USG Interview Transcript: Mason

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Photo courtesy of Mason Holland.

(Note: Bolded text is The Daily Campus Editorial Board, unbolded is Mason Holland, USG Pres. Candidate) 

Before but especially with the pandemic, turnout in USG elections has been low. How do you plan to improve public relations and perception of USG on campus in particular with students who don’t currently interact with or trust student government? 

Well, the part that I think needs to be considered, as you know, in the equation is the actual outreach. Students have to feel like they’re seen in the elections, they have to feel like their interests are being heard. We made it a point to go out and actually speak to several student groups, to talk to them and say, “look,” even though there were a couple of groups that have actually voiced they would support us. But we were like, it doesn’t matter. Because we not only want your support, but we want you to actually care about what happens to us because it affects your life. So I think being intentional and actually going out and talking to those student groups, that’s definitely the first part. Making sure that students feel seen and their issues feel heard, and we’ll go into it a little bit deeper today.  

We have a very diverse and wide ranging platform. A lot of the things that are in there, me and Ethan have done hands on some of the stuff we haven’t done hands on. But we definitely want to integrate to make sure people see themselves. We want people to look at our platform and see themselves in some facet of themselves, right? We want them to see a way in which we can help them. They can help us by voting for us. Even as simple as making sure that every student’s voice feels heard and not excluded, in terms of the platform is also something that’s important.  

The pandemic has definitely forced us to be more creative. We’re not on campus, we can’t just go knocking on doors. We really have to be intentional and go out: Reach out to these student groups, try to show up to meetings, try to get one-on-ones, just so they know, number one, you’re hurt and your issues are actually felt.  

Also, we want you to [be a] part of this process, we want you to understand that this process is not just about who gets elected, because as I said during the debate, it’s not about us, it’s not about me and Ethan, it’s not about anybody who works with us; it’s about the students that we can actually serve. So being intentional about that is the main thing and letting people know that we care about your opinion and we want you to be a part of this process just as much as we are. 

The international student community is vital and significant, yet an often underrepresented and isolated community on campus. What are some of the issues you think are faced by this community and how will your leadership address those issues? 

So the first issue that I see actually came from a couple of different instances that I’ve had over the course of my time at university, and that’s the language barrier that I think exists between the international community and UConn. So first and foremost, I recognize that because there are quite a lot of Asian international students, and I realized there was a language barrier, because they always would stay within their groups and not really so much talk to other students, because there was just a communication issue. 

That issue was raised when I was on the academic integrity board. I remember a specific case in which an international student was taking an exam and a professor thought he had cheated. On the board we find somebody in violation if there’s “a preponderance of evidence.” The only piece of evidence that this professor had brought was that the student was looking off screen. It was the student’s turn to give his testimony, and he was struggling actually getting across what he was trying to say. We ended up finding him in violation of the law.  

I was trying to tell my colleagues, I didn’t agree with the decision. He actually ended up coming back and appealing. This actually won because it was the same thing he was saying before: he had an iPad. So, when it looked like he was looking off screen, it was because the camera was on the side and at the top. That’s just a small example of something that I think is really evident of the language issues in UConn, I think that persists through a lot of different institutions, primarily for us within mental health.  

We know there was an international student that actually passed away last year. And it made me wonder, when we were putting together a platform, what would it have been like if CMHS (Counseling and Mental Health Services) was accessible to students of different languages to a point where international students could come and get help, and can come to talk to somebody that would understand their experiences and also be able to communicate? So I think the language barrier is the first thing, and that’s something that we made evident in our mental health platform specifically.  

But I would say otherwise, we’re really all about intersectionality. People aren’t going to want to be a part of something they don’t feel like they’re part of. I’ve been in spaces where international students have been kind of tossed the wayside and, and there have been jokes made, and it shows the exclusion of being a student of color.  

I know just as well as anybody how it feels to be excluded on this campus. Our plan is to go to these groups and talk to them and to be like, listen, we want to help advocate for you. I personally don’t know as many ways as I should to do that, but that’s definitely been a part of our conversations. We made it a point to start to put together plans to go speak to these groups, and then talk to them about how we could help them because I don’t know how you actually could personally help each student.  

