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October 9, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Drakes and Snakes: When Larson met Marlon

On another hot afternoon, this time at the Hunter Lounge, we sat down with the candidates running for VUWSA President in 2018. Marlon was wearing a crisp white t-shirt under an open purple shirt; Larson had a black t-shirt on with his slogan, No Snakes, Just Ladders, embroidered in orange thread on the front — a nice detail. He drank a foamy lemon, lime, and bitters. Marlon had a coke. Laura and Tim had ginger beer.  Are these details important?

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To start, could we get a bit of background about you both. Larson, you haven’t been involved in VUWSA before, but where do you come to this role from? In a broader sense — where did you grow up and what did you study?

Larson: I moved down from Gisborne in 2014 and studied chemistry and physics — an area of study that not many people pick up. The last two years I’ve worked within student accommodation. I really enjoyed my first year in halls, and I wanted to give back to that community.

I’ve done that for the last two years, and that comes with a vast array of different roles and responsibilities. The main one is that people come in at the start of the year, they’ve just moved away from home, and you want to build that community and create that positive vibe from day one. You have to make sure everyone is inclusive and you try give everyone the same opportunity.

In terms of things outside of that, because I was very familiar with the role I dedicated my spare time to other things. I volunteered for disability services, and have been involved in Boomerang Bags — they’re a charity that picks up fabric going to waste and makes it into bags and distribute them around the city. I’ve also being doing one-off events and volunteering; I went round the green walking campus tour talking about sustainability and have done some tree planting at Makara.

I’ve had such a centred and focused community within the hall, and I think you’re slightly limited in terms of the people you’re around — there’s a hugely diverse community, but not as big as on the university scale. There are 400 students at our hall, but there are 20,000 university students, which is a much bigger challenge. It was a natural progression to move into a larger role to apply the skills I’ve learnt; to give exactly the same thing I’ve given to my hall community to the university community. I’m coming to the end of my degree, and it felt the right thing to be doing.

 

What were you doing for disability services?

Larson: I drove the van. I’d go and pick up people from their residences and take them to classes and back home. I was involved in the note taking, but there were quite a few clashes with my lectures so couldn’t do too much of that. Mainly driving the van.

 

Marlon, same to you. You’ve been VUWSA Clubs and Activities Officer this year, but, where are you coming to this role from?

Marlon: You’ve got to go back to the start. I’m from Auckland central originally, moved down here last year — I’m in my second year. Back home I had an awesome community at Western Springs high school. We had a really diverse community with people from all different backgrounds, and I’ve been looking for a community like that ever since.

When I came to Wellington, being in a completely new place, with people you don’t usually hang out with, you feel quite lost. I committed myself to activism in the only way I knew I could, which was through volunteering. I got involved in Student Friendly Wellington trying to get the vote out for local body elections, and that spurred me to run for VUWSA.

This year it went crazy — the amount of people you meet on VUWSA is absolutely nuts. From a huge variety of backgrounds, with a whole variety of different needs, and when you’re on VUWSA you have the ability to solve those issues, and that spurred me to run for president. The ability you have to make a positive change in someone’s life I’ve always frothed…  

 

For lack of a better term.

Marlon: Yeah, it’s an adrenalin rush; when someone comes into the office and says “here’s my problem, I don’t know what to do, can you help me?” and you say “yeah I can help you.” I guess that comes from back home; there are all these injustices going on and I used to get angry about those, and I decided one day to stop getting so angry and start getting organised.

The issue that really put me on to running was definitely the mental health crisis; it’s affected me personally and professionally.

 

We’re definitely going to come back to mental health, but first we want to know how you both would describe the role of the president. Larson, we’ll start with you — if you had to describe the role of president to someone who had no idea about VUWSA, what does the president do?

Larson: First, I’d say that VUWSA is the students’ association of the university.

 

Good start!

Larson: The president, as the head of the association, is the key advocate for students at the university. VUWSA itself is the student voice, and that’s built through the association, but the president is the face.

Everybody involved in VUWSA has the same drive to get the best deal for students, but the president should and can hold the core beliefs, and drive home the message that’s built through the whole executive. It’s not like the president is anyone’s boss, but you’re the person that, instead of focussing on specific areas like the other members of the executive, you focus on every area. You don’t just deal with one issue, you deal with all of them. For me, being in the position is having the ability to stand up and say, “this is what I believe in,” not just a couple things, but across the board. And being able to make a difference.

We’ve seen with Rory, through the meme pages and stuff like that, that he’s actually getting out there and people know who he is. His voice is getting out there, and he’s able to speak and people know what his position is and want to listen to what he has to say.

Specifically, though, the person that’s the main face and the advocate for the student voice — who works around the clock.

 

Marlon, how would you describe the role of president to someone who had no idea about VUWSA?

Marlon: Do you mean idealistically?

