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Wednesday, June 22, 2022

“I am the Chair!”: Emergency Union meeting on fashion show devolves into chaos

Cherwell News uncovers the latest internal drama at the Union.

CW: Sexual violence, child abuse, suicide attempt, trauma

Following Thursday’s controversial late-night debate, the Union’s split surrounding Saturday night’s fashion show and its governance has spilled further into the open. 

The fashion show was aimed to host and feature ‘survivors’ of trauma.  Senior Members of Committee, including the Librarian Charlie Mackintosh, called an extraordinary meeting of the standing committee on Saturday afternoon, criticising the way that senior leadership had handled the event. 

Throughout the meeting, there was emotional pushback from the organisers of the event, including the models and designers who were meant to feature at the show.

The current Oxford SU President and Oxford Union Secretary Anvee Bhutani pledged a ‘Survivors Fashion Show’ in her manifesto for the Hilary Term Union elections. 

The event was advertised as a “night to celebrate and empower” survivors of abuse and trauma, with proceeds going to charities which support survivors.

The past week, however, saw extensive criticism of the event, including from WomCam [the SU’s women’s campaign]. Members of Junior Committee, who were assigned to work on the event, expressed their concern about the potentially “triggering” nature of the show.  

In an email exchange the day before this meeting, seen by Cherwell, numerous senior members of the Union raised further concerns about the show. A senior member went as far as to say he “strongly believed” that the event should not go ahead, though it would be “logistically and financially difficult” to cancel it at such short notice, adding that it should be postponed “at a minimum” until sufficient consultation had been held. Other senior members supported his assertion in subsequent emails.

A senior Union member told Cherwell that the show was not discussed at a Monday Standing Committee meeting, which they claimed the President did not attend. Minutes from that meeting are not yet available. 

Saturday’s contentious meeting, which lasted two hours, was attended by numerous members of various Union committees, including President Michael-Akolade Ayodeji, ex-President Adam Roble, SU President and Union Secretary Anvee Bhutani, Returning Officer Chris Collins and a host of other senior members, including Charlie Mackintosh, Naman Gupta, Will Feasey, and Kesaia Toganivalu.

The first object on the agenda was a letter sent by former Treasurer Kesaia Toganivalu, one of the co-founders of ‘Not Here, Not Anymore’. The letter called out the Union’s decision to go ahead with the fashion show despite criticism. 

The letter cited NHNA’s criticism of the show, saying that “the Oxford Union Committee actively propagate a belief that those who come forward about sexual assault are doing so for political gain. In last term’s election on a campaigning level sexual violence was solely spoken about as something people would leverage for political gain”.

The Woman’s Officer, Serene Singh, who has taken a leading role in organising the fashion show then spoke, defended the show by describing its roots as an anti-suicide project. She went on to say that societies which had criticised the show misunderstood the event in its promo posters, but that It Happens Here were ultimately “fully in support.”  

Toganivalu then tried to make a point, but was stopped by Ayodeji. He then stopped Mackintosh from interjecting, saying “I’d like to get as many new points as possible”. Toganivalu would later dispute Singh’s claim that IHH had retrospectively endorsed the fashion show, saying that “it is factually not true.”

A spokesperson for It Happens Here confirmed to Cherwell that it decided not to be involved with the fashion show on Sunday 29th May after discussions with Union organisers. 

Ayodeji would frequently stop other speakers from making “points of order” and other such interruptions. Secretary’s Committee member Rosie Jacobs’ speech about the disregard for the feelings of female Junior Committee member was halted twice by Ayodeji, with Treasurer Gupta eventually asking “Why do you keep interrupting her?”. “I’m the Chair of this meeting”, the President responded.

After this, some of the show’s participants  spoke, describing the empowering effects that performing had had on them. In an emotionally charged moment, multiple committee members spoke about survivorship, and what the theme of the show meant to them.

Bhutani claimed that neither any Junior Members nor any Committee complained to her or asked questions in the three-month period between her election and the event going on. She described this lack of communication as “extremely disrespectful and hurtful.” Mackintosh attempted to reply, but was shut down by Ayodeji, who repeated “I am the chair.” 