The first part is actually going out and figuring out why. Getting through that barrier of language diversity and making sure that students are included in every space and are able to actually voice their opinions and their and their sides, but also making sure that they feel like they’re a part of the community before anything else gets discussed. 

Photo courtesy of Peter Fenteany / The Daily Campus.

There have been recent accounts from students regarding a culture problem within USG. Students, especially students of color, have reported not feeling welcome in the organization. How do you plan to address this and make USG a more welcoming and representative environment for everyone? 

Again, intentionality. I think generally institutions have a lot to say on things and post a lot of things. A lot of performative acts had been induced at the university, which haven’t changed anything. Students of color inside the institution realize that.  

Part of the reason I’m running is because I talked to a couple of students within USG and I would hear things like, they were thinking about leaving, or they were just so fed up with the toxicity of the culture, because there was no ability to actually maneuver.  

Even now you have this free speech petition which is going out, and I understand free speech is a pillar of our society. But a lot of students understand that free speech is not really under attack. I think a lot of people are trying to make it out to be that way.  

So first and foremost I’ve gone to talk to people in senate about, look, USG would be a better place with all of this. Let’s all run for something this year that’s right for you — maybe MC (multicultural) senator, or engineering senator, or agriculture senator. For me, that’s President. If we’re gonna make this a wide-scale thing, we’re gonna want to make it evident that students of color can exist in an institution and do good work and be supported. We should all be a part of that movement because I can only do so much. I want to make sure that everybody’s getting represented and everybody’s becoming a part of that same thing.  

Secondly, something I said in the debate that I stand by is strengthening the bias reporting and actually coming to an understanding of what is considered to be free speech, what is considered to be hate speech. Unfortunately, there’s always going to be that gray space just because that’s the nature of the First Amendment, that’s the nature of that protection. But students shouldn’t be made to feel a type of way about hearing all lives matter, or compelled to feel for or against white supremacy. Little things like that, you should place a certain guideline around not saying those things. There are certain things that shouldn’t be talked about within the space.  

The second thing is actually making sure students of color feel safe. It really is talking to people and asking, because I have a lot to learn about the institution. There’s definitely a lot of caveats that I don’t know, that I’m not aware of. And that’s going to be a part of what we’re doing and what we’ve been doing. We’ve been talking to senators, we’ve been talking to people that are advocacy chairs and committee chairs and asking: How can we best impact the institution from the inside out? How can we best make the change that we want to see in the university?  

“We can’t just talk about the right words — words only open the door. Actions are what’s going to walk us through them. So if we really do want to see real long term change of university institutional change and actually protect students of color, we have to make it an institutional point, rather than just trying to hone in on the culture.”

Mason Holland, USG Pres. Candidate

I do think a large part of that is the bias reporting and the strengthening of those guidelines, but also actually making action and legislation which reflects the things that we’ve said. USG as a collective has come out and said that they support defunding the police. I’ve been working on defunding the police for the past year, and that’s something that will help students significantly.  

We can’t just talk about the right words — words only open the door. Actions are what’s going to walk us through them. So if we really do want to see real long term change of university institutional change and actually protect students of color, we have to make it an institutional point, rather than just trying to hone in on the culture. There’s things that will physically change and we help students. I definitely think we have to hone in on those. And again, make sure that students feel that they’re represented, supported, and certain things are just not going to fly. Certain comments can’t be served, and people aren’t going to be made to feel like they don’t belong. 

As a college student, there are a lot of ways to significantly impact the community around you aside from being involved in student government. For your own goals, and the issues that you’re passionate about addressing at UConn, why do you see being president of USG as being the best way to make a meaningful impact? 

That’s a great question, thank you for that. I think my activism kind of took off this over the past summer, with everything that happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and all the things that were happening within our own states, because I’m also from [New] Jersey. So my understanding of what’s been going on is kind of deepened.  

A lot of people, especially activists, we tie ourselves to educating people and having conversations, trying to have rallies and put out statements. Something that really hasn’t been taken into consideration is, if we want to see institutional change, we have to be a part of the institution. The reason why I’m joining is because there’s so much potential in the organization to actually make a difference for students to actually change things tangibly.  

