Year in review: The legacy of AUSG’s first black president, Devontae Torriente
Three months after leaving office, Torriente shares the successes, failures and racism he saw on the job
Devontae Torriente was the first black AU Student Government President in an organization he says has often been coined a “white boys club.”
And after his presidency, AU elected its first black woman SG President, Taylor Dumpson.
For Torriente, being president of that club was difficult, he said.
“It has been a very long year. I feel like from the moment that I’ve started to now… it has been always something in terms of what is going on in campus,” Torriente said in an April interview. “Being in a position like this where you are a very public person on campus, but you’re also just a student and a regular person… it’s been very stressful and difficult.”
Presidency was tumultuous from the start
Torriente began his presidency and the school year with the resignation of AUSG Secretary Faith Rokowski on Aug. 8, 2016.
Rokowski’s resignation prompted an investigation and report by the Senate’s Committee on Oversight and Accountability. The report said Torriente and the rest of the SG executive board -- Vice President Sam Vervaeke and Comptroller Shannon McDermott -- “suggested/encouraged” Rokowski’s resignation.
“Devontae was hugely impacted by this, everyone in this office was hugely impacted by this,” Torriente’s chief of staff Josh Gutmaker said. “It was not just a sad event for her and a hurtful event, it was really horrible for everyone. And Devontae had a lot of mental health setbacks because of that.”
Torriente said there were several different conversations within the executive board, other members of SG, and Student Activities to mediate problems he saw occurring. The report led to an apology issued by Torriente to Rokowski.
"I stand by my previous message; Student Government has a lot of improving to do when it comes to being an organization where people's wellbeing is a priority,” Rokowski said in a statement to The Eagle via Facebook message. “My experience aside, I appreciated Devontae's commitment to try to take on issues that mattered to us as students.”
Torriente said his priority was making sure all members of the executive board were doing their job.
“It was never anyone’s intention and never going after anyone in particular, it was more so making sure that we were all on the same page and working to the standards that I think the organization deserved and the student body deserved,” Torriente said. “And that’s just not what we were getting in that situation.”
Following Rokowski’s resignation, Torriente had to nominate a replacement for secretary. He nominated Rosalie Black but the senate rejected the nomination.
“Obviously, I was disappointed when Rosie wasn’t confirmed,” Torriente said referring to Black. “I think Rosie could have added a lot to the organization, a fresh perspective and really bringing her experience with different outside organizations with PR and marketing.”
Torriente later nominated SG Secretary Kris Schneider, who was serving as interim secretary at the time and was approved by the senate. Schneider will also serve as the 2017-18 secretary after being elected in March.
According to Torriente, his biggest failure was probably “investing” too much time in the “drama” that occurred at the beginning of the school year.
“I got very wrapped up in that and that just sucked a lot of my time and energy,” Torriente said. “I regret not doing a better job prioritizing.”
Torriente saw racism on the job, he said
On Sept. 8, black students reported a hate crime on campus, from obscenities being drawn on their board to bananas being thrown at them. On May 1, Taylor Dumpson’s first day in office, students found bananas hanging from nooses on trees.
“I would like us to not only listen to the experiences of students who are marginalized and feel unsafe, but that we continue to work toward devising solutions together as a community,” Torriente told The Eagle last September. “It’s going to be difficult, emotional and disheartening to hear what black students and students of color have experienced on our campus, but I am optimistic that we’ll be able to move forward together and repair our fractured community.”
In addition to the stress, Torriente said that as the first black SG President, he’s seen racism both in his capacity as president and outside of it.
“Racism over time has adapted to become much more insidious than people realize and that racism cannot just be being called the n-word, or a racial slur,” Torriente said in April. “Racism manifests in much more duplicitous ways than that.”
On a personal level, Torriente said he was “stigmatized” as an “aggressive black man” after Rokowski resigned from her position.
“It was people seeing and getting to know me as this big bad aggressive black guy victimizing this innocent white woman and that’s how the story played out,” Torriente said.
Torriente said he started going to counseling as the racism he experienced in SG negatively impacted his mental health.
“I literally had to start going to counseling to really find a constructive way, a productive way, to deal with these emotions,” Torriente said. “It was really difficult at first because on top of that and what was happening, I still had to do my job and be a leader for the student body.”
As far as changing SG from a “white boys club,” Gutmaker thinks Torriente has changed the culture within SG.
“The Faith related stuff is not the culture we’re talking about. That level of bad doesn’t normally happen,” Gutmaker said. “We’re talking about an all white senate trying to impeach the one African-American person. That’s the culture that we were trying to change and that changed with the new senate. But I think that Devontae’s presence and the people he’s surrounded himself with helped ease out of the old boys club.”
