Straight from print: A reflection on Black leadership

Outgoing SG President takes a look back

Straight from print: A reflection on Black leadership

Devontae Torriente, who served as student government president from 2016-2017, reflects on his leadership over the past year. 

As my term as your student body president comes to a close, I can’t help but think about what this time has meant to me.

What I found most interesting, and painful, about the year is the role my race played in everything I did. When I was campaigning for the position, I tried to avoid being the “Black candidate.” I did not want to be known as the Black guy who only focused on race.

I was a multifaceted candidate with an understanding of many different issues on our campus and I did not want to be pigeonholed or stereotyped. But the fact of the matter is that even while I tried to avoid being the Black candidate, I could not avoid being the Black president.

I started my term on a sour note. Former Student Government Secretary Faith Rokowski resigned early in the year and accusations that I was responsible followed shortly after. It was a story that quickly spiraled out of control and became a source of tension.

I was met with comments and criticisms laced with racist undertones; I was told that I was “aggressive,” that I was a “bully” because I expected basic competence, and my work was constantly being devalued by many people in Student Government. People lied and manipulated the issue to achieve their vengeful ends, reinforcing all the things people say they hate about SG. Ultimately, it detracted from what we were all there to do - our jobs - and resulted in lost time we can never get back.

Race played a significant role in that entire situation, even though I didn’t notice it at first. It was an instance of white mediocrity run amok. This was a situation in which I made clear to Student Government members that the level of work being produced was unacceptable and simply would not suffice. This year, we communicated vital information about the presidential search process, the University budget and other big-ticket items that were a priority for all students, and that required a certain quality of work.

As the Black president of a predominantly white organization, at a predominantly white school, it was much easier for people to make me out to be the big, bad, aggressive Black guy than it was to tell the truth and work on finding a solution. I was placed squarely in the Sunken Place, which represents how the system silences those of us who are marginalized. In short, I was held hostage and there was nothing that I could say or do about the racism I faced because of my position.

Too many of the problems I faced during my presidency mirrored pages taken out of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Native Son” or any work that depicts how anti-Blackness manifests on an institutional or societal level. What I was forced to endure was an attempted high-tech lynching by those directly involved and those who chose to enflame the situation by making it a spectacle in Undergraduate Senate discussions, on social media and to their friends. It was completely unacceptable, but ultimately it hinged on what people wanted to believe.

I say all of this because there is a conversation about race and leadership on our campus that people don’t seem to want to have. I’ve learned that being the Black president of a predominantly white organization and student body comes with a unique set of obstacles to overcome, and we won’t be able to effectively challenge and remove these structural shortcomings if we don’t address them.

We need more people of color, Black people and, more importantly, people who recognize how racism manifests in leadership positions to prevent it from rearing its ugly head the way it did this past year. Essentially, we need more people who are willing to call out and combat racism in Student Government and beyond, and I’m confident that will be the case with the incoming leadership of the organization.

I’ve spent my entire AU career fighting for all of us to have a more nuanced understanding of race and structural barriers. From providing input on and teaching the new AUx courses, to helping change the Conduct Code to account for identity-based motivations in sanctions and creating the Student Involvement Fund to invest in student leaders, this has been and will continue to be my life’s work.

Despite every instance of racism I faced this year, this is only some of what I did as your president. Even in light of the more challenging aspects of my term, I still wholeheartedly believe that my time as president has been one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had. I hope that after all is said and done, my leadership has changed our community for the better and will empower students from marginalized backgrounds to continue to lead even amidst the obstacles in their path.

With that said, I could not have done any of this alone. I have been fortunate enough to have a great team, a strong support system and a passionate student body to sustain me throughout the year.

From the bottom of my heart, I thank you all for the experience of a lifetime.

Devontae Torriente is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and the 2016-17 AUSG president.

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