Ethno-Cultural Officer – Candidate Interview

By Alejo Pintos-Lopez

Name, ticket, and Degree? 
Grisha: Grisha Chawla, Unite, B.Arts (Politics and IR, minor in psychology) 

Harrison: Harrison Zheng, Together, 4th Year B.Comm/Law 
Shovan: Shovan Bhattarai, LeftAction, B.Science/Arts 
Have you been part of (or run for) anything student government before, and if so, what were some things you were involved in? If not, have you been involved in other aspects of the student community or organising? 
Grisha: Not been part of SRC before, but in terms of society and other ways I’ve been involved in the community: I was the EDI officer for UNSW Women in Science; I was in the external subcommittee for the careers portfolio for UNSW Women in Consulting, and also on the relations subcommittee for PsychSoc. I’m now coordinator of Volunteers United, after having been a Volunteer Lead for 2 years. I was also a UNSW Wellness Warrior for a year, and I’ve been published in a few student journals before. 
Harrison: Never been involved in anything student gov related before, but I’m currently serving as Co-President of Law Soc, and I’ve previously served as Treasurer of UNSW’s Save The Children Australia society, as well as finance and sponsorship officer of UNSW Illuminate (an AV and engineering society to help set up light-based artistic projects). 

Shovan: I’ve been part of the education collective for a number of years as part of the activist group fighting attacks on education, most recently the ADA restructures set to cut 13 degrees in the ADA faculty down to 5, cut dozens of courses and move lectures to online-only. I was also the SRC Education Officer in 2020, where I organised activism around staff cuts. UNSW sacked more (staff) than any uni in Australia, nominally because of COVID but really it was just to protect their bottom line. Also, (I’m) a committed campaigner outside of campus, taking up the fight around racism, climate change and all other injustices. 
What are the biggest issues facing students in 2022-23? 
Grisha: First of all, obviously the course cuts. They’re cutting so many degrees, courses, and even staff. It really shows that Arts students aren’t really valued. There’s a lot of history and culture around the arts. We need to put out an awareness campaign to warn future students that this is the reality of the situation and we’ll be fighting to change it, but the awareness is important.  

Hybrid learning is also a problem. UNSW Staffing has been cut over the years, and because of COVID and stuff, hybrid learning is a good option for international or rural students or people who otherwise can’t come in, but obviously people need to be able to access in-person learning. Speaking from personal experience as someone with ADHD, I had to drop down to one course a term during lockdown because I just could not focus online. Having the in-person option for every single course, even if it’s just one class stream, is extremely important.  

Not really a UNSW specific issue either, but after COVID people have kind of just moved on, but the aftermath has  just been ignored. Mental illness and trauma as a result has kind of just been ignored. Psychology and Wellness got defunded – it used to be free for any UNSW Student to book an appointment and that’s what the service was meant to be, but now you need a doctor’s referral. That’s a big issue as well. 

Harrison: I think the biggest issue currently is that you have communities coming out of the covid era who are eager to intermingle with other communities but also are still in the COVID-mode bubble. As LawSoc co-president, I’ve seen a desire to intermingle, but people are still reluctant to leave their bubbles. In an ethnocultural context, people are obviously very comfortable with people from their background and obviously that means that there are clashes when people attempt to expand. Obviously, academics as well; international students are going to face huge difficulties re-integrating to in-person learning style, and the social consequences of that as well like reduced free time. 

