Activist Goals and the Student Union

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

A Closing Case for Sahar Massachi

We as a student body this year are lucky to have four strong and competent candidates running to fill the Student Union Presidency, probably the most important student position in terms of ability to create change on campus by working with the administration.  JV Souffrant has done great work in raising huge amounts of money to help devastated families in Haiti.  Matt Kriegsman has proven himself as the leader of Chabad at Brandeis.  Daniel Acheampong has taken on probably the most thankless task in the student government, serving as Union Treasurer.  Any of them could do a good job as Union President.

However, I’ve known that I’m supporting Sahar Massachi for the position since the very beginning of the election.  The reason why is simple: Sahar is one of the most transformative people I’ve ever had the privilege to know.  It’s the same reason why I’ve written for him for three years on Innermost Parts, the same reason why I’ve worked with him on a number of successful campus projects, and the same reason why he’s been one of my best friends since I entered Brandeis University.  Time and time again, I’ve seen how Sahar can create positive change for the good of the campus community through his tireless work ethic and strong leadership.  He’s thoroughly changed the way I think about college activism, and I know he can change the way we think of the Student Union.

Sahar’s extensive resume tells a story of a student active in all walks of campus life, and his accomplishments are very impressive.  However, what’s even more impressive to me is that without him, no project he’s ever worked on could have even gotten off the ground.  He doesn’t just fill established roles effectively, he fights with everything he’s got to create new roles for improving student life.  When nobody was talking about the MSA lounge vandalization, Sahar did something about it.  When students felt powerless in the face of massive budget cuts, Sahar organized a unified and effective student response.  Without Sahar, Brandeis as a whole would be a little different and a little worse off, and I’d be hard pressed to name anyone else I could honestly say that about.

Regardless of who wins today’s election, two things are certain.  First, the Student Union will have a qualified leader set to take the reigns.  Second, Sahar will be working to improve student life and the activist cause at Brandeis.  It’s part of who he is, and win or lose, he’ll still be doing what he thinks is right.  But we have a chance to put our most powerful position in the hands of a transformative leader, and I firmly believe that we should take this rare opportunity.  That is why I’m asking you to join me in voting for Sahar Massachi for President of the Student Union.

Union Restructuring: Why Did It Fail?

Of the changes proposed by the Constitutional Review Committee, none received more discussion than the Union government restructuring — the elimination of the Senate and the creation of a smaller Assembly and a Club Support Board.  It was endorsed as a great way to improve Union government efficiency by a wide range of campus sources, from the Justice editorial board to President Andy Hogan to our own writers.  Despite this, it was one of only three (out of 13) proposals that didn’t get the 2/3 majority of the student vote needed to be added to the Constitution.  So why did it fail, and what can we learn from it to fix the problems in the Union government?

I’ll start by saying that I really didn’t like the restructuring proposal.  I’m not sure that it would have actually solved the problems it tried to address, and there were several consequences of its changes that made me pretty uncomfortable.  It would have taken fewer students to make consequential decisions like de-chartering clubs, it would have raised the electoral barriers of participation higher, and it would have set up some explicit conflicts of interest for Club Support members.

But I doubt that even the small percentage of students who took the time to vote actually looked into the amendment very deeply.  Many of them probably saw the amendment for the first time when they voted, and their priorities were probably on amendments they saw as more directly impacting their lives on campus (SSIS, SEA, etc.).  Still, they chose to support most of the other proposals, even one which only changed a single word.

I think the problem with the restructuring proposal was much more simple: there was no immediately obvious benefit to the changes it offered.  So they wanted to make the Senate smaller and move the club chartering process to another body — why?  There’s a perception that students hate the Union because of its overly formal procedures, but I don’t think that’s true.  After all, how many students have to deal with the Senate on a regular, extended basis?  I think the real concern is what the Union actually does and the apparent disconnect between the Union government and the students, and there’s no reason to think that shrinking or dividing the governing bodies would have made a concrete change.

Thus, to most people, the government restructuring came down to a simple rearrangement of the deck chairs.  When you take out the votes of the CRC, the E-Board, and the Senate (who all actively worked to put the amendment on the ballot), you’re basically left with a coin flip from the voters.  There are definite problems with the way the Union works, but solving them requires a more direct approach than the CRC took toward the review process.

Andy Hogan, Our New President

Today is Andy Hogan’s second full day on the job as Student Union President, and despite this high-profile position, I feel he’s still something of an unknown quantity to much of the student body, much more so than Jason Gray was last year.  There are several reasons for this: the Presidential race was much less competitive and low-profile than last year’s, Andy has only been a Union officer for one year, and his work has been much more organizational than Jason’s very public advocacy for the Student Bill of Rights.  However, in a very short period of time, Andy has quietly built up a stellar Union resume.  Last fall, he handily won the North Quad Senate seat despite running as a sophomore in a mostly freshman quad.  In just one semester of work, he impressed Jason Gray enough to be named Director of Community Advocacy.  And last month, he won the Union Presidency by over 350 votes.  His talents and character have already changed the Brandeis community for the better and are quickly gaining wide recognition; however, for those who still don’t really know Andy or who would like to know him better, I’d like to give a quick introduction to our new Union President.

I should start by saying that I’m far from an unbiased source.  Though I felt that being off campus made it appropriate for me to refrain from public comment on the spring elections, I was personally very happy to see Andy win.  But my relationship with him is much deeper than mere Union politics.  Andy has been one of my best friends since our first few weeks at Brandeis.  We joined (and subsequently left) TRON together, played together on countless intramural sports teams, served together on the Squash club E-Board, served together on the Union Senate, roomed next to one another, shared music, been repeatedly mistaken for brothers, and generally shared some of the best times I’ve had at Brandeis.  He was my campaign manager during my run for the Vice Presidency, and I still credit my victory more to him than to anyone else.  So yeah, I kinda like the guy.  But I also know him very well, and looking as objectively as possible, I can say that I think he’ll make an excellent leader for the Student Union.

