From a basement on a hill

Student advocacy won’t only change you for the better, but that’s OK

I’m never going to know you now, but I’m going to love you anyhow,” sings Elliott Smith

I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect leader. If there is, its definition eludes me and certainly excludes me. If there is, there shouldn’t be. What will always exist is room for improvement for those strong enough to seek it. Or, as my late grandfather said, “When you duff your drive or make a mistake, life is giving you all the more opportunity for a better second shot.”

Near the end of my first term as UMSU president and after my second election, I went to see a counsellor. My mental health was at an all-time low and I was falling into deeply unhealthy coping habits, something I thought I had previously escaped. I wasn’t sure whether I was looking for therapy, medication or someone to vent to, but I knew something had to change if I was going to survive, let alone be the type of leader I thought I could be or that students deserved.

By the end of the meeting, I was told by the counsellor that I likely just wasn’t cut out to be in a high-stress job and I should consider leaving my post.

I was at a crossroads and did not see any options. In reality, no amount of public pressure I thought I faced measured up to the amount of pressure I put on myself.

Most people care about you far less than you think they do: a truth that ranges between comforting and deeply shattering but is nevertheless accurate. Nonetheless, I felt at that time leaving my job was less of an option than just about anything else. I walked home that day from the university (well over a two-hour walk) and strongly considered just continuing to walk. Anything to escape the pressure others put on me, that I put on myself.

The version of myself I presented and the version inside my head could not have been further apart. I had positioned myself on the mountain I’d always wished to climb, but internally I was beneath the floor.

Luckily, I did not keep walking. I discussed my situation with my teammates, who are among the most supportive people in my life.

And over the past while, I slowly realized the person I am is much more suited to be in the job I hold than the person I wished I was or tried to present.

There are many attributes to being a good leader: intelligence, public speaking, confidence — many of which may compose that elusive definition of perfection. But I think the most important quality is empathy.

I spent so much of my climb to the top of the hill trying to convince everyone around me — most of all, myself — I had it all figured out that I quite actively shut off the empathetic lever inside me. It was hard to embrace the hardships of others without confronting the reality of my own demons.

While I knew doing this would make me less happy — and potentially make me less loving of a person — I felt it was all worth it if it made me a better leader.

A stronger leader. If I’d seen a better counsellor that day, they probably would have illuminated me to the bullshit I had been spewing.

Sadly, that bullshit — masquerading itself as a concocted raison d’être of the tortured genius — hurt many people around me, in addition to myself. I often found purpose in vengeance, happiness — albeit fleeting — in attainment and weakness in vulnerability. It’s a societal ethos that’s deeply problematic, and I am one of many that have fallen into that trap.

Quite unexpectedly, as I became more comfortable and open with my flaws, blind spots and weaknesses, I became a much stronger leader. Make no mistake, I am extremely proud of some of the accomplishments of my team and I in our first term. But above our advocacy wins, what I tried to treasure most in my second term were my opportunities to connect with and impact people — at times those closest to me, and at times total strangers. We could always do better, but I truly think we succeeded at that.

To those that want to go into advocacy work one day — student or otherwise — and don’t have all their shit together yet, I say there is no time like the present. Just don’t assume your new title will vanish your insecurities. Nor should it.

We need those who speak for us to speak with us and to understand us. No person can resonate with all the challenges of the people they represent. But I do believe that acknowledging your own hardships — and admitting what you don’t and can’t know — is the best start in finding out.

I chose the title for my article not just because Elliott Smith is my favourite artist, but because the phrase which entitles his posthumous album serves as an enduring reminder that often those we view as atop the hill may experience an extremely different reality. We ought to treat our leaders with the same type of empathy we demand from them.

As I move into a new chapter, I hope I can keep my head levelled, embarking on a new hill to climb. And I am even more excited about what’s next for UMSU and our entire new generation of student leaders.

To all of them: I promise you that you are much stronger and more capable than you could possibly imagine, and that you’ll likely find that strength in the areas you look to least often.

I used to view my life as linear. I had overcome a childhood of repeated bullying, a high school experience often spent eating lunches in the washroom, crippling social anxiety and substance abuse to become an elected leader.

I remain proud of these accomplishments, but that’s no longer the end of my story. Life is never that linear.

While this leg of my journey has changed me in many ways for the better, in some ways it brought out the worst. And that’s OK.

To those who showed me love at my worst, criticized me at my best and directed my journey in any possible way: I thank you, I will miss you and I am grateful for you.

Marsee. Ekosani. Kinanaskomitin.

Acknowledging our weaknesses gives us strength. Most importantly, it gives us plenty of company.