USG holds two town halls to address racism within their organization

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Last week, the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) of UConn Storrs hosted two town halls in response to the backlash from the “Different Perspectives” survey promoted on their Instagram account, as well as to address the testimonial submitted to the Instagram account “Black at UConn” about the organization’s unwelcoming environment toward BIPOC members. The town halls, hosted by Joshua Crow and Alexandra Ose, sought to provide a platform for students to share their experiences and find solutions. Crow and Ose were serving as president and vice president of the student body at the time, prior to their resignations.

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(Edited) Under the leadership of two of our new Multi-Cultural and Diversity Senators, USG has worked over the past month to construct a survey where students can submit any opinions on how USG can make changes for UConn as a whole. This survey intends to help USG respond and inform ourselves and administrators to tangible change. We recognize and appreciate that accounts and students at Uconn have been sharing and posting BIPOC experiences. We want to fully advertise these pages @black.at.uconn @bipoc.at.uconnsfa @uconn_anonymous @uconnhealthbipoc . Thank you for the students who quickly put these pages together to hear the oppressed stories of those unheard on campus. We recognize and apologize for the part USG has played in the silencing, and we are looking internally at what has to change. Survey link in bio. Submissions can be anonymous. Write whatever you feel comfortable sharing. Let us share in amplifying student stories and making change.

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On July 3, the anonymous submission page Black at UConn posted a testimonial from a 2020 UConn alumnus that detailed an oppressive and discriminatory experience within USG. 

“[Y]’all are despicable,” the student said. “It’s interesting how y’all always claim to care about diversity but your Black and Latinx members are often talked over, looked past and not valued.”

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This is a direct @ to the Undergraduate Student Government at Storrs — y’all are despicable. It’s interesting how y’all always claim to care about diversity but your Black and Latinx members are often talked over, looked past, and not valued. It’s interesting how an almost all white senate passed legislation that allowed the executive branch members to be compensated for their duties, but when the first executive board to be allowed to get compensated was majority Black and people of color, they were constantly being questioned, interrogated and even had members attempt to FOIA request members on the governing board (talking to you Luis T.) I wonder if that would’ve happened if it was a majority white governing board like it’s always been in the past? People would seem to have a problem with the previous administration attempting to use USG resources to support the previous movements on campus against racism even though USG is supposed to be an “advocacy based organization”. Seems like y’all only advocate for things that benefit your white students but don’t care when It comes to issues such as racism and environmental justice. So fuck USG and a big fuck you to every USG member that has ever made BIPOC members feel unwelcome and unheard. There should be a BIPOC run student government on campus if you ask me. I have 0 hope in the new administration. Alumni, 2020

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The post has amassed over 500 likes and 71 comments from various USG members agreeing with the perspectives shared by the anonymous alumnus. An hour before Black at UConn posted the testimonial, USG released their Different Perspectives survey, which called for marginalized students to anonymously submit their experiences of being discriminated against at UConn.

There were multiple comments under the post from students who said the survey was tone-deaf and that it seemed like the page was plagiarizing the idea from student-run anonymous social media accounts like Black at UConn.

“Why do you need surveys to know racism is wrong, you’re not amplifying anyone’s voice, you’re colonizing them,” one person commented.

Alex Ose resigned from her position as University of Connecticut undergraduate student government vice president with the hopes that more diverse voices can be heard in leadership roles on campus. Photo via USG.

A few days after USG’s July 8 town hall, Ose resigned and Crow followed suit two days later.

In a statement emailed to USG members, Ose said she felt she was not the right person to be holding the vice presidency at this time.

“This decision has not been an easy one, but due to the climate and incidents of racial injustice across the country and at the university, I feel that it is my duty to step down from my position to make space for BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) voices to truly rise and be heard,” Ose said.

Crow expressed a similar perspective in his statement of resignation.

“It is important in this time to ensure that marginalized groups have the platforms they need,” Crow said in the statement. “It is my hope that my stepping aside facilitates this.”

Attendees at last Sunday’s town hall said it would be “near impossible” for real change to happen in USG unless there were more BIPOC students in the governing body, including in the presidency and vice presidency positions.

Crow affirmed during the meeting that although he was considering resignation, he still felt he was the best for the job at the time. 

“As we pointed out, the university is a problematic and inherently racist institution,” Crow said. “Part of breaking down those barriers is being the ones who go in there and tell administrators ‘Listen to these voices, the voices that you don’t often listen to.’”

Many attendees of the first town hall said the recently elected governing body, a majority of which are White students, cannot represent the student population. Iyanna Crockett, a seventh-semester political science major, asked why the majority of the organization’s executive branch is White when that was something Crow and Ose had control over. Crockett is a USG committee member and former deputy chairperson of the External Affairs Committee.

