We Were Never Just the Petals: Confessions of an SGO Co-President

“What did you expect? This is politics.”

To me, the word “politics” had almost lost its meaning, its legitimacy. In this context, politics can be exchanged for the word “apathy,” “dysfunction,” and, ultimately, mindless acceptance.

When I first began my time in SGO, student government had meant something greater. My understanding of politics in the context of America, although soured, did not diminish my hope that a governing body created by Swarthmore students for Swarthmore students would be working on a higher moral ground. Serving as a representative never meant a performance—rather, it meant engaging with communities on campus, particularly those advocating for diversity, inclusion, and equity.

I began my time in Student Government last year as the Chair of Visual and Performing Arts. However, in the span of a year, the platform I had originally written completely changed, transforming into a larger mission I did not anticipate. Although the arts at Swarthmore are a very important focus area, I felt last year as if my voice was the smallest in a larger conversation. I was constantly frustrated that a majority of people seemed to not do anything effective, much less care about their position. My largest takeaway was that SGO, which remains predominantly white, could partake in whole conversations about campus issues without once mentioning anything related to identity. These conversations were consistently fruitless, despite the fact that we are supposed to represent a student body made up of all sorts of identities and intersections of each.  Dissatisfied that despite having the potential to make change, little progress had been made, I wanted to return in order to challenge this system. I felt those tasked with advocating for students’ livelihoods must be better connected to hearing their narratives and acknowledging their lived experiences. I wanted our voices to be heard, our concerns to be addressed, our existences to be validated. Even as the rest of society continues to deny our basic rights, I wanted to ensure that student government at Swarthmore was a space accessible to all students. I wanted to be a resource for students who get turned away by administration, who, when their needs are ignored, could expect a full backing from the 20+ members in SGO. I wanted to make sure that never again could an entire group of students feel as if their existence did not matter.

As I ran, my platform included making SGO more inclusive by highlighting the concerns of historically underrepresented groups, such as, but not limited to, a lack of academic representation, inequitable allocation of resources, and very few inclusive spaces. I wanted to build coalitions to bring together groups with shared visions of revolutionary and radical change. I also hoped to increase transparency between the administration and student body.

Despite not having actively campaigned beyond posting my platform once on social media, I quickly realized when I was elected, that people were passionate about seeing these changes, and that despite previously criticizing it, still saw SGO as a potential place for them to take place. I still vividly remember on the day results came out, hearing my friends jokingly refer to me as “Madame President,” receiving messages from peers who I had not had the chance to talk much with before expressing their excitement at the possibility of seeing a “different” SGO, hearing one of my professors exclaim that “now we have some representation from Peace and Conflicts Studies,” which is my minor. While I had sent in my platform without any high expectations, the warm response I received that day showed me that this fight was necessary and that I was not alone; calls for change were in motion.

However, these calls for change have remained unanswered.

The Swarthmore community always speaks about working on behalf of students, expecting us to critically engage with dismantling systems of oppression. At Swarthmore, we tend to view the world through theoretical frameworks. Yet when the time comes to make real-world applications, we often remain silent.

When talking about the liberal bubble, Swarthmore frequently forgets that we are not removed from the systems that are so deeply entrenched in this country. If Swarthmore were the safe space it claims to be, students would not continuously get hurt in the way that they do now; disregarded in the classroom, disrespected in office hours, endangered in our dorms, and antagonized in social media spaces. As this semester has repeatedly demonstrated, this space does not escape racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism. Many administration and SGO members fail to consider positionality, the history of racial oppression, and how systems of control feed into our own power dynamics. Society, and the Swarthmore community does not simply reflect a liberal vs. conservative dynamic because as this year has proven, there can be and there are racist liberals and “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. The burden to make change is consistently placed on the backs of students of color. Governing bodies claim to uphold neutrality without realizing that there is no such thing as neutrality. Their silence only perpetuates systems of oppression. While the white administration and SGO members who argue for it can leave a meeting, putting important conversations behind them and continuing with their daily business, as students of color, we have to sit with the fact that we are left on our own to support our communities.