For students, every single plan that we have is not something that we want to just sell you as a voter. It’s something that we’ll tell you: This is literally something we’ve been working on. These are ideas that we’ve had, you have people that have helped us and collaborated on these, these are things that we actually want to bring to fruition. And these are tangible things that we’re going to be able to point to, and are actually going to protect students or support them. So for instance, with the defunding (of UCPD), it would protect students. Students would not have to first engage with an officer if they’ve gone through an assault, if they had a mental health episode. If students have emergency costs that they have to actually address, whether it’s related to textbooks, or anything else, USG should be able to provide that as an instant short term release.  

We want to deal with the parking ticket situation. Now there’s been a huge issue that everybody has, coming to take classes and leave and getting like a $30, $40 ticket. Because that’s gas money.  

Joining USG has been a decision that I made because I want to impact the institution. Ethan or I said in our closing statement: Anything I’ve just said in a conversation is really not about us, or just the students that are here now. It’s about the students that come after. I don’t want students that are looking at this university now, to see the problems that exist now and then when they get there, those problems are still there. The goal of us being here as humans is to progress and to do more, and so, always changing and striving to be better. Words are not enough for that. Educating people is not always enough for that.  

We need real institutions, we need to be long-lasting. And we need it to actually be set in stone. If free speech is going to be put in a petition and attempted to be protected and going to be existing in the constitution and bylaws, we also need to have protections for minority students within USG. We need to have protections for the students, we need to have programs that are going to last far beyond the four years that we’re here. So I’m joining really to impact the institution and make long lasting change that’s gonna affect us way beyond the last year that I’m here. 

Hate speech has a shameful history at UConn and continues to threaten the wellbeing of many community members. At the same time, freedom of expression is very important to activists, to journalists and to many others. How exactly are these two concepts different? 

The thing that is a little bit funny to me is when people are going back and forth in these debates and on social media. I think everyone is on the same side. But I think one group is not understanding why there’s such a backlash for this protection of free speech. Number one: Free speech is already protected. Rights are protected in the Constitution of the United States. It’s protected in the Constitution. 

I think what people don’t like is that there’s consequences for what they say. Hate speech is when you direct, through speech, hate or violence towards another group. And one of the things that was actually evident in that legislation that I think is the crux of the problem is that somebody said, “Oh, what could be deemed to be biased by somebody is just somebody else’s opinion.” That is the problem. In believing things like that, I think it’s just an ignorance of the community in which we live. I was in a session where somebody said “All Lives Matter” in response to the education legislation that we’re passing. And so it’s a lack of understanding of what actually is the case.  

I’m not sure if you guys know but we had somebody create an account two days ago, and then go on my personal page and then our campaign page and slander us, call me a racist, call me a racial extremist. One of my friends actually was able to talk to them in a DM conversation and ask them: What’s the difference between free speech and hate speech? What’s the difference between Black Lives Matter organization and the movement?  

The difference between free speech and hate speech is that hate speech is directing animosity, and racial and any type of persecution towards another group. The thing that I think is going to inform us better and educators better is that, yeah, everything can be subjective. But when you say something that directly impacts somebody else’s experience and it doesn’t impact yours, you have to understand what that means.  

A good example is how, as kids, I remember we were like 13, 14, and we would say the R-word, and we didn’t understand that. Obviously, to us, we didn’t consider that to be biased, but we had students with disabilities that consider that to be extremely offensive. And we had to understand and respect that, in the same way that anybody else should understand or respect what somebody asks and tells them of their experience. We all have our own subjective experience. Everybody’s entitled to their own words, but nobody’s entitled to the effect of these words. So if you see that your words clearly have an adverse impact, you have to ask yourself, Is this really a political thing? Or is it something that is actually impacting somebody’s well-being, somebody’s mental health, somebody’s identity? Because that’s what it comes down to. 

You can’t, I think, predict the way that something’s going to affect somebody’s identity. And then when they say that you can’t just say, “well that’s how you see it,” because that literally affects them. So again, the difference is hate speech directs animosity and hate towards somebody else. People are going to argue with the subjectivity of it. But I think we all as students, we know what is insulting somebody else’s identity and experience we know what makes somebody feel unsafe in a certain space.

“People are dismayed with the current bias reporting system, which is understandable, but they’re also not too happy about the consequences of speech. We should all have free speech, we should all have the ability to say what we actually believe about the nation, but we do not have the right to insult somebody, or to or to say something that actually negatively impacts somebody’s existence and their identity. Those are two different things — they’re mutually exclusive.”

