjoy. Students will be able to drop-in and use lounges, study spaces, dining areas and even a napping room. There will also be bookable meeting rooms, dance and music rehearsal rooms, and a community kitchen. A ballroom will host student formals and other large events, and office space and suites will be available for student groups and external groups.” In addition to questions about an organization’s work, the questionnaire asked how the space would be kept open Monday through Friday, how many staff would be working from the space, and for a copy of an organization’s most recently audited financial statements. As one of the student societies that has participated in SUB consultations since the project’s inception in 2012, and as a student society interested in continuing to collaborate on the SFU student experience in the SUB, SFPIRG participated in this expression of interest process and submitted our Expression of Interest.

The SFSS asked to meet with SFPIRG on November 14th, 2017, to discuss our submission and to provide us with a sense of the direction that SFSS representatives were suggesting be pursued by the SFSS Board of Directors. During this meeting, we were told that SFPIRG has been denied organizational space in the forthcoming Student Union Building. We understood there to be designated organizational suites available in the SUB designed specifically to accommodate existing organizations with space on campus. During our meeting, SFSS representatives posed several questions, including whether we would be interested in occupying existing SFSS space in the Maggie Benston Centre (MBC), specifically Forum Chambers, the Undergrounds, or The Peak’s offices.

On November 30th, 2017, SFPIRG’s Board of Directors contacted the SFSS’s Board of Directors, stating that, as stewards of a fellow Student Society at SFU, SFPIRG’s Board hoped that the SFSS’s Board would understand that the question of long-term, sustainable, accessible, and viable space on campus is a question that cannot be considered lightly, nor can it be rushed. Our Board recognized that the SFSS hoped to receive answers to questions posed by its representatives during the November 14th meeting; however, due to time constraints dictated by the upcoming Winter Break, the SFPIRG Board of Directors had to do their due diligence in performing their fiduciary duties and were unable to respond definitively at that time. We expressed appreciation for their patience in this matter, and looked forward to continuing the conversation about student space on campus with the SFSS in the new year. The SFSS said that they understood the time constraints due to the upcoming break and that their executive would discuss a reasonable timeline for when they needed to hear back from the external groups. An article in a December issue of The Peak covered the issue of space for student societies up to this point.

On December 7th, 2017, the SFSS asked SFPIRG to let them know by Friday, January 5, 2018, whether or not SFPIRG was interested in leasing space in the MBC. Also included was information about the offered spaces in the MBC. The Peak’s offices were no longer offered. On December 8th, SFPIRG’s Board of Directors responded, stating that as a Board, they needed the opportunity to discuss this matter in detail and in person, including having the opportunity to review the new information the SFSS had provided regarding the MBC spaces. Our Board reiterated that, as noted in our November 30th email, we were unable to respond definitively to their questions at this time due to the Winter Break. SFPIRG was in fact closed until January 3rd, 2018. The earliest opportunity for our Board to meet was on Tuesday, January 9th, 2018. We hoped the SFSS would understand the need for a short extension of the January 5th deadline. Our Board expressed appreciation for their patience in this matter, and looked forward to responding to their questions by Friday, January 12th, 2018. That evening, the SFSS declined the request for a short extension.

On January 5th, 2018, SFPIRG submitted our response to the SFSS’s offer of space in Forum Chambers or the Undergrounds. The following was our response:


Re: Response to SFSS Offer of Forum Chambers and Undergrounds

Hello Hangue, Martin, and the SFSS Board of Directors,

On November 14th, 2017, representatives of SFPIRG met with Martin Wyant, Hangue Kim, Marc Fontaine, and Jas Randhawa, at which time we were told that the SFSS was denying SFPIRG space within the SUB – we also learned that the Peak, CJSF and Embark had also all been denied space. During that meeting, the SFSS indicated that there was the possibility of our organizations being offered space in Forum Chambers, the Undergrounds, or the current Peak offices. We note that the Peak is interested in remaining in their current office space, and that their offices are no longer being offered. At that time, we were given no information about the aforementioned possible spaces – nothing about size, accessibility, or what it would realistically take to turn them into suites suitable for housing multiple student workers and volunteers, and permanent employees.