Innermost Parts is an activist community, so it’s of particular importance to us that Andy has established himself as a leader on activist issues in the Student Union.  One of his first major projects was planning the Combating Hate Fundraiser, which broke all attendance expectations and raised over $2,000 for a black church that was burned in protest of Barack Obama’s victory.  He followed that with another successful fundraiser for rape victims in the Rwandan genocide.  On a more Brandeisian level, he played a huge role in launching and running the Clubs in Service program, and he helped dorm-storm with Student for Environment Action to raise awareness of water-bottle reduction.  He’s the only Union officer I’ve seen to devote a page of his campaign website just to explaining his views on the importance of social justice at Brandeis.  Clearly, he intends to make these issues a focal point of the Union’s work next year.

Andy is particularly dedicated to the Union government’s role as an advocacy body, and one of his primary focuses is on bringing the Union’s work to every student.  In this way, I see his mentality as a natural successor to Jason’s core value of increased student involvement, both within the Union and in the entire Brandeis community.  He was one of the first senators to join the new Senate Outreach Committee, and he was one of its most active members, drafting the Stall Street Journal and planning events targeted at spreading awareness of the Union’s work to freshmen.  Critically, he views outreach as a tool for generating student feedback, not as a self-promotion gimmick.  He gave us the cell phone amplifier in Usdan in response to numerous student complaints, working successfully with administrators to improve student life.

His plans for next year come naturally from these concerns, and I’m very excited to see some of them implemented.  I’m particularly impressed by his ideas in the long-overdue area of club collaboration reform, which will create an online system for booking spaces and discussing co-sponsorship, making event planning quicker and less expensive.  Andy also wants to improve methods for instantaneous student feedback on Union projects.  Discussion boards have been very effective at generating diverse ideas from the whole community for the CARS subcommittees, and there is no reason why they cannot be used on a Union level as well.  He remains committed to starting and expanding environmentally-friendly projects like Deis Bikes, and his planned social justice identity forums will inspire discussion on the many ways this pillar of Brandeis is interpreted in the community, ultimately creating connections for socially responsible programs where none currently exist.

This past year has been unprecedented in the scope and importance of the Union’s successes, largely because of Andy’s contributions.  I expect Andy Hogan’s leadership to make next year just as productive as this one has been.

Thank You, Jason Gray

If you’re a regular reader of Innermost Parts, you probably already know how I feel about Jason Gray.  Getting to know him over the past year has been a complete pleasure and an honor for me, and I cannot repay my debt of gratitude for all he has done for me.  As a newly elected Vice President with little formal Union experience, I relied on his leadership to become comfortable on the Executive Board.  During the fall semester, his guidance never failed to point me in the right direction to accomplish the goals I had in office.  And when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to remain at Brandeis in the spring, his compassion and friendship gave me the strength to choose the path that was best for me, even in the most difficult moments.  But his influence this year extended far beyond me;  it’s safe to say that every student at Brandeis has profited from his peerless talents and genuine concerns as President of the Student Union.  With yesterday’s spring inaugurations, Jason’s term leading the Union has come to an end, and I want to take a quick moment to summarize all he has meant to the Brandeis community.

Jason told me once that, more than anything else, he wanted his legacy to be as an advocate for student rights and a promoter for student involvement.  “It’s about you” was his campaign slogan, and he never forgot to represent every viewpoint in each project he took on.  When many students were complaining about the service they received at the health center, he convinced the administration to give the center a through review, one which led to a number of substantive improvements.  When the student body opted to use the SAF rollover money for the creation of a new weight room, Jason not only consulted student athletes to determine what how we could purchase the most effective equipment, he made sure to find space for the dance groups which were displaced, and he fought to ensure that all students had equal priority to use it.  When the budget crisis hit and students felt left out of the decision making process, Jason fought to put students on all the newly formed committees, and he successfully planned town hall forums and informational meetings to give every student a clear picture of our finances and a voice in our future.

But his influence was also felt in far more subtle ways.  As leader of the Union government, Jason created an environment where every officer felt capable of leading his or her own projects.  ‘Deis Bikes happened thanks to the incredibly hard work of the eight-member Special Task Force on Bicycle Sharing, but their job was made easier because Jason would solve any logistical problems that came up with the administration.  When both the Coalition for Food Services Reform and the University Dining Committee were working to solve problems in dining, Jason helped to iron out the groups’ differences and to coordinate their efforts to achieve meaningful changes.  It was not rare for him to spend over eleven hours a day in meetings and on other Union work while still attending classes and staying on top of his schoolwork.  And not only did he always serve his mandatory Union office hours, he would frequently serve them in Usdan or in the Shapiro atrium so he could open himself to as many students as possible.

These accomplishments only scratch the surface of everything he achieved as Union President.  Proof of his success can be seen in the universal acclaim he received.  His praises have been sung publicly by trustees and administrators, activists, campus publications, athletes, and his fellow Union officers.  He has, in many ways, changed the way we perceive the Union on campus and ushered in a new level of student involvement in every facet of the University.  And while he has left the formal power structure of the Union government, I’m sure that he will continue to serve as an active voice for the causes he believes in next year.  Thank you, Jason, for all you have done for me and for Brandeis, and I know that I’m just one among the many who recognize what you have meant to us.