By Justin Wier & Liam Bouquet
Youngstown State University students have criticized the Student Government Association’s lack of diverse representation. Currently, there are no representatives of color on SGA.
Ashley Orr, the president of SGA, recognizes this problem.
“The body seemed to be pulling from a lot of the same student population,” Orr said. “When we pass [a resolution] and we say the student body supports that, do we represent the student body when we say that?”
Orr said she believes they do a good job of representing students, but the body would like to see more underrepresented minorities involved in SGA.
“We absolutely do want someone to be involved. We want underrepresented minorities in the conversation,” Orr said.
William Blake, director of the Office of Student Diversity, said SGA has been at the forefront of making campus more diverse, but the organization needs to diversify.
“I have seen several times when students have attempted to become more actively involved with Student Government, and many times they have been blocked because their association with Student Government hadn’t been as engaged as many other students,” Blake said. “Therefore, they weren’t included in the decision making.”
Victoria Shaffer, YSU’s NAACP chapter president, praised Orr’s commitment to improving the organization.
“Although the population isn’t that big on campus, for race, I think that if you are going to have an organization for the students, you need to have a representation of students of different backgrounds,” Shaffer said.
Shienne Williams, an Africana studies major, said she sees the problem existing on both sides of the divide.
“If you are a member of student government, you only know the people that come around, but if you don’t have an interest in student government, they can’t know you,” Williams said. “Student Government … makes decisions regarding your campus life. You should be involved in that … [but] people stick with what they know.”
Orr decided to connect with student groups and tell them about the election process and what participating in SGA can do for them.
“My assessment is that [students] don’t know enough about SGA to want to be on SGA,” Orr said. “So that was the heart of the problem that I was trying to address.”
She established a committee of seniors to create an institutional knowledge base and decided to use them to fulfill this purpose as well. One of the challenges has been getting in touch with organizations.
“We want to get them the information, but we’re having difficulty disseminating it,” Orr said. “How do we reach them to tell them we want them? And then how do we reach them to inform them of what we are so they can tell us they want us?”
When Orr approached Sylvia Imler, executive director of multicultural affairs, with her observations, Imler questioned whether the cause was that underrepresented minorities don’t feel welcome. Orr said there is a desire among the body to make those students welcome, they’re just having trouble bridging the gap.
“I don’t want to force underrepresented minorities to be on SGA,” Orr said. “But if they want to be on SGA, I want to make sure they have equal access to it.”
Orr said they met with the NAACP, and it confirmed her suspicion that a knowledge gap existed. But the majority of their members were seniors and not eligible to run for office next year.
“We are tapping into our underrepresented minority talent really late,” Orr said. “We need to talk to underrepresented minority students when they’re young and pull them into the leadership process.”
Sidney Watkins, an engineering major, doubted a black student’s ability to get elected to SGA.
“This school is predominantly white,” Watkins said. “And basically, people are going to vote for people they associate with the most.”
Williams said it is a problem of entrenched power.
“Are people willing to give up their power with anything?” Williams asked. “Somebody has to be willing to give up their power for us to be able to do anything.”
Orr wanted students on the committee of seniors to serve as mentors to help students run and win elections, but she said their outreach efforts weren’t as successful as she had hoped. While there is a barrier to getting elected, she said she thought representatives needed to obtain the 100 or so votes to participate.
“To win a representative election you probably need 100 [votes], and you probably have 100 friends that can vote, so that’s not a big problem,” Orr said. “Ultimately, if you don’t have 100 people that you know on campus … we want students to be involved [on campus], so I think it’s fair that you would have to run in the election and receive votes.”
Tiffany Anderson, director of the Africana studies program, suggested appointing diverse members.
“If your concern is diversity, why not appoint representatives from more diverse student organizations to serve on SGA?” Anderson said. “I would appoint someone every year from YSUnity, from Black Student Union and an international student. Think about how different that would be.”
Jones said this might be a good way to jumpstart black student participation in the organization.
“I wouldn’t like to see it there all the time because then once you get your quota you don’t really have to worry about getting anybody in once you got your two,” Jones said. “I do think we should do it to start because once people realize ‘Oh, they are a good help to the organization,’ then they can start bringing their friends in.”
Earlier this year, SGA held an election for international students to appoint a nonvoting representative.
“It has gone really well,” Orr said. “It has gone so well that it has further solidified the importance of diversity on our body.”
But she said many representatives expressed concern that appointing one underrepresented group, such as black students, would lead to appointing Hispanic members, LGBTQ members, disabled members, members of underrepresented religions, etc.
“SGA needs to be a democratic body in order to have that democratic process and that dialogue and that debate,” Orr said.
They do have non-voting members. The organization’s governing documents permit four non-voting members, one of whom they used to establish the international representative. Orr said leaders could use some of those spots to appoint members of groups like the Black Student Union or NAACP.
Every year, SGA appoints three freshman representatives and others inevitably leave the body to pursue other opportunities, which leaves spots open. This is another avenue for increasing diverse representation.
“When we do appointments, we try to exercise some affirmative action there,” Orr said. “Specifically, we look for students who reference diversity and who reference representing an underrepresented minority population.”
Orr said they appointed a student earlier this semester because she referenced being excited to represent African American students. The student eventually quit, but Orr said when appointing students they try to appoint people from underrepresented areas.
When Orr leaves at the end of the semester, she is confident these initiatives will continue because they’ve worked at changing the culture of the body. She said Tyler Miller-Gordon and Gabriella Gessler, the presumptive president and vice president, are both passionate about the issue as well.
At the SGA presidential debate, Miller-Gordon outlined the effort as part of his platform.
“We are also going to touch on a lot of diversity this year,” Miller-Gordon said. “It’s important and imperative that all students feel safe on this campus, and we need to take the necessary measures to do so.”
Disclaimer: Liam Bouquet has a personal relationship with Ashley Orr, however he was not involved in her interview or the portions of the story that use her as a source.
This is the third of a four-part series entitled “Black at YSU,” examining the experiences of black students on campus.