Shovan: Attacks from uni management, government, and the general state of the world. Right now, UNSW students are facing massive cutbacks to education quality. Uni management are going on a rampage, trying to cut degrees, courses and staff for the sake of their profits, while the government slashes funding and increases fees. Students and working-class people are at the pointy end of a Cost-of-Living crisis. The new Labor Government isn’t doing anything on the abysmal state of welfare to actually give students, jobseekers and pensioners a livable wage; or on the age of independence. Students also are clearly invested in climate change, – we’re set for more bushfires, heatwaves and flooding while Labor commits to opening 114 new coal and gas projects, clearly showing that they’re willing to side with fossil fuel companies over ordinary students concerned about their future. Issues of structural racism, such as police brutality and deaths in custody, also feature prominently alongside attacks on our quality of learning and only left action is willing to do something to fight around these issues. 
Why are you running for ethnocultural officer? 
Grisha: I’m running because I’ve not really seen much cultural awareness on campus outside of Arc stuff. Having ongoing awareness is really important. As a young kid, I didn’t realise, but having moved from India I experienced a lot of racism and that was obviously really awful. When it comes to people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, we have so much diversity at UNSW including from international students, but that diversity doesn’t feel as celebrated as it should be. I know a lot of students at UNSW who have faced disappointment and microaggressions from UNSW with regards to how their culture is celebrated, and I want to help prevent that from happening because it really sucks. I want to make sure every person of colour feels represented at UNSW, and their cultures are celebrated. I want people to be able to celebrate who they are and have that feel okay. 
Harrison: Like a lot of people running for SRC, I share a huge passion for the community which to an extent we all care about, such as student wellbeing. Ethnocultural officer is something I care about as someone with an ethnically diverse background, having faced challenges as a first-generation immigrant, and therefore I have a strong desire to work on solving these problems and removing those barriers. My family faced a lot of natural hardships, which I had to navigate while I was growing up. When I was 6, an old white man actually went up to my father and told him “go back to where you f***ing came from”, and my father needed to ask me to translate that because he couldn’t understand what the man was saying. In high school, I was part of the SRC and cultural diversity committee, and currently at work I’m part of the cultural diversity working group. I’m dedicated to trying to remove some of these barriers and hardships that ethnically diverse people face. 
Shovan: I’m running for Ethnocultural and SRC this year because I’m part of the LeftAction ticket which is committed to taking up the fight around all of the previously mentioned issues. We want a left-wing activist SRC, and the kind of politics that we need to see in the SRC is one that doesn’t cozy up to uni management with closed door management and lobbying. Students have power when we mobilise and get out on the streets, and LeftAction in particular has a history with being effective mobilisers on Black Lives Matter. I’ve been an active part on organising the campaign against black deaths in custody which takes up the issue of the racist Australian state where police are allowed to shoot aboriginal people dead in the street and walk away . In particular, I was a part of protesting the acquittal of Zachary Rolfe, who committed the murder of Kumanjayi Walker. Other left action candidates and I have also been part of organising in the campaign for a free Palestine, against our governments support for the genocidal policies of the Israeli state. This is the kind of political response our SRC should be part of mobilising students for. 
What policies are you running on? 
Grisha: First of all, I want to work with Arc to create financial incentives for club to participate in cultural events and cross-cultural promotion, working closely with the religious and cultural societies to try and help them get events going. Things like ticketing, raffles, and other things that societies use like that I think could use more funding given how many people these societies represent and how important they are. I want to create particular Arc grants for cultural and religious societies, which I think would really help these societies. I want to promote international night markets and culture-fests, those are the really big kinds of cultural events that arc holds that societies participate in, so I want to help those be more successful. I’d also love some live cultural bands to be playing during things like O-Week and Welcome Week. I love Bollywood music that is from my own culture, and Kpop is awesome and has a really big following and appreciation here too; and I’d love to have that present on campus and see that celebrated, particularly when we’re seeing an influx of new students who can see the diversity and the inclusion. I’m also really passionate about, when there’s a cultural event being celebrated, that the people of that culture have creative control. I’m Indian: if someone who wasn’t Indian was in charge of organising an event to celebrate Diwali I would be pretty offended, and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else. People of that culture having the biggest say in how it’s celebrated also just means more authentic events and a better quality of events. 