Mason Holland, USG Pres. Candidate

Free speech is not under attack at UConn. People are dismayed with the current bias reporting system, which is understandable, but they’re also not too happy about the consequences of speech. We should all have free speech, we should all have the ability to say what we actually believe about the nation, but we do not have the right to insult somebody, or to or to say something that actually negatively impacts somebody’s existence and their identity. Those are two different things — they’re mutually exclusive. They’re not part and parcel with each other.  

If elected I plan to actually clarify these and have conversations around them to actually get us to a place where we understand that. I know I’m not going to be perfect; we’re not all going to be perfect. We’re not all going to be like, “This is free speech. This is hate speech.” As we grow, new situations are going to come up and, and that’s going to change. But unequivocally, I do want to actually have conversations within the institution about what those mean. Plain and simple, they’re different because one attacks somebody’s identity, and one doesn’t. And I think we’re all intelligent enough to know what does and what doesn’t. 

Especially recently with the pandemic, students have reported issues with mental health services on campus. If elected, what changes would you encourage the administration to make regarding mental health? 

Thank you for that question. That’s something that was one of the first things we integrated as a part of our platform.  

So, a little information about me. I’ve had depression for four years now. It started while I was in high school, and it kind of extended over to the very first couple of months of college. See, in this regard, I realized how poor the system or the UConn and now, bringing up the pandemic, people aren’t in person any longer. So you’re not even able to have the in-person experience where you can talk to somebody; it’s reduced to being over a phone.  

One thing that needs to change within the institution that’s already changing actively is cluster hires, increasing cluster hires, people of different ethnicities, and language diversity, because every student needs to feel represented in a space. I can tell you, as I’m black and Puerto Rican, as a student of color, there are certain things I just can’t explain to certain people. There’s just cultural things that have happened to me, and that are part of my identity that I can’t get through explaining to people. I would need somebody who’s understanding [of] that experience to just talk about what’s happened, rather than trying to figure out the different facets of why that happened.  

Obviously, number one, increasing just the diversity within SHaW (Student Health and Wellness). But also, secondly,  increasing transparency on the insurance at SHaW. It’s a shameful situation when students are trying to go get help, and they think that their insurance covers something, and they get to a stage where UConn denies insurance, and says that this is not covered under this, and it sets their process way back. And if they had known this five or 10 minutes ago, or a day ago, it would have saved them so much more time, and they would have been able to redirect their actions in a different direction.  

Another part of that is getting in the administration actually now, it’s a thing I really do. It comes from students being a part of our platform. It’s Reimagine, Reinvest, Rebuild. The Reimagine part is reimagining student power. As students, we have so much power, not just individually, but in mass. And anytime I think we collectively come together to say, either this is something that we want, or this is something we’ve identified as a problem. The university administration is always going to be willing to follow suit when they see that support. That’s happened with mental health already. So far, students have come out and said exactly the question that you asked: How do we change these things?  

We have these conversations. We interrupted the Board of Trustees meeting last year and spoke to our testimonies, we made it so that the administration couldn’t avert their eyes or divert their attention. And we got them to a place where they understand that this is something we need to do, and in part with getting them to change stuff and, and getting them to actually do some initiatives and do cluster hires, and just different things to make the institution better. We as students have to come together and support our fellow peers. We live in —  and this is kind of the philosophical, poly-sci coming out to me —  a society that’s very individualist, where everybody wants to put in those long, hard days and long hard nights and grind and put their mental health aside just for an A or something like that. It’s not healthy; it’s toxic, not just for the culture, but for people’s wellbeing.  

One of the things that we’ve made a point of our platform is to uplift people who have different ideas. To help students with mental health on campus, we can’t just be in a place where we’re expecting administration to do these things and then distinguish. We’re just going to go on with our daily lives and not support each other, that way. We need to be there for each other, we need to make sure that everybody not only feels represented but feels accounted for. That is as big a part of getting the administration to do the job as it is keeping everybody safe. 