President-elect Josh Crow stepped down from his position July 9th, 2020, following the resignation of USG Vice President Alex Ose.  Photo via    usg.uconn.edu
President-elect Josh Crow stepped down from his position July 9th, 2020, following the resignation of USG Vice President Alex Ose. Photo via usg.uconn.edu

Crow and Ose said they had given interviews to almost everyone who had applied to USG’s Governing Board and put a lot of thought into the process, which took into account the feedback they had received from the organization’s previous committee chairpeople. They acknowledged there may have been “unchecked implicit bias” during the selection process and hoped to remedy the issue by amplifying the voices of BIPOC students.

“I know I can’t accurately represent every student at all times, especially students of color, so I need to use my power, my privilege to be able to elevate and give other students a voice,” Crow said.

Many people also said higher-ups in USG were only addressing racism in the organization because it became popular on Instagram. Crockett said she was disappointed to see Crow and Ose had not addressed the issue until recently, since she had said in a USG group chat in late May that she felt the organization was lacking support for Black communities in light of the protests surrounding police brutality.

“I told them that we need to be using our influence to post resources that people could support,” Crockett said in an email interview after the July 8 town hall. “I also mentioned the anti-blackness and silencing of voices in the org’s past and we needed to have this conversation about it amongst the whole organization even if it’s a difficult one.”

One of the students running the Black at UConn account said that from what she has seen from various comments, she agrees that the organization should have addressed this problem earlier. 

“There were a lot of people who brought these issues to USG but it wasn’t important until it was on Instagram, until people were paying attention,” Winta Mekonnen, a third-semester physiology and neurobiology major, said.

In the town hall, many BIPOC USG members expanded on the comments made underneath the Black at UConn post, saying they felt silenced and unappreciated and that USG wasn’t actively doing enough to make BIPOC feel welcomed within the organization.

“There were a lot of people who brought these issues to USG but it wasn’t important until it was on Instagram, until people were paying attention.

— Winta Mekonnen, a third-semester physiology and neurobiology major

Ose said she hoped to implement a zero-tolerance policy for racism that would build upon the university’s existing anti-racism policy by including consequences such as impeachment.

Members also brought up concerns of elitism within the organization.

“I understand that this is supposed to be a mock senate and for some of you, it’s something to add on your resume,” Guilmar Valle, third-semester chemical engineering major and USG engineering senator, said. “But there’s honestly no reason for it to be as complicated as it is in certain situations, especially with the language.”

Valle said the organization’s complicated structure “needs to change” in order for BIPOC students to feel like they belong in the organization.

“I think to make it less elite and more welcoming to all students, we need to make the language easier to understand,” Valle said.

USG also discussed the backlash from the Different Perspectives survey and one of the co-creators explained her intentions behind the survey.

The multicultural and diversity senator, who did not want to be named for this article, said the survey was an initiative that she started in May with another senator to give students a platform to share their experiences. 

The senator said that before the survey was posted on USG’s Instagram account, the two creators had shared the survey on their Instagram stories and received very few submissions. After seeing the Black at UConn post calling out the culture at USG, the senator said she started to understand why people weren’t responding well.

“From the comments I read from former members of USG, the problems and the stigma within the organization have been going on for years and I had no idea that USG had these types of problems,” she said. 

The multicultural and diversity senator said she understood why people felt that USG was undermining students’ voices and that they were copying student-run anonymous social media accounts. However, she said this was not her intention behind the survey.

“I just want to make it clear that it was not plagiarized and the reason why it looks like it was plagiarized was that the survey was poorly promoted and promoted late,” she said. 

Crockett said in an email interview after the initial town hall that even though she wished the conversation surrounding an unwelcoming environment for BIPOC had happened earlier, she was glad that it had happened at all.

“I really think the first town hall started a conversation that’s needed to happen for a long time,” Crockett said. “I think this conversation, along with Alex’s resignation to make space for BIPOC students, is going to have a lasting impact. I think things are going to change next year. It’s gonna be a long process, but I have hope.”

“I think this conversation, along with Alex’s resignation to make space for BIPOC students, is going to have a lasting impact. I think things are going to change next year. It’s gonna be a long process, but I have hope.

— Iyanna Crockett, a USG committee member and former deputy chairperson of the External Affairs Committee.

Crockett also said Crow’s resignation was a similarly responsible move.

“There was a lot of pressure for him too and part of being a student leader is listening to what the students want,” Crockett said. “His resignation also means a new Governing Board. Hopefully, the new Governing Board will be less white.”

