For many students returning to in-person learning, campus organizing can be the perfect place to find the community they missed out on during virtual learning. But what if you have the interest, and lack the experience? We asked Mohammad Ali Aumeer, who has been working with student groups and unions for more than fifteen years, how organizing on campus has been affected by the pandemic. He admits that COVID has brought challenges to student organizing that no one could have foreseen. But the same desire to make change is there - it’s just a matter of providing new student with the tools and knowledge they need to build up their power.
Mohammad works as the coordinator of advocacy and political action at URSU - the University of Regina’s student union, which partnered with ICL in February 2022 to offer a month-long community organizing training for new student activists. URSU is the university's largest student organization with more than 16,000 members. Student unions exist to support and advocate for students, but Mohammad also argues that a good union should enable students to fight for their needs themselves and step into their own power.
“There’s a huge appetite for organizing among students at a post-secondary level,” Mohammad says. “I think it is important for the student union to actually engage with their work, which really means making space for students to do the work themselves.”
URSU is running three different campaigns concurrently - Freeze the Fees, a campaign to lower student tuition fees; The Student Legal Advocacy Centre referendum, a campaign to create a free student legal centre on campus; and The Saskatchewan Provincial Student’s Union - a campaign to create a province-wide student advocacy organization in Saskatchewan. And they’re doing all this while welcoming in new staff members, volunteers, and adjusting to the return to campus. “It involves a lot of prep work like getting our online and in-person presence ready, but it also involves recruiting the students who were emboldened by the first campaign, then training them and instilling confidence in them,” Mohammad explains. “That’s really going to be the focus of our next ICL training. We’re trying to give them confidence and give them actual skills training.”
For Mohammad and his team, the trainings with ICL are really to help the new student recruits find their own power and confidence, as well as supplying them with practical leadership skills. So many young folks, especially during the pandemic, can feel as though their voice holds no power at all. The training with ICL helped them to realize this isn’t the case. “I think a lot of students really took to heart that they can be the change,” Mohammad says. “Anyone doing the work really is a leader… I could really see folks reacting to that.”
The pandemic continues to present many challenges for student organizations, but the spirit of new and returning students is inspiring. For Mohammad, so much of creating and maintaining a good student union is placing the emphasis on the students: taking the time to ask them what kind of work they’d like to do, rather than just placing them in any random role. “That way, we can have really strong facilitators focused on getting inside why folks are inspired to do this and what they’re inspired to do, instead of just finding bodies to do the work.”
Mohammad seems to have a natural talent for connecting with young people - sometimes in more creative ways than others. In fact, his current career as a “socialist hip hop” artist actually stemmed from his desire to attract more young people to the anti-war movement. “I’d been rapping for years but never really taken it seriously, so I thought I’d record an album,” he explains. “The goal was to connect with young folks.”
He took the album on tour to post-secondary campuses across Canada. At university pubs, he would bring in veterans to speak about their experience before performing his set. And every time, without fail, these crowded, rowdy university pubs would fall silent while listening to the veteran’s story. It was a powerful and effective way of raising both money and awareness among young people.
Since then, Mohammad’s musical reach has only grown. He’s surprised to see just what an impact his songs have had. “I run into people so often who say, ‘I saw your video in class when I was a student.’ Or a professor will tell me, ‘I use your music video in my course,’” Mohammad muses. “It’s very interesting to see how many people not only consume it for the art, but use it as a formal education tool.”
Music video for Mohammad Ali’s song, “Precarious Work”
Mohammad’s music seems to be reaching far younger audiences, too. He tells me his seven-year-old daughter has been dancing and performing with him on stage since she was three. “We’ll show up to a rally and the organizers will recognize her and be like, does she need a microphone too?” he laughs. “It’s amazing. My daughter gets to have this kind of support that I didn’t have growing up.”
Managing life as an organizer, rapper, and father of Canada’s next upcoming popstar surely can’t be easy, but Mohammad recognizes the importance of staying flexible in times like these. For him, it’s all about maintaining momentum, confidence, and passion for the cause. It’ll take time to build up strong student unions and bring about awareness. But Mohammad is certain that if they keep up the work, it’ll happen. We are too.
Mohammed’s latest album, Labour of Love, is out now. You can follow him on Twitter @SocialistHipHop