 

How would you conceptualise the role?

Marlon: I think it’s the person that sits at the heart of VUWSA; I would never say at the top. Someone who is connected with the community and people feel is accessible and open, where people can come and talk to them.

Someone who can bring the team together in a way that they can cross-pollinate and work on different issues and still come across with a single strong student voice. Not just in a university level, but on a Wellington level, and a national level, like we had this year with the We Have Power campaign.

Then there’s the engagement side. For them to be accessible, students need to know who he or she, or they, are. It’s important that the president is getting out there; it’s not just through the meme page but by getting out there and talking to students one on one. Having your door open whenever a student wants to walk in.

 

You’ve both been touching on it, but what does “representation” mean to you?

Larson: To me, if you represent something it’s something you believe in, you stand for, and you’re happy to put yourself on the line for. If someone says, “I heard you said this,” you should be able to say “I one hundred per cent back it, I’m behind it, it’s everything I believe in.”

If I represent VUWSA, it means I believe in everything that VUWSA does, I work hard for everything that VUWSA is doing.

Marlon: As a bottom line, representation is about making sure every single voice is being heard. The key thing to remember when you’re representing people is that people come from different backgrounds from you — people have different ethnic and financial backgrounds, people have different genders.

It’s important to remember that when you’re representing someone you need to be representing their voice, not their voice interpreted through your own. When you break representation down, it’s a concept, it’s about other people’s voices, and you’ll be repeating what they’re saying in the best way you can and doing that with a mandate.

It’s especially important for a couple white dudes like Larson and myself. We need to be aware that when we’re representing people, that their voice is being represented.

Larson: I one hundred per cent agree with that.

 

Marlon, what advantages do you think you have, as a candidate who’s been in the executive this year?

Marlon: Experience is a big one. I know how to work with the university; I know how VUWSA works. I know how to start a campaign, and I think I’m pretty accessible. I’ve really tried to throw myself out there and get involved in every little thing I can because to me it was important, so students feel like they could come onboard the waka that is VUWSA. Those are my strengths — oh, that was a bit cocky, sorry.

 

Larson, your campaign slogan is, alongside the other one which is on your shirt, A Fresh Face For VUWSA. What are the advantages of someone who hasn’t been a part of student politics like Marlon?

Larson: That slogan, if you get the pun — “fresh face” is because I don’t have the moustache. But I say fresh face because it’s known that Marlon has been with VUWSA for a year — so a fresh face is because I’m literally new to VUWSA. But I don’t think that limits at all what I can give to the role.

The advantages of me coming from the outside is that I’m able to critically assess what has been done and what needs to be done in the future. From the outside you can be almost harsh, you can say sure that just didn’t work. I’ve been able to take a different path in terms of understanding the structure of the university and how things work. I can look at VUWSA from an outside perspective, which is what most students have.

Marlon: [Gesturing to Larson’s shirt that reads: No Snakes Just Ladders, his other slogan] I’m not the snake am I?

Larson: No! I said in my speech, that no one likes a snake, and people were like, are you talking about… and I’m like no!

Marlon: It’s a positive campaign!

Larson: If I was going to call someone a snake, I’d call them a snake. But I’m not calling anyone a snake.

Marlon: No Drakes Just Ladders, I just gave you a hashtag.

 

We’ve been approached by Living Wage at Victoria to ask you both whether you would continue to support the living wage, and, if so, what specifically would you do to put pressure on the university to become a living wage employer?

Marlon: I’ve been involved with the Living Wage this year already, campaigning with them, putting on that Living Wage Day, and doing the training. I’m a member of the local board as well — it’s pretty obvious I’m going to continue fighting for a living wage at Victoria.

I think in terms of tangible things that we’re going to be doing; obviously continuing the drip-feeding of the posters and notes and the sort of student interaction that way. But it’s time that we start formalising a student voice on this. The way we’re gonna be doing that is working with other groups in the university. Working with other students’ associations, working with the RA services, the accommodation services, trying to have a formal position, and a formal proposal we can provide for the university in terms of how it can get the living wage.

Larson: Well I’ve heard a lot about it and I’ve spoken to some people. The living wage is over $20 an hour. That’s ridiculous; I don’t know many people who are paid more than $20 an hour. Which is quite literally saying, people aren’t living, because if you’re not on the living wage you’re not able to afford the things that you require every day. So I fully support the movement that’s been happening.

It’s not something that VUWSA or people involved want to happen, it’s something that needs to happen. It’s as simple as that. It’s a necessity.

Essentially, the way that any of this will be formulated, is by meeting and consulting with people. You need a plan for how things could work. If you’re going to criticise how someone’s doing something, you should ideally be able to come to them with, “Hey, you’re doing this kind of wrong, but hey, I’ve got an alternative that if you don’t mind listening to, it might be worth your time, and it’ll be able to improve and help you.”