The second town hall was hosted by Caleb Moore, USG chief justice, and Will Schad, a fifth-semester political science major and interim USG president. Held on Thursday, July 9, it had approximately 60 people in attendance; double the number of attendees present during the first town hall.

Schad, the former speaker of the USG Senate, started the town hall by saying that although he hadn’t expected to hold the presidency, he is still dedicated to serving the student body and to solving issues of racial bias and discrimination within USG.

“This was never a job that I had my eyes on, but I’m going to be as committed to the students as possible and as committed to starting to solve issues of racial bias and injustice and as well as elitism, as I can be,” Schad said.

Schad said the main goal is to hold an election as soon as possible to decide the new president and vice president.

“We’re all committed in the leadership team to hold one of the most inclusive and wide-reaching presidential elections in the history of our organization,” Schad said.

Schad also talked about his experience in working toward diversity and inclusion while in his position as speaker of the Senate. While in his former position, he said he was pushing for mandatory bias training, election reform, bias control policies within USG as well as advocating for greater access to resources for BIPOC students, such as mental health services.

In the July 9 town hall, the conversation was centered around specific solutions that can be worked toward for more diversity and inclusion in the organization.

One of these solutions was to make it mandatory to fill ex officio senate seats to ensure diverse groups such as the cultural centers, multicultural Greek council and the panhellenic Greek council will be represented in USG.

“Those are the organizations who I know would benefit from this representation and whose representation we would benefit from,” Desiree Torres, an eighth-semester political science and individualized major in the sociological effects of film, said.

Town hall attendees also questioned how USG is planning on helping with the lack of mental health resources available at the university.

“I find a huge concern in not only the diversity of available therapists at our mental health services, but the languages that they speak,” Sofia Rodriguez, a fifth-semester psychology major and chairperson of the Student Development Committee, said. “That’s something we really want to work on this year.”

The two town halls hosted by USG last week addressed various issues within the organization, such as addressing the lack of diversity within USG and issues with the “elitist” dress code.  File Photo/The Daily Campus
The two town halls hosted by USG last week addressed various issues within the organization, such as addressing the lack of diversity within USG and issues with the “elitist” dress code. File Photo/The Daily Campus

Multiple attendees were concerned that USG wasn’t properly using their power to support student activism.

“When you interact with USG, as an outsider, as someone who is working on organizing, it almost feels exactly like interacting with admin and USG moves like admin and that can be  really frustrating thing and make it really hard to work with USG,” Harry Zehner, a seventh- semester political science major and Daily Campus opinion editor, said. “It frustrates me all the time because it has this amazing potential to actually represent the students at a university where students have no representation but it’s like a brick wall.”

Elitism was discussed in depth in this town hall. One thing in particular that former Multicultural and Diversity Senator Rita Tsafack-Tonleu said was explicitly elitist is the senate dress code.

“I do understand that professionalism is very keen in organizations like this but you have to look at things like that and what role they play on students of lower classes and different races,” Tsafack-Tonelu, a fifth-semester finance major, said. 

Schad agreed with these points and said that USG’s elitism is something that was a concern of his as well.

“We see it time and time again that dress codes have no impact on professionalism,” Schad said. “We can still be a professional organization without forcing people to dress up fancy for senate.” 

Many attendees said that though it is important to talk about tangible solutions, it is just as important to implement them. They also said that it is not enough to just have diversity; those diverse populations need to feel welcomed. 

“I know we talked about the importance of representation but that doesn’t go far enough when we aren’t fostering a sense of belonging within USG and that’s been the issue forever,” Sara Maldonado, a seventh-semester global health major and member of the USG Student Development committee, said. “While we’ve had some BIPOC members in USG they always feel policed in their space or that they’re not welcomed there …”

“I know we talked about the importance of representation but that doesn’t go far enough when we aren’t fostering a sense of belonging within USG and that’s been the issue forever. While we’ve had some BIPOC members in USG they always feel policed in their space or that they’re not welcomed there …

— Sara Maldonado, a seventh-semester global health major and member of the USG Student Development committee

Jessica Delgado, a fifth-semester nursing major and parliamentarian of the USG Senate, said she thought it was helpful that the two town halls built off of one another. 

“I think the first one was productive in finding out what the problems were and I think that the second one was built of that same energy but more geared to solutions,” Delgado said.

Delgado said she is excited for the upcoming school year and sees it as a new beginning for the organization.

“I am looking forward to new leadership that includes BIPOC students, I look forward to a more inclusive environment and seeing USG actually take action and moving forward to address the inst racism within their organization,” Delgado said.

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