AU College Democrats’ leaders resign following complaints over lack of diversity, inclusivity

Group should heal harm done to Black community, AU BSU says

AU College Democrats’ leaders resign following complaints over lack of diversity, inclusivity

Students celebrate the announcement of Sharice Davids as the winner of a Kansas congressional race at an AU Dems watch party Tuesday. 

All members of the executive board of American University College Democrats resigned from their positions last week, after pushback about a lack of representation of students of color in leadership positions.

The group’s president, vice president, chief of staff, treasurer, communications director, director of activism, director of diversity, equity and inclusion, and social chair stepped down. In statements posted on Facebook and Instagram, each expressed their reasons for stepping down, most of which centered around the need for more representation of people of color in their organization.

“To truly put this organization in the place I want to see it go, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] voices must be amplified in leadership, and that must start from the top,” former president Rhett Martino said in a Facebook statement on June 29.

Martino said in a statement to The Eagle that resignations were made as a step to “meet the magnitude of the problem.”

“Personally, I believe that I was elected to enact reform on campus in this organization's capacity, and continuing to occupy the seat as head of this organization is not what I currently want to do if that means less representation for marginalized communities in AU Dems leadership,” Martino said. 

In a statement that AU Dems published on Wednesday, Jeremy Ward, previously a deputy diversity, equity and inclusion director, was appointed as the executive director for the duration of the summer, and he will be hosting town halls during this transitional period to determine the next steps for the organization.

In an interview with The Eagle on Wednesday, Ward said that the entire executive board, including the members that had already resigned, had a Zoom call to discuss the resignations and decided to appoint him as the executive director. 

“I just want to speak to as many people as possible and understand their opinions on how the club has made them feel unwelcome, unvalued and tokenized, at times,” Ward said. “Then we’ll compile that report and send a list of recommendations that we’ll make public to the student body.”

While there are long withstanding issues with diversity, Ward said, there have been people in the organization who have tried to implement change.

However, former Vice President Christopher Bastida, who was one of the three students of color on the executive board, was the first to post a statement of resignation. In an interview with The Eagle, Bastida said that the organization had not made proper changes toward more representation during his time there.

“In light of the discussions taking place over social media over the past days both regarding AU Dems and the overtly racist climate that is our campus, and what I can only describe as an unsettling, disturbing, and lackluster response from certain others on this executive board, I am left with no hope for the future of this organization as it stands,” Bastida said in his statement.

Bastida said in the interview that the group's leaders should apologize for their "history and past actions."

Bastida said that he coordinated his resignation with Eduardo Castellet Nogués, the former chief of staff. Following the resignations of other board members, Bastida said that he questions how genuine they are. He said he feels as though the resignations are in response to the controversy and “not necessarily in response to the wrongdoing of those individuals and other individuals in the organization.”

Castellet Nogués said in his statement that while he joined Bastida in his resignation, he knows that Martino recognizes the challenges that the club faces, and he is optimistic about the future of the club. In an interview with The Eagle, though, he said that there were many instances when the board members could have made changes but chose not to.

“Don’t get me wrong, the e-board tried to improve it many times,” Castellet Nogués said. “But after every statement that came out in order to make the club more diverse and address race issues, I kept getting calls, messages and complaints telling me that the statements are performative.” 

The most concerning thing, Castellet Nogués said, is that when the board was hiring the new campaign directors, it took on only white students for the role, despite multiple students of color applying for the four positions.

“It felt like we were making a lot of statements, but when we had an actual chance, we weren’t doing anything about it,” Castellet Nogués said.

In an Instagram post on Tuesday, AU’s Black Student Union announced it was canceling its Summer of Justice partnership with College Democrats following criticism of AU Dems from Black students on social media. The organization urged AU Dems to look within the club and address its problematic history, instead of hiding behind BSU's efforts. 

BSU did not respond to a request for comment. 

Thrisha Mohan, a rising sophomore at AU, was part of a group of people who were considering running for the executive board in the spring. While she ultimately decided not to run, Zuby Chowdhury, who’s Asian American, ran for president and lost by a small margin to Martino. 

Mohan said in an interview that both she and Chowdhury applied for a campaign director position. However, despite Chowdhury losing in a runoff election by 5 percentage points, and other qualified applicants being people of color, none of them received the position. 

After expressing grievances on social media, Aaditi Narayanan, the former diversity, equity and inclusion director, set up a phone call with Mohan to discuss how to improve diversity. Mohan said that the call seemed pointless, given that the organization had an opportunity to give leadership to people of color, but chose not to.

“My point to them was that I am not sure nor do I care why they made that decision, but the fact that they did is exclusionary toward a lot of qualified POC candidates, which is reflective of the organization as a whole and a problem that they knew had existed prior,” Mohan said.

Chowdhury said in an interview with The Eagle that from the moment she became a campaign fellow for the organization prior to her run for president, she was exposed to the toxicity of AU College Democrats.

“As soon as I took the position of fellow, it started going downhill for me because it was the most ridiculous grunt work position ever,” Chowdhury said. “Having really excited students who are intelligent and capable of doing a lot of things for an organization that is supposed to be progressive, just doing fundraising research was really demeaning in my eyes.”

The issues within the club became more and more apparent to her once she decided to run for president, Chowdhury said, and she heard from many people that the club is not a safe space for people of color.

Diamond Terrell, who served as AU College Democrats’ vice president from May to September 2019, said in a message to The Eagle that, as the only Black woman on the board at that time, she was constantly faced with tone policing, condescension and disrespect. She resigned from the role when she realized that the “organization was past the point of reform.” 

“Despite my calls for changing the organization from within, there was no direct action; it has all been performative,” Terrell wrote. “Historically, the organization has made little to no effort to diversify their ranks beyond white feminists, lacking intersectionality at every turn.”

Terrell added that she hoped students would recognize the flaws in the group, instead of supporting it for its past partnerships with Black student organizations. 

“I don’t want my words to get misconstrued, so let me make it clear: more than ever now, multicultural groups on campus are the organizations that need to be most supported,” Terrell wrote.

Issues with representation also extend to the national organization of College Democrats of America. In an open letter to the group published on Tuesday, state federations, called for the immediate resignation of the current president and demanded that people of color will serve and be represented on the next national board.

Bastida said that resignations within AU Dems leadership are necessary to make way for students of color to serve. He said that former board members should not run again. 

“The other resignations that have transpired [Tuesday] morning and that will likely come, I really cannot speak as to their motives,” Bastida said. “However, I am confident in mine and that I am leaving a system that is built to benefit white students.”

Dan Papscun contributed reporting to this article. 

asheffey@theeagleonline.com

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