OMAR SIRRI: ON BOARD TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
It started from looking at the Terry website. Reading a description of the speakers’ series, I stumbled upon the following words… “We feel that there is a lot of value in bringing in individuals, who are not only experts in their chosen field (where the chosen field has wide ranging effects on all of humanity), but are also individuals who have the ability to inspire action and/or critical thinking through their educational message.” Which got me thinking, there are loads of energizing, exciting and interesting people committed to making the world (whether that’s UBC or otherwise) a better place right here on campus, but due to its size, it is difficult to get to know these people well.
Difficult, but not impossible, and over the next few months, this online series will present a chance to meet some incredibly cool people right here at UBC. Folks who are “inspiring action and critical thinking” in their own unique way.
The most exciting part is deciding on whom I would want to chat with first. I decided to contact Omar Sirri, a member of the Board of Governors, co-President of the Political Science Student Association, and Arts County Fair Director of Finance. I recognized him from his campus involvement, and gave him a ring in the hopes he had some time for a short chat with Terry. He does, and perhaps because we meet immediately after I read Max Weber’s piece “Politics as a Vocation”, throughout our conversation I am reminded of Weber’s criterion to enter politics: passion, a sense of responsibility and keen judgment.
Omar seems to match the Weberian criteria quite well, and is certainly someone who cares, and is curious about the world around him. Not simply about the big stuff, like students knowing about the issues, or administrators understanding the student perspective, but small things as well. He looks slightly agitated after noticing how I treat my macbook for instance, and gives me careful advice about how to make sure it lasts a long time. Advice noted, I settle down and ask my first question: Why political science, and why UBC?
“Being involved in student council during high school definitely led me in this direction. I knew UBC had a great program, and was a great school, though I didn’t realize that the Middle East, my particular interest, wasn’t covered here. Near the end of second year, I considered transferring schools, but then during that whole debate, I became VP External of the AUS”.
The rest is history, and while he describes his current Board of Governor experience as being “his favourite UBC experience to date” (alongside 2 years at Totem), I’m curious what made him decide to get involved in the Board in the first place. Running for office after all, is not the first thought that springs to mind to most students during the mid-November exam crunch.
But it seems it wasn’t a difficult choice in his case. “I think the most interesting thing for me was the ability to work with the university. With being the key word there. A lot of people find it prudent to work against “the system”, or “the man” if you will, to get things done, but I’ve never really subscribed to that philosophy. I wanted to think that if you want to bring about change, you can do it from the inside. You don’t necessarily infiltrate, but you get involved. You learn from others, you understand how the process works, and you understand how the diplomacy of getting things done functions. Then, in understanding the process, you take what you believe the important issues are, and shift the discourse in that direction.
What about the fact that there are only three students on the board? Can students still get things done?
“I see our role more as one of input than bringing about change- we’re there to provide input and provide the student lens,” Sirri says, adding that “when views are presented in a way that is combative and disrespectful to the same people who fundamentally agree with students, then discussions don’t go anywhere – your input isn’t heard, and your consultations with people who make decisions won’t have the same impact”.
Not all students are actively involved in making their voice heard though, Sirri noted, pointing out “there is low voter turnout at elections, and apathy is generally a lot higher at university than in society at large”.
In fact, his own election campaign occurred at the same time as the federal election, and reflected that idea. “I said that this election is more important, and I believe that. I think some of the decisions that the university undertakes impact students more fundamentally, and directly impact students more than the actions of the federal and provincial government do. I think students don’t really draw that connection though, the connection between their direct daily interests and the pursuits of the university”.
Voter turnout was low, but we also spoke about areas where large-scale student activism is quite prevalent. In September 2006 for instance, hundreds of students came out in support of the UBC Farm, at an event called Farm Aid 2006. Omar attended as well, and had some interesting thoughts about what gets issues noticed.
“In terms of what gets an issue noticed, I think it’s a matter of who is involved in promoting an issue. During the election, (me and a few students) made it an issue that in UBC’s Official Community Plan, that is provided between UBC and the GVRD, the UBC Farm falls into what is called future housing reserves. That sounds kind of shady, but what that means is that by 2012, the university can legally turn the farm into condos, or whatever else they choose. Which they may or may not do, but it’s a prime piece of property, so who knows. In terms of student involvement in the Farm, I think that’s happened due to certain people really pushing it during the election and keeping it as an issue, more than I was able to do. With the right people I think you can really do anything, and can make any issue big enough.”
If he sees student apathy as a problem though, Omar is also quick to point out that there are things that UBC can do to foster a feeling of connectedness with the campus as well. “I would love for the campus to be bit more conducive to consistency, in terms of appearance of buildings, how they work, and the quality of them. I think cohesiveness builds a cohesive community, and when that cohesiveness is lacking, you see that sense of community that every university needs is lacking as well. Especially a big university like UBC with 40,000 people, if you walk around campus now there is no cohesiveness at all, and I think it’s important to bring the academic experience and students together. Also, I think there is a real lack of information across the board on issues such as tuition, campus development, how UBC is able to function as a public university while balancing its public and private responsibilities. And to understand broader issues of post-secondary education in terms of the federal and provincial government and how that relates to UBC, students need more information about how the university works.”