A lot of work’s been done, but there’s so much more.

[Turns to Marlon] Do you know what VUWSA’s role with Vic Books is, in terms of their—

Marlon: So we’ve got the VUWSA Trust, which appoints the board which runs Vic Books, and they’re in charge of currently trying to make sure that the Vic Books staff get living wage.

Larson: I feel like those are staff that are giving a service to the university every single day—

Marlon: Librarians too—

Larson: Librarians too.

 

When are Vic Books staff likely to get the living wage?

Marlon: That information hasn’t been available to the executive, all I can say is hopefully soon!

Larson: That’s something I’ve heard about, from people who work at Vic Books and are within the business. That’s a big thing.

 

Just to be clear, you’d push to get them on living wage next year, if you were elected as President?

Larson: As soon as possible. Oh that would be the best… I mean, the best outcome would be to get everyone at the university on the living wage.

It’s really cool that VUWSA’s pushing the living wage movement, but you have to start from the ground up. I’m aware that all the exec positions are now—

Marlon: We got minimum wage this year, yes! But the next step is—

Larson: So that’s the thing right, if you start with VUWSA itself and get all the positions living wage, and then pushing to get all the associates, like Vic Books, the living wage, and then being able to say, “Hey university, this is what we’ve done, your turn.”

 

Marlon, for you, with Vic Books and the executive getting them up to the living wage?

Marlon: Well, obviously it’s one of our big missions to get the living wage for the executive. Even though we don’t have a direct line to the management of Vic Books, it seems pretty obvious to me that the president’s voice in the matter would be registered, be listened to some degree, by the board.

I think it’s important to make a quick distinction between the Living Wage Movement, that their main goal is targeting the big institutions and the big businesses that can afford to. Looking at VUWSA, it’s something we’re keen for, but only if we have the cash to do it.

 

In the forum on October 3, something that came up and that both of you address is the topic of mental health. Marlon you’ve released a policy about this: “We’re going to work with Mauri Ora and introduce a new support service, with new part-time trained student staff who can provide online and over the phone support to our students, and also have the ability to distribute notes for extensions without having to have a session with a counsellor. These trained staff will have a role in ensuring that when a student contacts the counselling service, they will hear back.” How do you think this would work? What are some of the practical parts to this policy? What discussions have you had with Mauri Ora or other support services to come up with this policy?

Marlon: There’s been money set aside, through the Students Services Levy, for mental health. We’re always pushing for more funding. The money is there for it to happen.

It’ll be starting with a small team of students. We think it’s important for student trained staff, because a lot of issues that students are coming to the current counselling service with are very student issues: stresses with academic lives, stresses with youth social spheres. To be able to have over-the-phone or online connection, and to talk about those things at the same level, will be extremely beneficial.

A big aspect of it is that these student staff would have the authority to distribute notes for extensions, which would take huge pressure off the counselling services. A lot of the students go to the counselling service so they can talk to counselling, and receive a note for an extension. And now they don’t have to go through this whole process, waiting all that time, to get a note. They can do it almost external to that side of the service. That way, there’ll be more free time for counsellors. Well, it won’t be free for very long, obviously they’ll be filled up with students coming for sessions.

The most important aspect of it is that students would be getting a message back. A lot of students are trying to get in contact with Student Counselling, and they’re not even getting a message back for two and half months or longer… or at all. And that’s unacceptable. It’s really shit, when you need someone to talk to, and you can’t even get a text back. It’s one of the worst feelings.

I’ve run it past Head of Counselling, and he’s keen to sit down and continue talking about it. It’s actually something we can very much do next year.

 

Would it come under VUWSA, or Mauri Ora?

Marlon: It’ll definitely come under Mauri Ora. It’s something which we’d provide guidance on, and help with the publicity, but it’ll be under their umbrella so it’s still a very professional service and method of treatment, for students struggling with mental health

 

Larson, what are the specific things you’d do in regard to mental health? You call for more resources for student health and disability services.

Larson: I’ll start with the disability services. Essentially, there isn’t a Disability Services office at Te Aro campus. I know a couple of people who suffer from a disability at the campus who have voiced the fact that they’ve had to catch a bus, uber, or taxi to Kelburn or Pipitea, just to talk to somebody to get the help they need. Even if it’s just one contact person, one desk and someone mans it for three days out of five. Ideally, you’d have someone working down there. Te Aro campus is often forgotten about.

Also making it more well known. I don’t think many people fully understand what’s available from Disability Services. People think, oh, I must have something permanent. But that’s so incorrect. They’re there to help you with whatever you need, and it’s just a fact of making sure it’s well known among everybody.

With mental health, the biggest thing is education around it. There’s a massive stigma around it, people downplay it a lot.

 

So you see it as VUWSA’s role to provide that education?

