At the beginning of this academic year, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) passed Resolution 1.42, which institutionalized the Equity and Inclusion Committee (EIC) as a standing committee and redistributed the number of senators previously assigned to all other standing committees. As an official free-standing entity, like the Student Life Committee (SLC) or Academic Affairs Committee (AAC), EIC now has a dedicated chair and senators as well as a spot on the Leadership Board. Currently, Vice President–Elect Ariana Baez ’22 is the committee chair, and four other senators—Anton Lulgjuraj ’24, Elena Brennan ’24, Cypress Hubbard-Salk ’24, and Daëlle Coriolan ’24—sit on the committee.
Previously, there was a vague EIC subcommittee, and the goals of equity and inclusion were understood to be a part of the work of all committees. However, some students voiced that it was difficult to make progress with such an unofficial body, and the subcommittee’s focus and efficacy were highly variable. Additionally, senators already had lots on their plates.
“Part of the reason we thought it was so important to make it a full committee and redistribute seats in the WSA was because having it be a second responsibility for a lot of students made it difficult to prioritize time-wise,” Felicia Soderberg ’21, the current WSA President, said in an interview with The Argus.
Soderberg also noted that, previously, the assembly’s work on equity and inclusion fluctuated greatly from year to year based on who was the chair of the subcommittee.
“My freshman year it was Kim Ortega [’20], and her focus was on sensitivity and bias trainings for student groups, because there were some concerns…going all the way back to things with Ski Team a few years ago about Halloween and things like that,” Soderberg explained. “That was the main focus of EIC at that time and also working with the Resource Center that had recently been established.”
Now that the EIC has been established as a full committee with a dedicated chair and senators, it has been able to make an impressive amount of progress over the course of its first year.
Baez highlighted the committee’s work with Ujamaa, especially in response to the group’s demands expressed in a letter to the administration, board of trustees, and faculty on June 6, 2020. The Black student union’s demands addressed areas such as financial aid, academics, Residential Life, and mental health resources, among many others. Baez emphasized the importance of connecting Ujamaa to the administration to work toward these demands or put supplementary solutions in place instead.
“My pride and joy is the efforts we have made with connecting the Ujamaa board with the administrative leadership,” Baez said.
Baez created a task force with various administrative departments, the WSA, and the board of Ujamaa. The task force was created to work through the manifesto’s demands by taking each one to its respective department and administrators. Baez emphasized that this task force has helped increase accountability for all parties involved and create secondary solutions.
“It is easy to say that you will work on something, to improve a certain aspect of the University, but the follow-through often gets lost,” Baez said.
Baez also highlighted the importance of making the WSA itself more equitable, inclusive, and accessible to the rest of the student body.
“Another thing that I was very proud of was our efforts to create an anti-racist, equitable community within the WSA and opening it up to the Wesleyan community,” Baez explained. “The equity and inclusion committee has committed to implementing some sort of programming to promote diversity, and in the fall I did an anti-racist workshop called Stand Up, Speak Up, Follow Through, co-led by me and outside facilitators.”
An ongoing EIC project with similar goals is the Student Panel Series, in which different groups can come to the WSA to share their experiences and concerns and foster dialogue. The first panel featured Asian and Asian American-identifying students and included members of the Asian American Student Collective (AASC) and the Korean Student Association. The second was focused on student athletes with students from the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and Student-Athletes of Color Leadership Committee (SACLC) in attendance.
“One of my biggest tasks or goals is to redefine the reputation of the WSA as being an institution that is very far removed from the community and not very accessible,” Baez noted.
In the WSA, committees tend to work closely with one branch of the administration: For example, SLC works with Student Affairs. EIC, therefore, has been working closely with the University’s Office for Equity & Inclusion, specifically with Dean for Academic Equity, Inclusion, Success April Ruiz, in addition to collaboration with the Resource Center and Director Demetrius Colvin. One specific collaborative project is the Student of Color Mental Health Collective, which came from the Ujamaa manifesto’s demand to hire a Black clinician within Counseling and Psychological Services.
“When you’re hiring clinicians or any person, you can’t specify, like a Black clinician—that’s against the law—but you can say you want to hire a clinician specializing in racial trauma studies,” Baez explained. “But obviously a search takes a long time…. A supplemental solution that we also included to that demand is creating a working group based on collective healing, separate from the original Eurocentric one-to-one psychological methods, and instead creating a group where students of color can come together to feel on a collective effort.”
Baez also spoke to the challenges of creating change, highlighting the difficulty of bureaucracy and having to work within not only University rules and norms but federal laws and other regulations outside of the University’s control.