Harrison: As Ethnocultural Officer, I would have two main focuses. The first is that I want to create a more diverse community – so that means supporting new course options to promote greater cultural understanding, Arabic Studies is a highly requested course opportunity with many students interested. Pushing for things like that would allow people to get in touch with their culture, or other cultures, far more easily. I also want to help cultural clubs by using SRC social media outreach to kind of spotlight clubs, running parallel to existing SpArc efforts. In my experience, int students and ED students don’t know where to go to find clubs that might be supportive communities for them, for example Taiwanese students finding the TSA on campus. It’s important that we help people find the relevant communities and help promote these clubs which have a hard time getting the profile that’s necessary for them to be effective. The second focus is supporting people who identify as ethnically diverse and ensuring their safety and wellbeing. So, for a lot of ethnically and culturally diverse people, and me personally as well, our families require additional sources of income. This means that not everyone can study full-time for all terms, and Transport NSW will cut off your concession opal card the moment you drop to part-time. I’ve actually experienced this, and so I’d want to work with the uni to try and get more flexibility for part-time students who are only taking a term off, particularly around promoting concession opal cards to help people support their families. I also believe that a racial incidents reporting portal, similar to the ones currently existing for bullying or sexual incidents, would be really helpful as well. 
Shovan: LeftAction is running on a policy of having an SRC that takes up an active, organised fight against racism, organising protests in solidarity to fight racial injustice and ending racial violence. The SRC should stridently be an anti-racist voice, committing its resources and capacity to mobilise students to fight for Black Lives Matter, Invasion Day, oppose imperialism and the drive to war and stand up for Palestine. They should stand firm on this stance even when they come under fire from the right and the rich and the powerful, like recent political attacks on campuses around the country on Pro-Palestinian activists for championing this cause.  
What are the key things you’d want to see changed/achieved as a result of those policies? 
Grisha: I want to have had a lot of cultural festivities and celebrations. If you look at Sydney as a whole, Christmas and Chinese New Year, that’s massively celebrated and I’d like to see other celebrations like Diwali have a larger and broader presence, because Diwali doesn’t get much reach outside of Western Sydney. That’s also what I want for UNSW – I want UNSW to be more vibrant and more celebratory that is inclusive and diverse. 
Harrison: I want to see a community where people are actively wanting to learn about people’s cultures and immersing themselves in that, and I want people from diverse backgrounds to feel safe and supported as well. 
Shovan: Throughout history, campuses have been a place and students have been a layer which has been a venue for fighting for progressive causes and against racism. UNSW for example was part of the fight against Apartheid, where students organised against the Springbok (rugby) team alongside militant trade unionists, sawing down rugby posts to prevent them from playing. It’s been students as a layer at the forefront of fighting for civil rights across the world, organising to fight segregation in NSW, and organising against war and imperialism in the Vietnam War. We students forced the hand of the government in actually ending Australia’s involvement in the war – which shows how real change can be made. LeftAction wants students to once again be a fighting activist section of society pushing to make the world a better place. That’s what my ticket is trying to help build at UNSW. In 2019, a LeftAction member was ethnocultural officer during the Christchurch shootings. Immediately, we organised a speak out on campus which drew out dozens of both muslims and supportive allies to rally against rank islamophobic, far-right politics, and that’s the kind of thing we need more of. 

