It is commonly said that Quest is a student-run institution, and this is especially true in the events we run. Last Spring we heard with Rowan Thillaye-Kerr about her role in putting on the annual Power, Race, and Privilege Symposium.
What made you want to organize this event? / How did you come to take responsibility for making this event happen?
I was involved in the organisation of several school conferences before I came to Quest. The process of organisation and the formats were different from what we tend to see here—it was secondary school, so there was a lot more involvement from teachers and much less dependence on students, and attendance was mandatory for students. It was a fairly disheartening experience. Students didn’t really seem to want to go, and even as an organiser, I felt that most of the sessions I attended weren’t very impactful. They left no lasting impression. When I attended the Power, Race, and Privilege Symposium in my first year at Quest it was a completely different experience. The audience had energy and were there of their own accord. For my part, the keynote that year, delivered by Dr. Taiaiake Alfred, dramatically changed the way I think about decolonisation and reconciliation. I still think about his speech a lot two years on, and I continually refer to it in conversation. The point is that my first experience of PRPS proved to me that it was an event with the capacity to actually change thinking and that the Quest and Squamish communities appeared to legitimately value, unlike previous school conferences I’d attended. It wasn’t a superficial event designed to associate Quest with diversity buzzwords but had legitimate influence on attendees, and that was something I really wanted to support. Given that PRPS is an event created by students, one of the best ways to support it is to become an organiser. Events at Quest don’t magically materialise and we can’t assume they will continue on year to year—every year legacy events (and organisations, like The Mark) depend on students coming forward to make sure they happen. I joined the PRPS organisers in my second year in the hopes of learning enough from them to support and advocate for the event in future years. By this school year, the majority of past organisers had graduated, and there were only a small number of us left who’d been involved in organising previous iterations of the symposium, so it just seemed to make sense for us to carry on the responsibility.
Why do you think events like this are important?
PRPS has historically been the only day specifically dedicated to frank discussion of race and privilege on this campus. I hope we can all agree it’s not enough. However, the fact that PRPS has grown into a legacy event that has a presence on campus makes it an increasingly visible platform where students, faculty, and other activists/scholars can voice their experiences and share their knowledge. I think Quest probably does a better job than a lot of institutions at integrating concepts of inequality, privilege, and oppression into its courses, but this is still only a starting point (and it’s done to varying degrees of success). Events like PRPS are crucial in trying to expand on students' existing knowledge in a more nuanced way, as well as exposing attendees to honest and open discussion of oppression and discrimination in a way that might be lacking in or absent from daily life. Of course, with the current format of the event, we are only able to cover a very small number of topics each year, so the next step is to figure out how best to create a format where this discourse can continue throughout the year on a community-wide scale. Right now, although this is an incredibly important event, I think there’s too much pressure on the one PRPS day to effectively ‘cover off’ these topics. This is already beginning to change with other events intentionally bringing in themes of oppression and resistance into their programs, so hopefully, with concerted effort, the tenets of PRPS can outgrow the event and develop into more of a movement on campus.
I also think large-scale events in general are a good way to demonstrate what undergraduates can do, both to ourselves and to the administration. It may sound a little sentimental, but legacy events seem to me to contribute to a sense of what it means to be a student here by sending a message about what we value, and where we choose to put our energy.
Do you think that there is something that all (Quest) event organisers have in common?
Based on what I’ve observed, I’d say tenacity and resourcefulness are pretty necessary traits for event organisers at Quest. Although in my experience events are well supported by QUSA and by members of Quest’s administration, you’re still working with many limitations, financial or otherwise, and you’ve got to find alternate ways of doing things under less than ideal circumstances without compromising the integrity of your event. I imagine this is probably the case no matter what, but there are some unique difficulties that arise from the Quest context.
I also think the ability to survive high stress is probably common to most event organisers. In the case of QUSA-funded events, like PRPS, organisers have to be aware of the stakeholders, and that’s partially what I mean about the stress of assuming responsibility for an event. You’re trying to make something from money that students have invested through their student fees, and in some cases that investment results in a real financial burden for those students. So what is done with that money is not to be taken lightly. Beyond the stress arising from the practicalities of organising an event, you also have to be able to handle the fact the criticisms of the event are going to come down on you, whether or not you had control over them.
On a different note, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about who is assuming the responsibility for event organisation on campus. I mentioned already that events don’t just materialise—a lot of ‘invisible’ work goes into them, and that requires people to put in that work. There was a major gender imbalance on the PRPS core team this year (as there has been in other years)—it was composed almost entirely of women, many of whom were POC. I’m not equipped to make a meaningful commentary on this at this point, but I wanted to mention it and to say that it’s worth looking at across all events. I’m not saying Quest organisers are defined by a demographic, but rather that there may be trends which indicate that there are groups we are unfairly depending on to make events happen.
What do you think is the responsibility of students is in having successful events?
Students at Quest play a huge role in making events happen. I’ve encountered some mixed feelings (and had a few myself) about this, namely whether responsibility for certain events should fall to Quest or to its students. I can’t really say what the balance should be. I can say that working on PRPS the past two years, I haven’t ever felt like the event was co-opted or made into something I didn’t think it should be, and I think that’s largely because, as students, we’ve been in control of the event and have shaped it as we saw fit. That said, I do wonder if the tendency to take events for granted, which has been highlighted by the apparent decline in student engagement, is common to the administration as well as the student body.
That’s on the planning side. The other side of it is that whether or not students show up to the event seriously sways its success. I suppose that can turn into a kind of ‘if a tree falls in the forest…’ argument, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that an event’s success is partially contingent on whether it reaches people in a meaningful way. There have been a lot of rumblings about declining student engagement, which is measured to some degree by the number of students that show up to events, big and small. As a student body, I do think we have a collective responsibility to contribute to the success of events through attendance. I can’t emphasise enough that even if you are not part of the organisation of an event, showing up when you can is a hugely important contribution.
*Part of this interview originally appeared in a Spring 2019 article for The Mark