The Institution of Kari Michaels

Starting the feminist collective, building student advocacy are just some of her KPU accomplishments
Tristan Johnston, Contributor

Kari Michaels has been an important part of the KPU community for years, but has recently accepted a position with the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union. (Tristan Johnston)

If you’ve had a dispute with the university, gotten involved with the KSA in the last few years, or been to a WOOW meeting, then you’ve likely been in the same room as Kari Michaels. Though she is currently on leave, she has been the student association’s records coordinator for years, and somewhat more recently, an instrumental part of the Students Rights Centre. Michaels has also served as a student senator at the university for three terms.

When she first started with the KSA, Michaels says that “advocacy was something that was provided, and it was generally through a position on [KSA] Council” with the help of a general manager or staff member. However, when the association began collecting a fee to fund student advocacy in 2009, their services became much more robust.

“We started drafting up a terms of reference for our service, and that’s where the shift into creating a students rights centre came from,” says Michaels.

The Students Rights Centre was established several years ago and is often used by students who have a dispute with the university, or who otherwise must navigate the administrative system. Cases that the centre handles can be complaints against instructors, the university itself, or even tenancy issues, though Michaels is careful to note that they don’t specialize in the Tenancy Act.

”We help [students] understand the process that’s in place through KPU’s policies, find out what it is that has happened, and how they can best take that forward to be handled with the university,” she says.

While Michaels has lately been most active with the SRC, she’s still found time to remain involved with Linking Intersectional Feminists Together (LIFT), KPU’s on-campus feminist collective, which she helped create.

“It was 2011, and we had basically gone through a KSA election,” she says. “There was an incident that arose that targeted one of the candidates … for being a woman, and it was incredibly shocking that that would happen in 2011.”

Shortly after the election, Michaels founded LIFT—then known as Women Organizing Opportunities for Women (WOOW)—with two other women from the student association.

“We had people signing up and people who wanted to be part of it,” says Michaels. “We need something on campus to give people a confidence that they’re going to be supported if they choose to put themselves out there, and that there’s a community behind them that’s going to say, ‘We’re not going to stand for misogyny or sexism on campus.’”

Along with LIFT, Michaels also started the now-defunct Greymatters Philosophy Club as well as the Animal Rights Collective. She says that LIFT played a part in establishing the President’s Diversity and Equity Committee at KPU, along with other campus groups such as the recently founded Let’s Be Compassionate Club, which focuses on animal and environmental rights.

Years ago, Michaels wouldn’t have thought she’d be so active in the KPU community. “I think when I first came into [KPU], I was just expecting to go to class, and you know, maybe make some friends. I had zero assumptions about what going to university would be about, particularly for me, because I didn’t see myself as a very involved person,” she says.

It wasn’t until she got involved with the KSA’s Welcome Week that she realized “trying to do different things, seeing what’s not happening, what people are struggling with and where you could lend a hand … makes a huge difference in terms of what’s possible.”

“To me, it isn’t about what I’ve done or what I could do, it’s what students working together have been able to accomplish,” says Michaels. “A lot of what I have done was a result of recognising that there was some power imbalance or injustice happening where voices weren’t being heard. We’re much more powerful when we act collectively.”

Michaels’ belief in collective action are now exemplified by her success in becoming an Executive Vice President of the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, making her one of the youngest labour leaders in Canada.

As for what Michaels plans to do after she’s done at KPU, she’s still not sure. Whatever it is, she says it will be with a focus on “changing things for the better.”