What do you see the role of the SRC as? 
Grisha: I think it’s there to represent the students and their interests to the decision-making authorities in UNSW and Arc as well. It’s meant to fight for student rights and their best interests, and it’s meant to tell those authorities what we actually want on campus. It’s about doing our best to achieve student interests 

Harrison: I think the role of the SRC is to be a voice and funnel for the many issues the student community faces. We’ve got so many issues that we want to focus on and get change on, and I think the SRC is an arm for the student community to attempt that change. The SRC can’t save the world. I’d love to be able to say that it could, but change is slow and small and our power isn’t global, so I think we need to be focused on student issues, and trying to start the conversation on the issues that the student community needs help with and that we can realistically provide. 
Shovan: I think there’s a key debate among the tickets as the SRC’s role, from an advisory body that nudges the powers that be from time to time, to my position where I think that the SRC represents a student body that can mobilise thousands and thousands of students and can use its immense resource to get the word out. Not just another lobbying group or another service provider, but an organising and mobilising body. 

Are you a member of, or affiliated with, any political party or movement? 
Grisha: I’m a member of The Greens.  
Harrison: No Affiliations.  
Shovan: I’m a member of Socialist Alternative, and I’m a socialist because I believe we need a radically alternative version of society. It’s been socialists historically who have been the most effective fighters against all of the horrors capitalism brings on the world. It’s been socialists who have been key to all of the victories that progressive politics has won. And if anyone reading this is serious about fighting for a better world, they should consider joining Socialist Alternative too! 

Why did you choose to run with your SRC ticket? 
Grisha: The biggest reason I chose to run with Unite is that it’s made up of society experience and executive members. We’ve got 4 presidents and 7 executives from memory, so we have first-hand experience dealing with Arc and UNSW in terms of how students are represented through societies. We know what works, what doesn’t, and what can be improved. That’s why I chose to run with Unite, because we have the society experience and a kind of unified worldview from our on-the-ground experience about what we need to fight for. 
Harrison: I chose Together because it has a practical and long term focus, and being a student who’s voted in previous elections I’ve been pleased with how they’ve performed, particularly introducing FlexWeek which was great for me and improving access to recorded online lectures. It has years and years of experience running as a ticket and therefore you have generational experience with student government and student government work. It also means that what predecessors do can, if they’re not fully successful, be continued on because they’ll have gotten a foot in the door and started the conversation. That’s why I was really excited when I was offered to join Together this election. 
Shovan: Left Action is the only ticket this year that’s committed to principled left wing activist approach to the SRC. Our education officer candidate Cherish Kuehlmann has led the fight against ADA restructures all year. We’ve been leafletting, organising, getting the word out, and we’re out here every day (regardless of getting elected) fighting on these questions, not trying to get onto the SRC to stack our resumes for a political future in say, the Labor party in the case of Together. Our approach is to fight for real change and a better world. 

What is your favourite book? 
Grisha: I’m a very big reader so a single answer is hard. I’ll go with two, one because I love children’s books: (JK Rowling) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and another because I love a good murder mystery with a complex female protagonist: The Girl On the Train (Paula Hawkins). 
Harrison: Easy, there’s one I recommend to everyone. Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Written by a Jewish Holocaust Survivor, he writes from a psychologist’s perspective. He provides a lot of interesting insights about his survival and what that survival means. If I had to pick a book that’s changed my life the most, it’s this one. 
Shovan: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel’s The Communist Manifesto, a guide for how to fight for human liberation 

What person do you most admire? Might be a fictional character or a real person… 
Grisha: Mirabelle from Encanto, I loved how that movie explored intergenerational trauma and how that movie explored Latin American culture despite being a children’s movie. Also, I actually kind of look like her despite not being Latin American myself, like we’ve got the same hair and round face. Mehreen Faruqi as well is a Greens NSW Senator and a Pakistani woman who has been fighting for the things that I wanna fight for, and I’m very proud of the fact that there’s someone who looks like me in politics being able to do that, so she’s a real hero to me. She’s also a former UNSW student, she managed to secure free childcare for students who are also mothers, and while that got sadly removed, I think it’s still really cool that she managed to accomplish that and I want to follow in her footsteps and create a similar kind of lasting legacy through SRC. 

Harrison: As a kid, Louis Pasteur. Ironic for a commerce/law student to pick a scientist, but Louis Pasteur was the guy who invented the process of pasteurisation. He was someone who worked his ass off to accomplish that, but this achievement wasn’t something he monetised, he did it without patenting it simply to do it for the good of society. He was born poor, and died poor despite that opportunity to make money, because was more interested in the common good and in saving people. 
Shovan: Rosa Luxemburg, a German revolutionary committed to fighting for the liberation of all, played a leading role in the German Revolution that ended German participation in World War 1. 

Disclaimer: Alejo Pintos-Lopez is a member of the ALP and has attended events hosted by the UNSW Labor Party. 

*Responses have been edited for grammar, brevity and clarity.