On December 7th, 2017, just as staff and students were going on Winter Break, we received minimal information about the current set-up of the two spaces, but still little about the actual feasibility of transforming them into organizational suites. It is notable that the Undergrounds is, at present, not at all accessible to people using scooters, wheelchairs or who have limited mobility. In the documentation provided to us about Forum Chambers and the Undergrounds, there is mention that an elevator could be installed to provide barrier-free access to the Undergrounds, but we are unclear as to whether an engineer has confirmed that this is possible, or whether the University is prepared to allow this kind of modification to the building. We are also unsure as to who would cover the cost of such renovations, as our organization simply does not have the extensive resources needed to cover these costs.  There is also mention that a ramp could be installed. Such a ramp would need to be fairly long in order to ensure a safe angle; this would significantly decrease the available organizational space in the Undergrounds. Of course, regardless of whether or not an organization is housed in the Undergrounds, a ramp and/or an elevator ought to have been installed long ago – it is unfortunate that this student space has remained inaccessible for all of these years.

The SFSS requested that SFPIRG provide a final decision about whether we are interested in these spaces by January 5th, 2018. When we received this communication and this deadline, we sent a response requesting an extension until January 12th, 2018, as the students who make up the SFPIRG Board will not have the opportunity to meet and discuss this matter in person until January 9th, 2018. We would like to point out that the SFPIRG Board of Directors is made up of student volunteers who do not receive a stipend, and who volunteer their time on the Board amidst their studies, work, and other commitments. They do not have the same time or capacity to meet as often or as immediately as the SFSS Board of Directors, particularly during exam and holiday periods. We are very disappointed that our reasonable request for a short extension was denied.

Based on the conversations we have been able to have in this short period of time this week, we are able to respond to your question as follows.

If SFPIRG is to be denied space in the SUB, then we are very interested in the possibility of being housed in one of the offered spaces; however, we must be clear that our acceptance of such a space could only happen under the following circumstances:

1. The space in question must be made fully accessible. One of our core values and one of the social justice issues that we do work around is Disability Justice. We do not view accessibility as optional and we could never accept organizational space that is inaccessible. All students on campus have the right to access all student spaces, and students with disabilities are not an exception to that. Frankly, we are very unsure as to whether the Undergrounds can be properly retrofitted to become both fully accessible and large enough to provide organizational space for multiple workers and volunteers. That leaves Forum Chambers as a possibility.

2. The space must be renovated to meet the needs of a student society that has several work study student positions per semester, a volunteer Board of Directors, various volunteer teams, three permanent staff, and those students who seek out our organization seeking support and a space where they feel safe. We also have an extensive library that students, faculty and community members use – we are prepared to dramatically reduce the size of our library, but we do still hope to be able to continue to provide access to social and environmental justice books and films that are not otherwise easily available. Our office and lounge space needs were outlined in our response to the SFSS Request for Expressions of Interest.

Our need to have adequate workspace for multiple permanent and student staff and assorted volunteers and space users, combined with our requirement that the space be fully accessible, leaves us quite certain that the Undergrounds is not a viable option. While we believe that considerable renovations would be needed to retrofit Forum Chambers into a usable space for us, it does seem possible that Forum Chambers could be made to work.

3. Any and all renovations must be paid for via the Funds that undergraduate students already pay into semesterly. All undergraduate students at SFU are members of both the SFSS and SFPIRG (and of Embark, the Peak and CJSF). We have the same membership.  Through their membership in the SFSS, students already pay fees toward the Student Society Building Fund / Capital Levy (also known as the Space Expansion Fund), and toward the Accessibility Fund. These Funds are expressly designated for renovating spaces under the control of the SFSS, and for making SFSS space accessible. Although the Building Fund has been drained recently to fund the SUB (in addition to the funds paid by students into the Build SFU Fund), it still has, as of the most recent financial documents, $2,123,690 available. Surely a fund in excess of two million dollars is sufficient to cover any renovation costs.