Getting the administration to do the job is really in the vein of talking to them and getting them to change things within the institution give them a sort of initiative, but also them seeing that we’ve committed to doing this, as Huskies, right, we’ve committed to actively protecting our pack, we’ve committed to creating a self and welcoming environment, where everybody can talk about their mental health and not feel like they’re excluded from that conversation. So I do think it’s a two-part situation, one that we can actually change ourselves and one that we’re actually gonna have to talk to administration and do. Both ways will engender administration to notice that there is a problem, a major problem, and just start to start to act on that. 

Photo courtesy of Peter Fenteany / The Daily Campus.

Even as the university reopens, there are fears of budget cuts in UConn’s future. How will you ensure that student wants are communicated holistically and firmly to the university? 

The biggest job of USG or any institution is to connect groups to administration. Every student has a different reason for being at the university, a different reason for doing the things that they do in the university.  

There’s programs that are cut, there are scholarships that are cut. There’s majors that are cut out. And a part of it is knowing what is actually on the chopping block, like what is actually at risk to being eliminated from the university. The only way we know and — I’m sorry, I’m saying this a lot — is really in talking to people, right, we can’t just have these ideas of like, “oh, this sounds good,” because in reality, there’s so much we need to know about each other. And there’s so much we need to learn about these different groups. Number one, actually going on talking to these groups.  

The second thing is actually connecting them to the university, any space they can have. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and NPHC (National Pan-Hellenic Council), we hosted a town hall last semester to talk about the objectives we wanted to see the university address in relation to racial tensions. If this situation continues to get worse and more things are up to be limited at the university, we in USG should be able to hold the town hall to have a space for students to speak to that.  

One thing I think is characteristic of the administration is that they always say to me, every time I talk to them, “oh my god, we’re so glad you’re here because we don’t get this enough. We don’t know how students feel. We don’t talk to students enough.” They’re always not going to put themselves in the position to hear students. USG has to do that, USG has to provide that medium to bring both parties together. To be able to address them, students don’t have a direct line to administration. As a freshman, when I was emailing TomKat, I was emailing Dougherty, I didn’t get answers back. Now that I’m in a position of being NAACP president, UCCO public education outreach chair, USG presidential candidate — now I get those emails back. It’s about using those connections that we have as student leaders, to connect groups that don’t have that influence, don’t have those contacts, don’t have that type of time to actually put in for that. 

It’s going to be in advocating and a lot of people have, in the past, been reluctant to call out, quite frankly, the bullsh*t where it was. If the administration is not caring about the students, if certain things that are up to the university and the administration is not communicated that there’s a lot of care, and there’s a lot of will, to actually keep those there — USG has to call them out. We are the student advocates. I’m not afraid of telling administration that we don’t feel you’re representing students, we don’t feel that you’re actually caring about the students that you have and addressing the needs that are here. Being as as much of an advocate as possible, and making sure that students can talk to administration is going to be the main thing that we’re focused on, and the main thing that we want to see. To your point, the pandemic has created a lot of problems that exacerbated a lot of people’s economic situations;, it’s impacted a lot. And the best way that we can mitigate that, we could really try to save students from potentially having to leave the university or have their overall undergrad status impacted, is by letting them talk to administration, and be in those rooms of administration to have a hand in what’s happening institutionally.  

They need to be transparent through that whole process. People shouldn’t have to find out their sports team is getting cut after not hearing anything. If we’re going to be in those rooms, or we’re going to be advocating, we should connect those groups. We should also let students know, when you’re not here, when we’re talking to administration, one-on-one, this is what they’re saying. This is what’s coming down the pipeline.  

I know Ethan is student trustee now, but Noah Frank is running unopposed now. It’s going to be for people like him to come out and say: This is what’s being talked about in these trustee meetings. This is what the administration is saying. Transparency, communication and advocacy is going to be the crux of addressing that problem. 

Many students are upset about UConn’s contributions to the climate crisis through fossil fuel developments and other unsustainable practices. How will you hold the university administration accountable to pursuing renewable energy and to protecting the environment? 

The first thing is, and this is something that we also said during the debate that I like to contextualize, we want to come in and declare a climate emergency. And then within the width of the legislation, outline all the individual ways that it’s impacting students on campus. People will talk about the climate crisis as if it’s just one of the many things that are impacting society and holding society back. It’s one of the things that will wipe us as a human race off the planet if we don’t understand it’s a major issue. It’s only apt to declare that this is an emergency and then understand this is not just affecting everybody equally. This is affecting students of color specifically.  