Gutmaker and Schneider both said they believe that Torriente was held to a higher standard as SG president because of his race.
“What I’ve seen repeatedly is that he’s held to a fundamentally different standard than some other members of student government,” Schneider said. “I think people expect the world of him and don’t even hold themselves to the same standard.”
Torriente accomplished some goals, fell short on others, he said
When it comes to the platform he ran on, Torriente said he didn’t accomplish everything, but implemented most of the things on his platform.
“I think I was able to accomplish a great deal of them in one way or another, but I wish I did a better job of prioritizing very early on and making sure no matter what happened, I still had a plan to continue to work on certain things,” Torriente said.
Additionally, Torriente mentioned that he had a plan to create a curriculum or an Empower AU program that related with racial and cultural inclusion but did not complete the project because “there were so many other things that happened.”
Though his relationship with the executive board had a tough start, student leaders said they enjoyed working with Torriente. Schneider, who started the job in October, said his experience working with Torriente has been productive.
“I’ve had a great experience working with Devontae,” Schneider said. “I think he’s extremely talented in being a student leader.”
Additionally, Torriente worked closely with McDermott during this year’s budget year, which included a 4 percent tuition increase. McDermott serves as the undergraduate representative to the University Budget Committee and Torriente said the two worked to make sure an “emphasis is placed on increasing support for student services.”
“I think one of the biggest struggles is that people don’t really understand the role that we played in that process and I think it’s something that we tried to communicate very clearly,” Torriente said. “We were given a difficult hand and we made the best of it.”
Besides Wills, Schneider and McDermott, Torriente worked with Vervaeke, who is in charge of programming events as vice president.
Vervaeke said she and Torriente “hit it off” as friends, which helped them work together throughout their terms.
“We really created a strong friendship which I think was important going into the school year that we had,” Vervaeke said. “In this position it’s super important that you really know each other because it’s a really high stress role.”
Looking forward to the next president
With the election of rising senior Taylor Dumpson to the presidency in March, Torriente said there’s “a lot of hope” for the student body. Dumpson is the first black woman to be elected SG president.
Torriente said he was in shock when he heard that bananas were found hanging from nooses on Dumpson’s first day, which is being investigated as a hate crime.
“I remember the day, I will never forget it,” Torriente said in a July interview. “I was in a weird state of disbelief where this, this is something that was very intentionally done.”
For about a week, Torriente spent time with Dumpson supporting her, both as a friend and a past SG president.
“I made it a point to stick around as long as she needed me to, as long as I felt it was necessary, because I knew she was new to the job and figure out the position when something this public is happening,” Torriente said.
Torriente said Dumpson handled the situation with poise.
“I really think she stepped up at a time when she was personally under attack and she made sure that the perpetrators of that act didn't scare her or silence her,” Torriente said. “It emboldened her to be a better leader.”
Torriente still has hope for what’s to come in making SG a more welcoming space for students of color. In the fall, Torriente will serve as the Deputy Director of Internal Management in the Kennedy Political Union.
In addition to Dumpson, Vice President Solomon Self and Comptroller Christine Machovec being students of color, Torriente is happy to see students of color as leaders in other roles, like Valentina Fernández as the first Latinx student board trustee, Shyheim Snead as director of KPU and Bisah Suh as director of the Student Union Board.
“I think SG has definitely changed for the better since when I first joined,” Torriente said. “I think once we have a student of color in the highest student leadership position at AU, that it sent a signal that you know there is a place for students of color and black students on this campus and we’re going to thrive no matter who tries to stop us.”
Vervaeke said she is also looking forward to seeing more people of color represented in the organization.
“It’s really, really awesome seeing the executive board coming in as mostly people of color so I think that’s super, super important for our organization going forward, that we have just as many students of color in our organization rather than just a bunch of white people,” Vervaeke said in April.
Gutmaker said Dumpson’s term will be different from Torriente because of the roadblocks Torriente knocked down as the first black SG president.
“The three people that got newly elected, they’re going to change everything, and I can tell you as transition director, a lot of the people that are applying [for cabinet positions] are not the normal student government people,” Gutmaker said in an April interview.
Torriente wants to see the institutional change in SG, with more people of color in the organization and more nuanced conversations about racism.
“I think that was something culturally I was able to lay the groundwork for and something that Taylor’s going to continue and execute in the best way possible,” Torriente said. “I’ve worked with Taylor before and I think she is an absolute visionary and I think she’s exactly what we need on this campus.”