Aoife Bennett’s campaign to be the next Welfare and Equality Officer is founded on a wealth of experience. The third-year English Studies student has already served as JCR Welfare Officer and while she is aware that with the step up the college-wide level brings with it “a new range of issues”, she is confident that she can rise to meet them.
On top of her role in JCR, she also has two years’ prior TCDSU experience, sitting on the Welfare and Equality committee. The first of these years was spent as a representative of Trinity Halls, while this year Bennett worked directly with current Welfare and Equality Officer, Chloe Staunton, as Research Officer. She says that this “gave me so much experience for what welfare officers do”, and means she is “familiar with how the union works”.
Bennett’s experience, seeing first-hand the work of past Welfare Officers, coupled with Welfare training has given her “an understanding of how people’s individual needs could be addressed on a college level”, as well as knowing “which services could be improved upon”.
While attention is often given to the campaigns and policies, Bennett does not underestimate the importance of casework in the role, and the importance of “time for one on one, individual support”. An aspect which she stresses is the importance of “signposting”, “having knowledge of the services which you can refer somebody on to, giving people options when they come to you”.
Equality is also an integral part of the role, and one that Bennett is keen to foster through her campaign. Collaboration is something that she emphasises, “to make sure everybody’s voice is being heard”, particularly when considering the differing experiences and backgrounds of students. The Welfare Officer is someone who must “listen to the students and put across their needs and what they want”.
Equality is also reflected in Bennett’s desire for a greater focus on off-campus locations. It is important, she feels, to increase the Union’s presence in locations such as Trinity Halls, D’Olier Street and St. James’s Hospital, through holding more events and campaign weeks in these locations as with on-campus events, “it’s not always feasible for people who are off-campus to get there”. It is very important, Bennett says, that “people are aware of the union and are aware that they can go to the union, that the union works for them as well”.
Bennett’s plans for accommodation also seek to equalise opportunities for students, firstly by lobbying for the reopening of Cunningham House at Trinity Hall, “for it to remain affordable”, and for it to include family unit options. This, she asserts, would be an important step in making accommodation “more financially accessible”, in light of the current housing crisis.
Bennett also identifies Trinity Halls as an important place to increase TCDSU presence, due in part to the high numbers of new students there. She also points out how for new students, “there’s so much information that’s thrown at you and it takes a while for people to find their feet”, meaning students may miss out on learning about the role of the Union. As such, Bennett feels that is important to “promote the union from the outset and explain what they do and that they’re there for you and let people know early what is there for them”.
Sexual health and education are also key to Bennett’s approach to welfare in college. “When people come to college, they come from such different backgrounds, different schools, different education models, so the level of sex ed between people is always very varied”, she says, so starting college is “a really good time to equip people with that knowledge”. Queer sexual education is something that Bennett feels is often left out. She would push for its inclusion in Freshers’ Week, so that everyone can “have the knowledge and feel supported”.
In addition, Bennett would seek to re-establish consent workshops. Such workshops were previously run in Trinity Hall. “They didn’t happen this year due to funding,” says Bennett, “but I really want to make sure that that doesn’t just disappear.” She would also like to see workshops expanded beyond Halls, to include all first-year students. That way, “‘every undergrad year would have some level of consent workshops”. With the running of workshops in Trinity Hall, “while they’re getting a good amount of people, they’re still getting such a small portion of the college community”.
Bennett would also like to see the expansion of the free period product initiative. “It’s great that Trinity are giving us the funding for it, but you’re going to have to keep reapplying for it every year and keep putting pressure on the college to provide it and get more money to expand it.” The lobbying for this as a national policy is a way in which she says the initiative could hopefully be continued long term.
Bennett’s experience in the TCDSU also means she is familiar with the Dignity and Respect policy, a policy in which she says there are “gaps”. For example, she points out the policy’s encouragement of immediate reporting of events. This is not always possible, Bennett attests, “People experience and process things differently. It can take someone a while to come to terms with what happened to them, or to be in a state where they’re able to report it”. The policy, she points out, also lacks a section specifically for sexual assault. “It’s a difficult thing to put in policy but it’s so important that it’s there,” she says, “It needs a more specific section where people can know what to do and report it.”
There is also a need, Bennett finds, to provide Diversity training, something she would aim to do through societies, and in particular society committees. “If they could all be trained, they’re all the people organising events for their societies and they’re the figureheads of their societies, who would be engaging with all the other members.” This she says would mean that societies “run more inclusive events and be more mindful of how they all interact with one another”.
Diversity and inclusion are particularly important right now considering the recent rise in anti-immigration sentiment across the country. This is something that Bennett says the TCDSU must take “a vocal stance against”. She goes on to say, “having the union be visible and showing their support against the anti-immigration sentiment is really important because it reminds people that the union is for everybody”.
“It’s really important that everyone in college feels welcome and included,” she says, and “working with the international part time officer and ethnic minorities part time officer would be a good way to tackle that and make sure everyone feels included in college society.”
It is clear that inclusion and equality are at the heart of Bennett’s policies. This attitude is particularly clear in regard to sexual health and education, ensuring that all students are equipped with the knowledge and support that they need. Her drive for inclusivity is also evident in her desire to make the Union more accessible for all students.
The role of the Welfare and Equality Officer, Bennett says is about “enhancing the individual’s college experience, and on a broader level, events that are run, information that’s given, the sense of community that’s created through the SU”.
“Everybody should be listened to in college, everybody’s part of the union.”