By Neale McDevitt
By the time Josh Redel was elected President of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) this past March he was a seasoned warhorse by student politics standards. “I’ve done a few things since coming to the University,” he says with a smile. “And that’s good because I think it has prepared me for the coming year.”
Entering his second year as a software engineering undergrad in 2008, the Calgary native began volunteering for the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS). He liked what he saw and, in 2010, he ran for and was elected VP Communications of the EUS.
That same year, Redel founded Queer Engineer, an organization that serves as a “safe space” for gay engineering students to hang out and socialize. He still serves as co-director today.
Stereotypes would lead people to believe that starting an openly queer organization in a faculty like Engineering, traditionally seen as a veritable Old Boys club, would have made Redel an outcast. The happy ending to that story is quite to the contrary, however, as in 2011, Redel’s fellow Engineering students elected him President of the EUS.
Not easily deterred
When Maggie Knight, then President of SSMU, approached Redel early this year to ask him to consider running for her position when her term came to an end at the end of the 2011-12 academic year, Redel hesitated.
“I was very intrigued,” he says. “But I also thought ‘Oh wow. Do I really want to go through something like last year again?’”
‘Something like last year,’ is Redel’s way of referring to the turbulent times on campus that reached its lowest point on November 10, when riot police clashed with protesters in front of the James Building.
But, as he demonstrated when he founded Queer Engineer, Redel isn’t easily scared off. Throwing his hat into the ring, he squeezed into office with a slim 0.4 per cent margin of victory.
One of his main goals this academic year is to try and foster respectful communication between students, staff, faculty and administration.
“The second people start demonizing one another or throwing rash insults around then everyone just digs in and defends themself rather than working together to solve a serious issue,” he says. “We all need to remain calm and try and understand the perspective of the person sitting in front of us.”
Empowerment and teamwork
Redel’s overriding leadership goal is to bring as many people together as possible in order to facilitate a collaborative effort. “I’ve spent a fair bit of time in software engineering research labs where the focus is very much on empowering people,” he says. “And in the McGill context, one project can sometimes involve 10 units. Yes, people have to work together, but we also have to help them evolve their own ideas. If we can do those two things, we’ll get results.”
That philosophy has been put to the test in recent years as orientation and Frosh have undergone a serious shift in culture made possible only by a concerted effort of dozens of interested McGill parties. “Last year, we created the Orientation Planning Group that has some 60 members on it, including students from each faculty association and people from interested McGill units and services like First-Year Office,” says Redel. “Starting from the ground up, we did a core analysis of what Orientation was and what it had to become.”
Among the new wrinkles in Orientation are revamped leadership training for frosh leaders and an added emphasis on inclusive activities that take into account underage students and those who don’t drink. “In the past, there were two, maybe three, faculties that organized some all-age nights,” says Redel. “But this year there is an all-ages night every night in every faculty. That’s a huge change and I think it serves as a really good model for other Canadian universities.”