Even an organization like the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association, where students handle most of the management and regulation, still reflects many of our social and societal problems. One of them is about challenging authority. OSCA has at least one Accessibility Coordinator per co-op. Although AccessCos are all students, they establish their authority in a way that is completely mysterious to most OSCA members. Most people have no idea what specific work they are doing, and I found it extremely complicated and burdensome to challenge their authority because of this.
Last fall, I was one of the Keep Cottage Dining Loose End Coordinators — someone who facilitates discussions and answers questions involving elections, accessibility, and policy. At the beginning, the other DLEC and I needed to facilitate the discussion to elect two Accessibility Coordinators. There was something about this process that baffled me: The job description says we need to elect two people, but each person gets full credit. For those of you who might not be familiar with the co-op system, as long as you live in a co-op like Keep, you need to do four hours of cooking shifts and a one-hour crew shift; getting a full credit means that the people who receive full credit from their elected positions do not have to work the four-hour shift. To me, having two people working eight hours in total each week to deal with accessibility concerns is a complete overestimation of the workload.
So I asked the previous two AccessCos to tell us more about what they typically do each week. They claimed that AccessCo is a very important position, and they think that full-credit is legitimate. The answer was so opaque that I still had no idea what they really did besides merely speaking about accessibility. I looked at everyone else, and they all seemed OK with that ambiguous answer, except my friend, who later told me “That answer was bulls**t.” Eventually, we elected two AccessCos at Keep who both received full credit.
At the beginning of the spring semester, Keep needed to elect AccessCos again. This time I did not say anything or raise any doubts, because just like last semester, nobody would agree with my claim. To my surprise, someone else asked the question about whether we should really give them full credit, and the previous AccessCos again stated that the position required a lot of work — still a vague answer with no detailed explanation. Now we have two AccessCos, and one of them is last semester’s.
The day after the election, the AccessCos posted their contact information and weekly office hours schedule and sent an email reminding people to create a more accessible space. That was the only email we have received. Today, when I tried to go to the office hours that were supposed to happen at the corner of the lounge at Keep, no one was there.
It is true that AccessCos might do some work behind the scenes, but again, Keep has two AccessCos. This means that two people are working a total of eight hours just for accessibility issues, and nobody feels weird about it?
A friend of mine told me that as a former Housing Loose Ends Coordinator who was trained to provide support to co-op members, including accessibility support, he held office hours every week; however, nobody ever came to talk to him. Furthermore, the HLEC is a paid position because their workload is heavier than the non-paid positions, such as the AccessCos. With this in mind, it seems even less likely that AccessCos actually work a full eight hours every week.
I could not tolerate this anymore, so the day before I wrote this article, I sent an anonymous note to our AccessCos requesting that they write a report that is similar to OSCA’s stipend report — a kind of report that is purposefully vague and only cites the amount of hours spent doing specific tasks. Hours later, I was told that they could not do this because of confidentiality concerns, and they needed to contact all-OSCA AccessCo for advice.
When I again restated that I just wanted them to follow the format of the stipend report, they still refused to do it. Ironically, all-OSCA AccessCo — a paid position in OSCA — never refused to write a stipend report for confidentiality reasons, and now Keep AccessCos use the word “confidentiality” as an excuse to refuse to give any more information about their job — refusing even to write an opaque report which wouldn’t use any specific names.
It is almost impossible to raise concerns about some co-op positions, especially positions like AccessCo that hold the moral high ground of “accessibility.” As an individual who wants to challenge that authority, you must be prepared to spend a lot of your time, effort, and even emotional labor to voice your concerns. Challenging the legitimacy of AccessCo could be easily interpreted by other people as challenging the idea of accessibility, which makes people think that you don’t care about it. Eventually, this structural repression may prevent people from further expressing opinions in the co-op.
OSCA publicly states that it cares about accessibility, but it only applies the idea to particular aspects. It is unmistakable that OSCA provides a good place for people who have dietary restrictions, but this creates an illusion that OSCA cares about all parts of accessibility. When it comes to other more intangible accessibility concerns, OSCA has not done much work. I still could not believe how hard it is to just tell people that I think AccessCos at Keep shouldn’t get full credit, and I am also very shocked to see how the AccessCos have used those vague claims about confidentiality as justification to not give me information about the number of hours they work. There is a huge power imbalance between the co-op AccessCos as an authority and me as an individual who does not hold an elected position.
When I applied to serve as an HLEC for Keep several weeks ago, my former-HLEC friend told me that the secret of getting the job is to talk about accessibility all the time during the interview. I did, and I got the job. Some people have already realized how to use the discourse of accessibility to win the game in OSCA, and OSCA completely buys it.
OSCA still understands accessibility in a very superficial way. OSCA members think that having an Accessibility Committee and AccessCos in each co-op is enough, but in fact, it only makes the space sound accessible. When I challenged the two previous AccessCos about the credit they get, there were also other people supporting the AccessCos’ assertions. People thought I was giving the AccessCos a hard time. But when I asked those people if they knew what AccessCos actually did, they also had no idea, but that the position must be absolutely crucial to the co-op because they deal with issues of accessibility. It is so ridiculous to me that people blindly believe the discourse of accessibility given by the previous AccessCos. There are only a few people at Keep who have figured out what’s going on and want to challenge the authorities in the co-op. We all eventually choose to be silent because we don’t want to spend more time, effort, and emotional labor to ask people to open their eyes and see the truth.