The meeting broke into chaos shortly after proceedings restarted at 15:20. Mackintosh attempted  to replace Ayodeji with the Senior Welfare Officer as chair of the discussion. After a brief confusion over whether this was in fact constitutionally possible, the members of the Standing Committee present took a vote. 

Hegde, Mackintosh, Naman Gupta, Spencer Shia, and Matthew Dick voted to replace Ayodeji, whereas ex-president Adam Roble, Alex Garcia, Israr Khan, Bhutani, and Joshua Chima voted against. As a result of the draw, Ayodeji remained chair.

Bhutani read a statement from a junior committee member that had been sent to her in support of the fashion show. The Junior Committee member said that the way that It Happens Here had handled the situation was “awful”. If people were upset, she argued, they should have raised concerns earlier.

Anvee Bhutani told Cherwell that she was “ashamed and embarrassed” to be on the same governing body as three other individuals who called the meeting: “By calling this meeting, [they] gave the models a terribly disgraceful welcome and then forced them to recount and relive their trauma, from being abused as a child to having survived a suicide attempt, at the meeting table. Given that this was personally distressful for me, I can’t imagine how much worse this would have been for the models.”

Nearly two hours in, ex-president Adam Roble attempted to end the meeting. Ayodeji said he was “not inclined to let this meeting run much longer”, extending it by five minutes with many members still waiting to speak. Throughout the meeting, he said that he did not want the meeting to go on for too long, citing concerns about whether attendees would be “triggered” by the discussion.

The final intervention of the afternoon was by a female member of the Junior Appointed Committee. She described the meeting’s proceedings as “extremely disrespectful”, criticising the perceived silencing of junior members speaking out during the meeting. She said that senior leadership had “pit [sexual violence survivors] against other survivors”. 

She continued that the meeting had demonstrated that the Union was “not an encouraging environment for female members of [the] Committee to come forward”.

Her speech was met by a round of applause, including by Bhutani and Ayodeji.

A senior member told Cherwell that the chairmanship of the meeting was ‘abysmal’. They added: “A meeting which was called to discuss governance, and ensuring safeguarding and wellbeing in the Union, never touched on those topics.” 

Anvee Bhutani told Cherwell that the concerns raised by those who called the meeting “seemed like performative solidarity”. She added that the models said they “had never felt more safe or loved”.

Though “there were concerns raised about the event happening at the Union given [its] history”, “one of the key organisers of the event and a senior member of the committee was sexually harassed at the Union itself several times and this is their way of reclaiming this space,” Bhutani emphasised.

She concluded: “On the whole, it was evident that those who were against this show previously had a complete misunderstanding of what the show stood for. I honestly found it appalling that governing body members would think this is an appropriate item to table for discussion in this way and I think them trying to demean all those involved in making this event possible is absolutely vile. I seriously hope they take the time to reflect on their actions and the impact it had on everyone today.”

Michael-Akolade Ayodeji and other senior Union figures have been approached for comment. The article will be updated to reflect their responses.

This article was updated at 15:23 to include Anvee Bhutani’s statements.

Sexual Violence Resources

University of Oxford 

Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service

Oxford against Sexual Violence campaign for students. 

Oxford University Counselling Service – 

[email protected]   01865 270300

Oxfordshire and United Kingdom 

https://www.osarcc.org.uk/

The Samaritans (open 24/7)   [email protected]   116123

Revenge Porn Helpline 

It Happens Here:

Join us at It Happens Here if you need support or want to learn more about what you can do to help the cause.

We run weekly wellbeing sessions for survivors and their allies (Safe Spaces project), which you can sign up for here

 If you have been affected by any of what has been raised in this article, please consult https://www.ithappenshere.co.uk/ where you can find a list of resources, ranging all the way from college level based support to national support services. We also have a short quiz you can take to signpost you to the most useful support service.

Image Credit: Topper the Wombat/ CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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