“My biggest pushback is not people,” Baez said. “It’s not administrators. It’s not other students. It’s not them saying like, ‘Ah, I don’t think this is going to be done or going to be possible.’ It’s truly like other people, either administrators or other senators who have been in this work longer, letting me know that some of my goals are not black and white. That has been difficult to deal with, just because in my head it seems so clear that…these barriers should not be in existence, but there’s so many other things above me that make it so.”
Despite these barriers, the committee has been able to accomplish a lot. Just last Sunday, the committee presented two new resolutions (15.42 and 16.42), which, if passed, would create two permanent subcommittees on the SLC, both dealing with issues related to equity and inclusion. The first would establish a Facilities Advisory Committee (FAS) and aim to foster more communication and collaboration between the WSA and Facilities. The second would focus on student employment and be called the Student Employment Advisory Committee (SEAC).
“Work study on this campus and student employment is a bit of a mess,” Brennan said. “We’ve been really working to figure out why that is. The answer to that is that it hasn’t been a serious focus of the University for quite some time.”
Brennan expressed that in her time at the University and on the WSA, she has observed that the University doesn’t keep much data regarding student employment, so they don’t know if students are under-employed or otherwise having trouble reaching their work-study allotment.
“My focus as an FGLI [first-generation low-income] student is ensuring that everyone who is awarded work study with their financial aid package is actually able to fulfill their allotment because in the past that has not always been the case,” she said.
Brennan also brought up two long-term projects EIC is working towards: improving programming for incoming FGLI students as well as creating a critical race theory general education requirement. In the Ujamaa letter, under the New Student Orientation & Revised General Ed Requirement section, there was a similar demand.
“We demand that every student at Wesleyan take an African American Studies course in order to graduate,” the letter reads. “African American studies should be included as part of general education requirements, or at least a requirement to graduate with honors.”
Looking to the future, the EIC is excited at the possibilities for further change, given what they have accomplished within just one year.
“This is our first year as a standing committee, so there’s a lot more we’re looking to do and there’s a lot more we can be doing,” Brennan said. “If anyone has any ideas or anything like that, they should feel free to reach out to anyone on EIC now, because we’re just gaining our footing but we have a lot of momentum. I think everyone who is serving on the committee now is really excited that it officially exists and excited at all the things we’re hoping to do in the future.”
Even those not on the EIC recognize its importance. Anna Nguyen ’22, the current SLC chair and President-elect, also spoke to her goals for the future of equity and inclusion within the WSA. She highlighted the work that senators, in particular first years, were doing in regards to student employment and facilities. Nguyen also spoke to continuing to figure out EIC’s role within the WSA at large.
“I think going forward, [we need] to establish when to bring EIC in,” Nguyen said. “Obviously, EIC cannot do every single project in student life or academic affairs or student budget, but when do we think that the perspective of an EIC member is necessary? So, kind of making sure that EIC members have a seat at the table. Because they bring in this very sole focus of equity and inclusion that I think we’ve been missing, it hasn’t been institutionalized [previously].”
Nguyen also spoke to equity and inclusion in the WSA beyond just EIC, pointing out that the representation of students of color and FGLI students on the WSA has increased over time. However, Nguyen emphasized the importance of having consistent representation of those groups on the Leadership Board (LB), which is made up of the President, Vice President, Chief of Staff, and five chairs, one from each committee.
“We don’t see a whole lot of representation yet, or at least we haven’t seen a trend of there being representation of those groups [students of color, first-generation, and/or low-income students] consistently in Leadership Board,” Nguyen explained. “I think that making sure WSA is accessible to those populations is one of Ariana and my biggest goals.”
One of the committee’s solutions for creating accessibility is orientation programming for incoming first years.
“We were thinking a lot about, for example, how do we make sure that during orientation we can have access to the incoming class year, especially those who belong to marginalized groups, and walk them through what the WSA does, how do they run for the WSA,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen also stressed the importance of institutionalizing relationships with Ujamaa and other student organizations like AASC and Ajúa Campos.
Baez hopes that the Equity and Inclusion Committee will have long-lasting effects on the WSA.
“I think that every year moving forward [EIC work will] become natural and part of the WSA norm,” Baez said. “Equity and inclusion will always be at the forefront of every committee. Now that it is a standing committee, it’s been much easier for other committees to do work with equity and inclusion projects in mind…. As years go on, it’s going to be definitely a place where—I think it is right now a place that I’m proud of—but a place that the student body will be proud of as well.”
Sophie Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org