My mother is from Jersey City, N.J. And one of the things that we want understood that the environmental impact has affected is the health of my family that lives in places where there’s industry, and places where it’s so hot during the summertime but there’s no shade, only a lot of pavement. People are dying from heat stroke and suffering from that. We have to understand the intersection, the wide ranging impacts the climate crisis has, and then address that. I’ve already said, I don’t like statements of position, but for this one, I definitely think there needs to be one in terms of saying you realize that this isn’t just happening. This is an emergency, this is something we have to move on, and push things to the forefront to work on.  

In saying that, one of the things that we’ve been working on for the past couple of years that I’m still learning more about is our relationship with the soda companies, with Coca-Cola, a prospective one with Pepsi. We need to get in the middle of those conversations and really impact them and cause issues, as many issues as possible. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are some of the largest polluters of the environment, and the fact that UConn tries to use them to boost itself economically is really sad. So number one, it’s really going to be about trying to eliminate that first agreement — I know that agreements are coming to a close soon — and trying to never let them get another contract with another polluter. That’s going to be a part of everything that we do.  

The last part, which is something that I was talking to Sarah Hill with — and they’ve been crucial campaign as well, bringing them in and having them talk about, the ways that we can impact environmental advocacy — they alerted me to the fact that the President’s working sustainability group has been lacking members because people have graduated. It’s time to get those seats filled again, and to get everybody on the same page to be able to talk to the administration. One of the things that administration loves to do, and I actually understood this most aptly in a meeting that I had this week, is that when issues aren’t seen as too large, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get them done. Administration sits back and waits for people to graduate, and they wait for the issues to die down, and they wait for students to stop caring. This is something that we literally cannot afford to stop caring about; we cannot afford to continue having continued advocacy.  

“”I’ll be the first one to tell you, I am not personally an environmental advocate in the work that I do on a daily basis. More of my work is related to gender, racial-based work, and equity work. But I’m learning more about how the environment and inequities tie into all of that. It’s going to be about supporting and boosting advocacy.”

Mason Holland, USG Pres. Candidate

Not having plastic and foam is tremendous, having different places to recycle on campus, having the awareness of the fact that we need to have environmental advocacy on campus is important. But we actually have to make that explicit, to make that tangible, to actually get people into positions to where they can advocate.  

I’ll be the first one to tell you, I am not personally an environmental advocate in the work that I do on a daily basis. More of my work is related to gender, racial-based work, and equity work. But I’m learning more about how the environment and inequities tie into all of that. It’s going to be about supporting and boosting advocacy. It’s going to be about students who’ve done this their entire career at UConn, and getting them into the position where they can advocate this to embody the way that we try to advocate for the student body and other facets.  

Those are the ways in which we plan to impact the environment. Those are not by any stretch of the imagination the only things we hope to accomplish. We definitely want to support more student initiatives, but it’s definitely a part of our platform. It’s definitely something we want to speak to. 

We’re about out of time, so are there any last comments you want to make to our readers to pitch your candidacy? 

When you go out and vote March 2 to March 4, we have tangible initiatives. Something that has been characteristic of USG presidents or candidates over the past several years is that they say things that sound good. They say things that get everybody on board, that gets people to go out and vote, that gets people to actually show up in the polls for them. Then, when they get to the place that they’re going to get, they settle in, and USG just becomes another thing that they do on campus.  

For us, USG is going to be a continued space in which we advocate for students. It’s going to be a place where we can continue to magnify the things that students go through every day, and you’ll see if you guys have seen our platform, it’s expensive for a reason. Because there is a lot to do, there’s a lot we want to do and there’s a lot we plan to do. When seeing these and when looking at these interviews, ask yourselves as voters who represents the vision that you want to see at this university. Who actually has the ideas, who has the experience and who has the ability to make that all happen?  

Lastly, something else I would say that’s unrelated to the election is to stay safe. This is a very, very difficult time for all of us economically, socially, familiarly, on a university scale. This is a place in which we all need to stay safe and take each other’s existence into account, wellbeing into account, humanity into account. Put love before anything else and really stay safe out here because it definitely is treacherous out here.

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