Last month, I applied to be the Director of Community Advocacy on then-Union President-elect Daniel Acheampong’s Executive Board. The spot ultimately went to someone else; namely, JV Souffrant, who was sworn in several weeks ago and who I’m sure will do a great job with the position. I’m not too disappointed about losing the spot — it means more free time for me next year, and I have no problem with the idea that someone else might have simply been more qualified. However, the interview process itself gave me reason for worry, not because of what it means for me, but because of what it means for the future of activist goals in next year’s Student Union.
In my interview, I found that most of the questions I was asked tended to be about the same issues: I had written for Innermost Parts, I had written for the Hoot, and I had a reputation for being outspoken when it comes to activist causes on campus. The impression I got is that these were significant, and possibly even disqualifying, black marks against my application, not only for what I had actually said and done, but also for the associations I had. And it wasn’t only me who felt that way. A friend of mine also got telling questions on his connection with Innermost Parts, and another friend was grilled on her involvement with Brandeis DFA. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a ton of respect for Daniel Acheampong, and I think he’ll make a great Union President. However, I also want to warn him against the misconception that the Union cannot be both activist-friendly and effective at the same time.
During Jason Gray’s presidency, the Union was full of outspoken campus activists who made no secret of the fact that they intended to pursue an activist agenda as Union officers. In addition, Jason Gray himself was very friendly to activist causes and made them some of the centerpieces of his tenure. As a result of these factors, the laundry-list of successful projects is quite extensive and impressive. The Committee for Endowment Ethics and Responsibility was formed to pursue greater endowment transparency. The DeisBikes program was formed to encourage green forms of transportation. The Senate Social Justice Committee held several excellent forums on educating students about their rights in search and seizure situations. The advising process for students accused of Rights and Responsibilities violations was reorganized and strengthened. The Clubs in Service program was started to connect Brandeis students with the Waltham community. There are more examples; these just come off the top of my head.
There are three important points to keep in mind when considering these activist achievements:
- Even though these policies realized some goals of the activist community, they do not benefit only those from activist backgrounds, nor were they designed and implemented solely by self-identified activists. Lots of people use and love Deis Bikes. Lots of clubs have participated in Clubs in Service. Anyone can be falsely accused of a violation and enjoy the protection of a strengthened review process.
- Pursuing these policies did not keep the Union from making tangible improvements on more day-to-day issues. The daily newspaper program was started to give out free papers in the Campus Center. Significant dining reforms were implemented. The Health Center and the Career Center both received thorough evaluations and reforms. The bread-and-butter Union events — the shuttle services and the Midnight Buffets — were executed as well as ever. The Union has been very successful in this area in subsequent years, but Gray’s Union proved that working on activist issues did not distract student focus or administrator attention from them.
- The greatest coups for student authority — the open forums, student involvement in committees, and generally increased transparency from the administration in the wake of the budget crisis — succeeded in spite of, and even because of, the activist-friendly nature of the Union. The large-scale student protests and demands for involvement gave Jason the leverage he needed to persuade the administrators to meet student concerns; we could not have gained so many concessions if it weren’t for the activist presence that was felt both outside and inside the Union. Though I’ve heard people share concerns that an outspoken, activist agenda from the Student Union would only drive the administration away from working with the Union, I think we proved the opposite is true. The administration knows it is part of their job to keep students satisfied, and it is beneficial on all levels to express our dissatisfaction clearly. As long as we refrain from being disrespectful, there’s no reason to stifle our message in service to a counterproductive notion of propriety.
Unfortunately, the Union has backtracked from their aggressive and productive work on activist goals. It’s very hard to point out any projects originating from the Union in the past year that match the scope of those I mentioned earlier, and I fear that our new Union could continue on the same path. The stakes are high; like it or not, the structures of the Union still remain the easiest way to get the ear of the administration and create positive change on campus, and activist causes will be severely handicapped without at least some measure of institutionalized Union support. I urge the Union to keep the example of Jason Gray in mind; part of the reason he was so highly regarded as Union President was his success in so many areas that both benefited the entire campus community and actualized our founding principles of commitment to social justice.