When people discovered SGO had Black and Asian American co-Presidents, there was a lot of positive buzz on campus. I, too, fell into an overall optimism that the people elected would represent a wider range of interests. However, I slowly realized that even if the makeup of the room changes in appearance, the way it functions can remain the same. Early in the semester, I saw the issues from last year recurring. First, there were gender dynamics playing out between my co-President. More than once I felt that our meetings were focused on addressing his interests and that I had to fight to have mine addressed even for ten minutes of our sometimes two-hour meetings. As my largest focus has and continues to be diversity and inclusion, I realized our approaches and our values differed. There was an imbalance of power in the directions our personal conversations took and how we envisioned SGO. When I looked to the Executive Board and Senate for recourse, what I found is that, despite a few people who were equally and genuinely passionate about making effective change, the majority of SGO was more interested in playing internal politics and working within their own comfort zones.

In a way that is not usually recognized, the paradox of SGO as a potentially powerful yet ineffectual force serves to take power away from students. Not including the SBC budget, SGO has $24,000. SGO serves as the entity between the administration and the student body, which is why, despite not proving to have done much, administration still follow the “protocols” of checking in with SGO to see what the students need. Because SGO is not representative of the student body, however, administration is not able to get an accurate depiction of where the greatest need lies. In fact, it makes it easier for the institution to claim that, because they have talked to SGO, they now know what the students wantthat they have listened to the students’ needs and that is enough… That, if people are dissatisfied, it is because they have not brought up the issue to admin before. SGO also holds another great power: funding and chartering, giving them power over other student groups. Yet in the two years I have been in SGO, I have seen incidents of embezzlement, conflicts of interest, and the dehumanization of our constituents.

The reprehensible accounts of embezzlement and incidents of conflict of interest in SGO these past two years disregard students’ basic humanity and take away from the already limited resources available to student groups, especially those representing marginalized students.  My co-President and I were accused, for example, of “corruption” due to an executive board member being angry their roommate was not placed on the committee they had applied for (despite the fact that their roommate had not properly filled out the committee preference form as we had requested). Last year and this year’s student budgeting was corrupt as up to $1,000 money was embezzled from SAO for a conference for non-members, including those who do not identify as Asian American. The embezzlement was orchestrated by people in SBC with the funding form having been written by those who are in charge of allocating these funds. A member of SGO attempted to use alcoholic beverages to entice another member to vote for their amendments. Yet another member attempted to defund Sunrise Movement Swarthmore, demanding they lose chartership, due to underlying drama with its executive board. People have consistently abused their power as “representatives” to further their own interests, in this case using it to demonize a group while refusing to mention their own personal affiliations. In relation to many student groups feeling their budget had been cut this year, leadership laughed at them, making personal attacks in a meeting later on, calling all the groups that had their funding cut “incompetent” for struggling with SBC’s process. Recently, some senators wanted to propose having the emergency elections for next semester not happen publicly but internally. Although it was turned down because there were not enough people present to vote, there were surprisingly a few members who genuinely believed this would be “more democratic". There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what being in SGO really means.

For outsiders, there is little incentive to enter the spaceespecially as it has been traditionally white cis-male dominated. Many of the dealings within SGO remain largely unknown to the student body, our meetings even misadvertised on the Dash. There is a cycle that occurs, where, because it does not perform well in the eyes of most Swarthmore students, potential leaders, such as those heavily involved in affinity groups, would rather apply their skills elsewhere. We are left with many positions uncontested and a majority of people who apply with questionable motives, experience, and skills. We have spent much of our time internally turning down ideas for actual action and arguing about “concerns” brought up by individuals who we only later find out had personal agendas behind their requests. Morale is low. At one point, even people within SGO began to overlook corruption because, by now, either expectations are low, or these actions have become normalized.

