Student Government candidates address diversity, dining and classroom bias at first Black Caucus debate
Event was hosted by black student organizations, which voted to endorse four candidates
Candidates for the 2019-2020 Student Government executive board answered questions and engaged with audience members from the first annual Black Student Caucus AUSG Debate on Sunday night.
Moderated by students Anthony Mensah and Danielle Germain, the candidates answered questions from Twitter, the audience and the moderators. Much of the discussion revolved around the roles each candidate has played in increasing representation for marginalized communities within SG and the student body at large.
The Black Caucus met after the debate to decide on their formal endorsements, with each of the 12 member organizations receiving a voluntary participatory vote, The Blackprint reported. The caucus, of which The Blackprint is a member, endorsed Joshua Dantzler for president, Mulan Burgess for vice president, James Kwon for secretary and Bobby Zitzmann for comptroller.
“We’re trying to give you all a chance to get to know the candidates a little better and see how they impact the issues in our community,” Mensah said to the audience. “We want to help facilitate that conversation.”
Major themes of the night were dictated by both the moderators and audience, and primarily centered around diversity, dining and issues of representation in the classroom.
Candidates discuss possibility of Black House, involvement with multicultural organizations
Many students asked the candidates about their positions toward creating a Black House on campus, a location where black students could build community and have a space to call their own. Presidential candidate Joshua Dantzler was vocal in his support for a Black House.
“[We need] a space where we can heal, a space where we can be ourselves, a space where we can build community,” Dantzler said. “The black community needs some space, y’all.”
Vice presidential candidate Mulan Burgess agreed and said the current multicultural space located on the third floor of Mary Graydon Center, HOME, is insufficient for the needs of black students. He said that AU needs to learn from how Georgetown University and George Washington University have developed their own black residential communities.
Carolyn Mejia said that student voices should be heeded over any one individual’s perspective. Students have complained about the limited use of the space since it was opened in fall 2017, The Eagle previously reported.
“AU claims that it’s very woke and it’s very aware, and yet … we have HOME, and it’s misused,” Mejia said. “It’s not meeting the needs of students, and that’s really showing that the administration is failing.”
Presidential candidate Angela Chen said that the way AU handled HOME indicates its disregard for students of color. She pointed out that its location on the third floor and registration requirement turn students off to its use.
“There should be no barriers to access when you create spaces like this,” Chen said.
Audience and moderator questions also addressed candidates’ experiences with multicultural organizations on campus and how students would address the issues facing students of color at AU. In regard to their ability to advocate for students of color, candidates pointed to their organizational and programming experience.
“As AU Dems president, something I realized very quickly is that a lot of our speakers are just white men,” Chen said. “So when I started the AU Dems speaker series, I wanted to bring more voices to the table that sounded and looked like students at American University.”
Dantzler addressed a different area, the issue of black representation on campus. He discussed the struggles black students have had with representation on AUSG’s executive board, while saying he would build off the efforts of previous leaders and seek help from the community.
Burgess added that in the past, black leaders in AUSG have been quickly pushed out of their roles.
“I’ve had conversations with black student leaders that have been in student government, including Taylor Dumpson,” Burgess said. “[AUSG] has been quick to push them out, impeach them or suspend them.”
Secretary candidate Danya Adams and comptroller candidate Bobby Zitzmann, both currently serving in the SG Senate, discussed structural issues they see in student government policy that have contributed to suspensions of student leaders.
Zitzmann said that transition materials for incoming executive board members have been unclear and incomplete in describing duties, making it difficult for students without institutional knowledge and support to succeed in their roles. Gisselle Gladden, the current comptroller, was suspended earlier this semester after facing issues with the transition documents.
How candidates would address complaints with dining options, Aramark
With Aramark’s expected departure from AU and recent student protests about meal plan affordability, issues with AU Dining were addressed throughout the debate, first brought up by Chen during her opening statement.
“My platform is based around leveling the playing field for first-generation and low-income students and students of color,” Chen said. “We need to be completely ridding the campus of Aramark and introducing more private venders so students have more dining options they can use EagleBucks with.”
Zitzmann said that from his perspective, the primary considerations regarding dining are related to affordability and student advocacy. He commended the student movement that prevented a more expensive mandatory dining plan for sophomores, stating that he hoped to facilitate and support future student movements through his comptroller role.
“We need to focus on the dissemination of information,” Zitzmann said. “That was the most important part of the meal plan advocacy this year. If you disseminate information that you happen to be in a position to get first, that can allow students… to advocate for themselves.”
Adams said the position of secretary has a “unique ability” to spread information and coordinate students, especially for AU dining. She said she’ll utilize social media and SG’s master email list to keep the campus informed of all events.
James Kwon, also running for secretary said that “on-campus dining sucks,” explaining that a primary reason that he moved off campus was the quality and cost of available food. He proposed an anonymous Google form where students could voice concerns about dining and advocated for a weekly Q&A about dining issues.
Burgess added that his experiences as a low-income student have shown him how meal plan affordability is a major issue. In the past, he said, SG hasn’t advocated enough for more achievable costs, and students don’t feel comfortable approaching leaders to advocate for them.
“We need to be standing with students [whether or not we agree with them],” Burgess said. “They want to be represented.”
Mejia advocated for the creation of a space where students could feel comfortable voicing their concerns not just about dining, but about issues like classroom bias, too.
“Perhaps it might not be direct advocacy,” Mejia said, “but you are allowing a space where students can … access university officials to advocate for what they need to see change.”
Students have certain rights at a university, including access to good food, Dantzler said. He also advocated for changes to meal plans to allow meal-swipe rollover between semesters and to increase the variety of off-campus locations that accept EagleBucks.
“When you eat good, you do good, you feel good,” he said. “And some of us aren’t doing good because we aren’t eating good.”
Chen added that “Aramark has to go.” She said that it would be unacceptable the vendor stayed on in any capacity, arguing that the corporation treats its workers poorly.
Additionally, she put forward the idea of the University subsidizing food service if it continued to grow more expensive, considering the already-high cost of attendance at AU.
Candidates address AUx, classroom bias and workers rights
Asked about how students of color are forced to feel responsible for representing their entire communities in the AUx program, the presidential and vice presidential candidates critiqued the program for failing students of color.
Burgess and Chen said black students need to feel comfortable in the classroom, reflecting on how feelings of tokenization are stoked by AUx and similar courses. Burgess also noted that black voices are otherwise left out of the conversation when not in a tokenizing context.
Dantzler and Chen both agreed to the creation of more effective reporting systems for classroom bias. An audience member asked Chen if she had consulted with AU’s NAACP chapter, which has organized events around classroom and professor bias, about her proposed reforms for the bias reporting system. Chen said she had not.
Additionally, the candidates were asked about how they would advocate for workers' rights with Aramark. If the vendor is replaced, there is a possibility that workers will lose their jobs. In 2013, when the University transitioned from Bon Appetit to Aramark, almost all workers stayed at AU, The Eagle reported. However, in 2015, The Eagle reported that multiple workers lost pensions during the transition, forcing them to work past their desired retirement age.
Chen was vocal about her support for workers, calling for students and SG leaders to advocate for their rights. Kwon agreed and said that SG needs to advocate for the removal of Aramark and the need to protect workers.
“Some of you will be elected to this office,” Ryan Barto, a former SG member in the audience, said to audience applause. “In the theme of Shirley Chisholm, you will have a seat at that table, but for your friends here, make sure to bring a folding chair.”