Hearing about UBC’s special status reminds me just how much the university is a world of its own, and we cross past UBC gates with the question: are the same situations that plague UBC to be societal problems, and the solutions to be similar as well?
He confirms my initial thoughts. “Yeah, I think terms of understanding health care works, or general education, people aren’t that informed, and only see narrow aspects of certain arguments. Creating greater awareness is possible, but again you need the right people to push the issues, like at the Live Eight concerts that happened a year and a half ago. Though it became more of a glamour thing to wear the white band than an actual statement, all of a sudden it became a real issue, and it was discussed at the G8 summit that year! So to me, a demonstration of people using their positions whatever they may be, to advance the issues is important. I think government has that responsibility, and for instance, if they chose to treat global warming as the serious issue that it is, they could bring about real change. But there are other factors at play, like lobby groups. Which again, falls under the realm of whose pushing what…”
So what keeps him so involved in campus life?
“I make this more of my life than perhaps others do, because I find this stuff interesting. The stuff the university does intrigues me. For instance the university has a special status within the GVRD, that makes it kind of like the Vatican in a sense, and that’s intriguing to me. That intrigues me as a resident of Vancouver and it intrigues me as a student of political science.”
A sense of objectivity is something I get the feeling is very important as the interview progresses. He stresses it many times during our chat, and when he mentions a summer class he took on terrorism that was one of his highlights of university, I can’t resist asking how he copes with people who are particularly phobic of the Middle East.
“I guess you have to put it in context, and see where they are coming from and why they are saying what they are saying. The Iraq invasion is an example. You can take the issues, WMD, dictatorship, democracy, liberty, and all that stuff, and then also look at the other side, which is what about the people that will be impacted, the collateral damage..etc. For me, why you stay objective, and take emotion out of it, is that you’re not going to get anywhere with that person if all you can say is well, “my family is there, and they’re going to get killed”. You need to make it more about the facts, look at what is happening in terms of the relevant issues, and you need to be able to see the whole picture beyond yourself”.
I’m not sure I’m totally satisfied with the answer. How does one compartmentalize and not get emotional when things get closer to home? While admitting that it’s an “inner struggle”, Omar is quick to add that he doesn’t see it a question of how, but why. “For me the why, is that everyone has different views on every issue. There are always two sides to every coin, and you need to recognize that to get anywhere in any kind of respectful dialogue. Plus, we are also in an academic setting, and this is where the academic dialogues happen, this is where they should be happening, and we need to be able to look at issues critically here. If the important issues can’t be talked about openly in the university setting, where can they be?”
His response makes me think again of Weber, and his emphasis on the importance of reflecting upon things with “inner calm and composure before allowing them to affect one’s actions”. Feeling more settled, I turn to what he finds inspiring, his favourite books, and how he sees his perfect day unfolding.
In terms of favourite reads, books within the genre of international politics are what you’re most likely to find him reading. Hesitant to name particular books because “there are a lot of good books and authors”, he did share a few favourites though, and what he finds particularly compelling about their work.
“Bob Woodward, who has written three books on the Bush administration and the war of terror, has very interesting stuff. Also Tom Friedman, I find good. And of course, Noam Chomsky is an obvious name, and putting his political views aside, it’s his information base that is most intriguing to me. Views aside, he says that here are the facts I’ve dug up that people don’t know, and I’m presenting this information to you now, and you can now do what you will with it. And that’s the most important thing, because he’s not providing a theoretical perspective, he has concrete facts and basing his stance on that. Which of course you can interpret as you may, but at least they are there. To be objective, is something I really believe in, because you need to be able to talk about the facts and be able to see the other side, to truly understand an issue in a deeper sense beyond the attachment you have to it.”
This sense of objectivity he admires in others as well, and he spoke warmly about his family first and foremost being really important to becoming the person he is today. “Fundamentally, I’ve learnt a lot from my parents and family, and they’ve shaped who I am today, there’s no doubt about that. My parents worked really hard at my age, and are definitely incredibly important to me, they instilled their work ethic in me. More generally though, I admire people who can look at things more holistically. Everything we’ve been talking about, I would admire in someone else. You will always take a position on an issue of course, but the important thing is to be respectful of the other side and understand that perspective, and be able to engage with that viewpoint. Otherwise your understanding will be superficial. I admire people who can analyse the issue, and be impartial. And of course, integrity, honesty, those are critical things too”.
Our time is almost up as he has another meeting to attend, so I end with one last question: What if he had one day to do as he pleased, what would that day look like?
He stops for a moment to weigh the possibilities before responding. “Without classes, perfect day would be a nice sunny day downtown, maybe take a bike ride near the water, spend time in the city, and walk down Robson and feel that life. You know, like right now it’s cold, but it’s beautiful, people are enjoying the atmosphere and the city is out, and I love the city life. But if I could include extra curricular stuff, my perfect day would include a couple of good classes where I have an engaging discussion about international issues, followed by a couple of meetings, where I learn about the university and feel that my input being heard and evaluated, and taken into consideration in a respectful way”.