The Accessibility Fund is significantly smaller with $261,615 available, but it is also significantly underused. Last year, the Accessibility Fund took in $46,430 in fees but it only spent $6,236 on actual accessibility requests. This is the pattern with this fund – take in a lot of student moneys, but spend very little providing access services. Notably, the Accessibility Fund was also drained –  by $222,000  – when the SFSS decided to transfer $200,000 to Build SFU in order to purchase an elevator (arguably a questionable use of funds earmarked for accessibility) and an additional $22,000 for actual access features for the new SUB. If not for this transfer, the Accessibility Fund would have $440,145 available. Unless disability justice becomes a priority for the SFSS, it is likely that this Fund will just continue to grow, rather than being spent promoting disability access and disability justice awareness.

Given that students already pay into these Funds – Funds that exist for no other purpose but to cover the costs of accessibility-related and other necessary renovations – we expect that the SFSS will use those Funds to cover any costs of transforming any possible organizational space into usable and accessible organizational space. To ask SFPIRG to cover the costs of retrofitting is to demand that even more student money be put towards this, while all of the student money already collected for these purposes sits in the bank. That makes no sense.

4. No rent is charged on the space beyond the symbolic $1/year rent and standard operating costs, as calculated by SFU per square foot. This is what SFU charges the SFSS for its space, and for the SFSS to seek more than this in rent from the other student societies would be highly unethical. Again, this would simply damage the ability of smaller organizations to do our work, and ultimately mean that students have to put even more money toward paying for space, while the SFSS continues to unnecessarily accumulate money in its various Building and Accessibility Funds.

5. All three independent student societies currently under threat of displacement receive long-term and sustainable homes on campus, whether through the SFSS or SFU. This includes CJSF 90.1FM, Embark and SFPIRG. While everyone at SFPIRG very much wants to continue to exist here on campus, we are not prepared to be coerced into a competition for space with our sibling student societies, Embark and CJSF, particularly a competition that arises from an artificially-created space shortage.

And let’s be clear. Once the SUB is built, there is no space shortage and no need for competitions over space. We fully recognize the importance of clubs and student unions having access to space – we regularly have several areas of our centre booked by different kinds of student groups, and we would love to see spaces like the Undergrounds transformed into useful, accessible, bookable student space. We were very pleased to see that the new SUB was designed to have lots of bookable space for clubs and student unions. But it was also designed to house the longstanding organizations that serve students here on campus. Clubs and SU’s need excellent, bright, comfortable, fully accessible, bookable space – they do not need organizational suites.

Ultimately, the ideal situation would be that the SFSS revisits its decision regarding the designated organizational suites in the SUB. From the very beginning, the SUB was designed with suites meant specifically for organizations such as SFPIRG and the other independent student societies on campus. In fact, the SUB architects and the University informed us that they fully expected that we would be housed in these spaces. The SUB was also designed with many other spaces for clubs and student unions in mind, including meeting, event, workshop, storage and resource space. Rather than wasting student dollars by retrofitting event spaces like Forum Chambers and the Undergrounds into organizational suites, or completely displacing the independent student societies, the SFSS can choose to use its new organizational suites in the SUB to actually house organizations, and can continue to utilize its existing and new event spaces as bookable student space for clubs and SUs.

In closing, we want to note how sad this situation makes us. We love being in the Rotunda with the Women’s Centre, Out on Campus, the First Nations Student Association and CJSF. We are huge allies of Embark. We have a long history of working with these organizations, and we were so looking forward to being in the SUB with them. For that matter, we also have a history of working with the SFSS on exciting projects. SFPIRG has provided workshops for the SFSS on several occasions; for example, a couple of years ago we provided a workshop on inclusive and accessible event organizing for organizers of an SFSS concert.

