Marina Gerges rolls her eyes at promises of transparency and accountability. Not because she doesn’t believe they’re important, but because she rarely believes the people promising them. Last week, Gerges won the Ryerson Students’ Union’s (RSU) presidential election as an independent candidate – a victory she says signifies that students are ready for serious change.
Gerges says she’s analyzed at least four years’ worth of similar election campaigns and once at the helm of Ryerson’s main student resource, she plans to finally deliver the elusive promise of transparency in the best way she can.
“People are realizing how much they need the RSU. I’m going to build my relationship with the students and I’m not going to hide,” said Gerges.
Before she assumes the role of RSU president in May, she’s covering all her bases. This includes studying the playbooks of her predecessors, to doing things she says she believes the RSU hasn’t done in a while, like connecting with the students it serves.
The RSU is undoubtedly having an identity crisis. From quietly shutting down student services like CopyRITE and offering discounts at one single Popeye’s location in Whitby, the union has fallen victim to critiques that its leadership is self-serving and has strayed further away from being a representative of student voices.
The union routinely sees students running under slates and winning a majority of the positions each year. The union does not usually see what happened on Feb. 4, when 10 out of 12 independent candidates were voted into executive and faculty director positions. To Gerges, it confirms what many students want, a fresh take on a decades-old institution like the RSU.
“People want independent perspectives,” says Gerges, “I knew we were doing something right and I knew people were listening, whether or not they agreed with me.”
Gerges was so sure students wanted a change of this magnitude that being accepted into Ryerson’s biomedical engineering program three years ago was more of a surprise to her than the election results.
In the past, independent candidates have never been popular with the small number of RSU voters. Last year, no independent candidate ran for election. In 2020, only one candidate did and ultimately lost, making Gerges’ over 800-vote margin of victory a remarkable achievement. Gerges believes in the long run this won’t be an exception, but the new standard.
“A lot more people are going to be confident about running and get excited about the RSU,” she said. “We’re going to get used to independence from now on.”
As much as she stayed clear of slates during her campaign, Gerges’ executive team will include candidates who ran with the ‘Revolution’ slate. Gerges promises to embrace the differences, with a focus on building – rather than burning – bridges.
“I’m going to assume they have student interests as their priorities and like it or not, this is the team now,” she said.
Gerges is not the political diplomat that is well-rehearsed, one that navigates the conversation with precise details or even one that understands the full scope of the union she’ll assume command of. Instead, she’s confident in what she knows and is actively making notes of what she doesn’t.
She is open about the fact that she is an outsider to the world of student politics. Gerges admits that what she lacks in being well-spoken, she makes up for in being well-read – she has nose-dived into readings since submitting her nomination. Gerges is analyzing the rationales of everyone from Catherine the Great, who she studied in detail as a history student at Queen’s, to past RSU presidents.
She mentions that The Eyeopener’s 1999 opinion piece about David Steele, former RSU president (then known as RyeSAC), titled ‘Man of Steele,’ stood out to her. Gerges says she’s interested in restoring the RSU to a time where elected officials weren’t afraid to be down to earth and simultaneously held to a high standard. She admires the feats of Steele, not in terms of any specific policy, but overall impact. Gerges says she was impressed by his ability to be an everyman, putting in the work to such a degree that the ones responsible for fact checking his every word threw in the white flag.
Gerges was one of many candidates who didn’t show up to the election debate. Unlike others who said the debate time was inconvenient, she opted not to go, in order to better prioritize the short campaigning window. Gerges says her decision was largely informed by the idea that the debate was not working in favour of the students and should not be hosted by the chief returning officer.
“Am I going to take time to go to this debate full of other candidates or can I make myself available to all these other students who have questions for me, where we can actually talk about issues they want to know about?” said Gerges.
On her own campaign promises, Gerges says she plans to start from the ground up. As the return to campus is underway, she wants to take to the pavement of Gould Street, engage with students and ask about their unfiltered opinions of the RSU. On her list of priorities, she has financial transparency at the top.
“There will be no audit report that won’t be accounted for, no monthly report going missing and no meeting minutes unaccounted for,” she said.
Rarely is an elected official excited to be held accountable, but as an outsider, Gerges says she’s excited about this part of the job too, promising to set up her Instagram account to reflect the daily affairs of the RSU.
“If you’re doing a good job, why would you want to hide it?” Gerges said. “I want to show students what we’re working on and what obstacles we’re facing.”
At least for now, Gerges doesn’t follow the normal political routine. Gerges responds to questions as a candidate confident in her know-why and not her know-how. When asked about being as transparent as possible, she responds asking, “why wouldn’t I be?”