While many consider the end of the second semester to be the busiest time of year for Student Senate in regards to the creation of the 2019-20 budget, students in cultural organizations attended the meeting to voice their concerns about diversity and inclusion on campus.
On April 4, the Twitter account @ValpoOnBlast tweeted “Valparaiso Student Senate voted to remove their diversity representative. Minorities no longer get a voice. Not that they had one to begin with.”
In response, according to a Twitter thread made by Senator Kaitlyn Steinhiser’s personal account, Steinhiser said, in attempt to make the qualifications for the Minority Senator position clearer in the eyes of the Student Senators and campus body, Student Senate included a change in name to the seats in the reapportion process, which occurs every two years.
The Student Senate bylaws stated that Minority Senators included "race, color, disability, national origin or ancestry, ethnicity, sexual orientation and religion." The new seat would include an Ethnically Underrepresented Senator, a student with an ethnicity deemed underrepresented on Valpo’s campus by the National Center of Education Statistics, and an Underrepresented Identity Senator, which could be students identifying as members of the LGBTQ+ community or having a diagnosis through the AARC.
During this process, Student Senate brought their proposal to the administration lawyers, who informed the Senators this reapportioned seat and the previous seats violated the law and university guidelines. These seats have been held for over 20 years, and the law protects a person being mandated to identify with a specific group in an organization and with federal non-discriminatory policies.
Ultimately, the proposal could not be added and the new, as well as the original, Minority Seat were slashed from the list of Senator positions available for students to run for, leaving the Senators with only four days to complete the reapportionment.
“Needless to say, we were shocked. If our new seats broke this law, why didn't our old Minority Senator ones break the law as well? Well, they did too. We had these seats for 20+ years, and no one thought to check with the lawyers,” Steinhiser said in the forum of concerns as she read her Tweet aloud. “We're all disappointed. I was one of the two Senators who wrote the original Minority Senator reform proposal. However, this is not the end of Senate's work to promote diversity and inclusion.”
On April 8, students and allies of students involved in the Office of Multicultural Programming (OMP) and the Office of International Programs (OIP) came to the Student Senate meeting to address their feelings about the situation at-large during the forum of concerns held at the beginning of the Student Senate meetings.
“Our frustrations lie with the faculty advisors of Student Senate and the general council for the lack of transparency on this issue,” said Lesley Barajas, a student who spoke during the forum of concerns.
The ruling of the removal of the Senate seats sent a shockwave through the minority student body, according to Barajas, which she claims can no longer be ignored.
“In recent years we have left those seats vacant, forfeiting our opportunity to use our voice. We have done so because we feel Student Senate is an uncomfortable place to work in and often feel our desires are generally not taken seriously,” Barajas said.
“Discomfort is now irrelevant. These people who are walking around are showing you how we feel. Now we know how we feel is not significant when we do not have a voice in the representative body. Hence, our presence will not be a one-time thing,” Barajas said. “We will show up to Student Senate hearings and run for seats. We want our voices to be heard.”
Several Senators agreed that the lack of transparency they have with the student body has been unacceptable. Part of the disconnect comes from an un-updated website, which doesn’t include the minutes or Senate updates.
“I’ll be very honest -- I was very embarrassed to be in Senate this week,” said Senator Jesse Hershberger. “It shouldn’t be up to individual Senators like Senator Steinhiser who took time out of her day to educate people on her personal Twitter account.”
Sophomore Braxton Jenkins also spoke at the meeting.
“If we do this respectfully, acknowledging our ignorances and listening to one another, we can get closer to the essential means that lie at the center of Student Senate’s propositions,” Jenkins said. “These propositions are what effect students on campus. This is what we react to. Let us not silence dissenting opinions. Instead, welcome them into the conversation.”
During the forum of concerns, a group of 13 women approached the front of the room holding signs.
“For our two minutes, we won’t speak, but you will see our message in other ways,” said Jessica Andrade. Andrade and 12 other women stood in front of the Student Senate, silent, holding varying signs up at their chests. The signs each had a word or phrase attached such as “underrepresented,” “angered,” “unimportant” and “silent not silenced.”
Senior meteorology major Donald Long recited the famous Maya Angelou poem, “I know why the caged bird sings” in response to his frustration regarding the lack of voice and inclusion minority students have experienced.
“But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams / his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream / his wings are clipped and his feet are tied / so he opens his throat to sing,” Long recited.
Senator Greg MacYszak believes this situation displayed not only a greater opportunity for transparency but also a greater demand.
“The anger and angst that has been displayed by many can be turned into action. For one, your mobilization here tonight is appreciated and I stand here tonight, in solidarity with you,” MacYszak said.
Overall, MacYszak hopes this situation will encourage student participation and engagement within Student Senate.
Senator Isis Zaki recalls a moment during the forum of concerns that particularly stuck out to her.
“We had a student come up and say minorities do not feel welcomed in this space. I think that’s extremely significant because it’s one thing to talk about diversity and it’s another thing to put that into action,” Zaki said.
Zaki wants to remind students that Student Senate is not just about recognizing organizations or allocating budgets but it’s also a space where students can make an impact on campus.
In response to the removal of the minority and international seats, Senators MacYszak, Emily Flores, Liam Bodlak and Steinhiser have come up with a proposal to create a Diversity and Inclusion Committee. This committee will involve the heads of the OMP and the OIP on campus and encourage discussion regarding multicultural inclusion on campus.
The proposal for the creation of this committee was presented at the Student Senate meeting, but will be voted on during the meeting on April 15.