Larson: I see VUWSA’s role as education around it, but also advocating and making it the norm that it’s okay that someone can talk about their problems. Currently, if you want to talk to somebody about an issue, you have to go to somebody who’s fully trained and fully qualified and it’s all kind of hush-hush, out of the way, so nobody knows. But a problem shared is a problem halved. The more people that know about your issue, that can support you, would help. So if we can educate and train some staff up, train some students who want to be leaders in that — I really want to set off the movement. That’s one hundred per cent what I’ll be about.

I feel that some people this year lost their faith in the student counselling service and regardless of who’s president or on the executive, it’s the university’s and VUWSA’s job to make people feel they have someone they can talk to.

 

You had the suggestion of having events throughout the year, not just during O-Week, to foster a sense of community. What did you have in mind, specifically?

Larson: The bigger events that gain the most attention for VUWSA are the social events, where people turn up to a concert or a party, but majority of it is around alcohol. The Toga Party is… I’m trying to find the best way to describe it…

Marlon: …a cesspit…

Larson: I was going to say trashy, but hey, we’ll go with that. It’s very centered around alcohol. I know for a fact a lot of first years are 17 so they can’t drink, and some of them go, “I don’t want to go out and socialise where people are all drunk. I’d rather sit down and talk to somebody about a world issue that’s going on, or just associate.”

Beyond O-Week, in the halls we ran arts and crafts.

 

And you think something like that would be a good idea for students?

Larson: Yeah, why not? Open up a big space, even if it’s in the Hub, and say, come down. We’ll provide everything for you — just come, chat with people, and express yourself. Someone else might be walking past and decide to participate, when they see people talking and enjoying themselves. This is an example of something that’s not so expensive to run.

Social isn’t restricted to parties, social is interacting with other people. O-Week is really a first-year event and people beyond look at it and don’t bother with it. I’d love to have similar events, for everybody. The key thing is that people know about them, because if they don’t know about it people won’t be able to turn up.

 

Marlon, what would you do to foster community?

Marlon: Things like an Arts Week that VUWSA puts on throughout the year, already happen. I think the next step there is engaging our community, and making sure students know these things are happening. The way we’d do that is by working with clubs. Clubs already have the hobby sector covered.

What I’ve done at VUWSA was introduce an events calendar, and clubs manual, so [clubs] can get the resources they need, and advertise with us for free on our website and social media. Instead of force building communities, is to build on ones that already exist. Work with these clubs, give them resources, and make sure students are hearing about all the stuff they’re putting on. We don’t want to come in with a one-size-fits-all idea of a VUWSA community.  

 

Larson you talked about sustainability, and the huge amount of waste that VUW produces that could be recycled. At the forum you talked about VUWSA’s role in helping to tackle this, and mentioned volunteers to help with recycling because it costs the university to pay extra cleaners. What specifics were you thinking to make this happen?

Larson: It’s similar, in terms of VUWSA’s role, to the student health umbrella, that would still be run under Mauri Ora [presumably talking about Marlon’s proposal for the counselling service]. VUWSA can advertise and advocate to say this is an issue we can help with, alongside the sustainability office. We can get groups together of people who share the interest of caring about the environment.

I have spoken to one of the people who works with Conscious Consumers — so what they do is partner with business, and they’re able to see what the customers value in terms of… customers that sign up, and say what’s important to them, e.g. get rid of plastic packaging. And businesses can see all the amount of money that’s spent by consumers and what values people have.

As an example, if we have a lot students who don’t want plastic packaging from Maki Mono, we could partner with them and get biodegradable paper plates. Something simple like that; VUWSA could be consulting with people and being the voice. On a ground level, people can be volunteering. You can improve what the Sustainability Office are doing by getting more people involved.

 

Marlon, what should VUWSA do to encourage sustainability at university?

Marlon: I helped set up the Student Volunteer Army this year. The other weekend they had their first event, tree planting in Makara. It was really successful, with over 30 people who turned up. They’re also looking at going around communities, having skip day (so students can come drop their stuff off), and doing rubbish cleanups around Wellington and the university.

One of the first things we really need to do is make sure we have the bins at every campus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a glass bin at VUW. Down at OGB and Pipitea, they only have trash bins, maybe a compost, which is an interesting mix.

Larson: There’s a national standard now of what colour each bin should be.

Marlon: About time!

Larson: You can’t sort glass with aluminum.

Marlon: It’s impossible! It’s mad! Let’s get our basics right. We need a consistent system across all our campuses when it comes to waste.

 

So it’s VUWSA’s job to pressure the university to provide these services?

Marlon: Absolutely.

 

Favourite colours?

Marlon: Green

Larson: That’s so difficult…  I’ll go with burnt orange, or cobalt blue.

Marlon: Oh, I want to switch mine to blue or green… blue-green. Or is that too topical?

Larson: Depends if they’re together or not.

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