We believe that most SFU students care about social and environmental justice, even if there are a variety of ways of understanding what that means. What makes SFPIRG unique is our broad mandate to engage students around so many different social and environmental justice issues. We support students who want to protect old growth forests, students who are trying to start a tumbler-share program with Renaissance Coffee, and students who are fighting to save wild salmon. We try to combat anti-Indigenous racism and explore what decolonization might look like. We encourage students who promote net neutrality and access to media, and others who would like to see electoral reform, and still others who want to explore alternatives to corporations and capitalist models for organizing society. We assist students who experience racism in class and those who are sexually harassed on campus. We support TA’s who want to know how to respond when their students disclose a sexual assault. We encourage anti-racist organizing and organizing by students with disabilities, and we promote body-positivity and resist all forms of body shaming. We provide workshops that focus on healing from trauma, and workshops on sexual health. We provide training on inclusive event organizing, and on how to facilitate conversations on difficult subjects. We work with students, but also SFU faculty, TA’s and administration, providing training on inclusive and equity-oriented ways of doing the work that we do. And those are just a few examples!

If SFPIRG loses its space and is forced to relocate elsewhere, the SFU community risks losing one of the few hubs where students can come together to engage with these issues and explore alternatives to the status quo, as learners and also as leaders. SFPIRG is also a place where students who are facing social barriers here at SFU can find emotional and practical support that is grounded in an awareness that social injustice is a real thing. We regularly hear from students that this is one of the only places on campus they feel safe talking about their experiences of injustice. Students need more than simply space – they need a wide array of programming and support. SFPIRG is one organization meeting part of that need.

Without suitable, fully accessible space on campus, our ability to serve SFU students and the SFU community is severely undermined. We do not understand why anyone at the SFSS would want to see that happen. We see the role and interests of the SFSS and SFPIRG as being complementary. We serve the same student body and we can see no reason why our organizations should not be supporting and strengthening each other. It is our hope that the SFSS Board of Directors will revisit this decision, and join with us in building a new relationship between our organizations.

We very much hope that something can be worked out.

We look forward to hearing from you, at your convenience.


 

On January 20th, SFPIRG received the following response from the SFSS President:


Thank you for your letter on January 5th regarding potential space in either Forum Chambers or the Undergrounds. This message confirms that we are, unfortunately, not able to meet all the conditions outlined in your letter. As a result, based on the language in your letter, we understand that you have rejected our offer.

We wish you the best in your search for alternative space.

 

On January 23rd, SFPIRG sent the following inquiry to the SFSS:


We are very surprised and disappointed by your email. In order for us to better understand the SFSS Board of Directors’ position on the matter, could you please let us know specifically which of the five conditions the SFSS is unable to meet?
  1. That the offered space be accessible.
  2. That the offered space be suitable for a student society’s operational needs.
  3. That any necessary renovations to SFSS-controlled space be paid for via the SFSS Funds that are already paid into by our shared members; these Funds are earmarked specifically for renovations to, and accessibility measures in, SFSS-controlled space.
  4. That the only rent and operating costs charged for the offered space be the same as those charged by SFU to the SFSS for its own leased space.
  5. That all three independent student societies currently under threat of displacement (including Embark, CJSF, and SFPIRG) receive long-term and sustainable homes on campus, either through the SFSS or SFU. We are not prepared to be coerced into a competition for space with our sibling student societies, Embark and CJSF, particularly a competition that arises from an artificially-created space shortage. Once the SUB is built, there is no space shortage and no need for competitions over space.

For reference, I have attached our letter once more to this email.

We look forward to your timely response, detailing specifically which of the five conditions the SFSS is unable to meet.


 

On January 26th, SFPIRG received the following response from the SFSS President:


In response to your January 23, 2018 e-mail message, we confirm that we are not able to meet the following condition:

That all three independent student societies currently under threat of displacement (including Embark, CJSF, and SFPIRG) receive long-term and sustainable homes on campus, either through the SFSS or SFU.

We also have significant concerns with a number of the other conditions that you listed in your January 5th, 2018 letter. Given, however, that you communicated that all of your conditions needed to be met and we given that we clearly cannot meet this particular requirement, we do not feel it would be useful to enumerate our other concerns.


 

SFPIRG looks forward to taking the SFSS up on their willingness to continue discussions, as we believe that all of SFU’s independent student societies can be found space on campus.

We look forward to continuing this conversation with all stakeholders at SFU.

As updates become available, we will update them here on our website.

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