As a related note, detachment from student interests is very high. An attempt by an SGO member to change the constitution with their amendments, for example, without any regard to the existing regulations, led to more time wasted comparing the two versions with an app than actually voting on those amendments, of which only one was ultimately agreed upon. While that time could have been spent on creating a plan for the semester, it was instead used by a member to approve as many of their personal amendments as possible before the next Senate was elected.  Furthermore, SGO’s fixation on their constitution is highly concerning, which, for all its flaws, should not be highlighted over more pertinent campus issues. Many members insist on using “legal” jargon to make it inaccessible to the student body and even to other SGO members. This goes to show how irrelevant the students’ interests are in their minds, and how SGO members would rather spend hours debating the technicalities of wording than to address the issues they keep writing off as “too complex.”

More than once I have heard within SGO that people do not believe in the “politicization of race,”  and that anything related to identity is “too complicated” to spend our meeting time on.

One of my greatest focuses this year has become addressing academic representation. After I gathered together our Diversity, Academic Affairs, and Visual and Performing Arts Chairs to speak with their respective administrative leaders, my co-President, who had previously agreed with my mission, told me in a private meeting two months later to not bring up that issue in the Senate entirely “because no one would side with [me]". SGO disrespects the lived experiences of its constituents, prioritizing their own self interests and principles than taking the time to understand the historical and current issues people are highlighting. This includes, for example, the time when a member mocked and disrespected the Swarthmore Indigenous Students Association for burning the flag on Indigenous People’s Day and when another member claimed that they could not sit still during the moment of silence that occured in Parrish because they were waiting for the music concert to start. When someone brought up the idea that some of SGO’s $24,000 could be used to buy new placards for restrooms that are supposed to be gender neutral but have yet to update their signs, it was refuted with a statement that people can just use paper to cover them. The same person who made that argument then proceeded to say that we could use the money to host a dance (even after another person commented that OSE is already hosting a winter formal next semester). Around the issue of campus publication controversies, SGO acted unjustly and unprofessionally. I acknowledge that the issue is complex and people disagree around the state of campus publications. However, I, at the very least, expected my colleagues to remain professional. Instead, during a discussion about what was happening, a member who writes horoscopes for a different campus publication began spreading false rumors, bullying and making personal attacks against the creator of Voices. There were thoughts on both sides of the spectrum, but ultimately, as representatives, personal attacks are never appropriate in discussing student affairs. In a different meeting, others mocked concerned students who came to express their own experiences. This incident was similar to when an outside member sat in on one of our Senate meetings and asked if we were going to do anything about current campus issues. Senators in the room responded by making faces and snickering, publically disrespecting the guest and delegitimizing her concern about SGO’s actions.

We need to decolonize our imaginations. Politics was never meant to be a performance.  I was born into this system, I live in it every day, but I never thought I would be asked to stop fighting it, never thought that I would be usedin the very position I had fought forto perpetuate a system that fundamentally harms every person that I value. Despite constant pushes to question their biases and push beyond their comfort zones to reach out and talk to the more vulnerable and historically underrepresented groups on campus, SGO refuses to do so.

I love this community. There are so many people who inspire me every day to continue this fight, and who through all the academic pressures and weight of the institution, continue to push for change.

These people were not only silenced, not only ignored, but were used, as well. They were used for votes, used for popularity, used as resume-builders. At a point, I was told by a key SGO member that SGO members “are tired of hearing about minority problems.”

I’m tired of hearing about minority problems, too. I’m tired of hearing about my friends being told that their lived experiences do not matter. I’m tired of them carrying the burden to fight alone. I’m tired of seeing the credit to their efforts erased, falsified, and stolen. But truthfully, I will never be tired of their problems. I am only tired of the people who refuse to solve them. These problems should not exist, and SGO should not constantly perpetuate them. I am tired of witnessing my fellow Swatties being laughed at and mocked when they come to SGO meetings, watching them feel deterred to even make their concerns heard afterwards, and witnessing our community’s truths devalued and rewritten. This is not pain confined to one particular group of students. The truth is, when one group gets hurt, it affects all of us. Those fighting similar battles and their allies must stand in solidarity because what happens to one group can easily happen to another—and most likely has—at this institution. I am also tired of silence and impartiality being seen as taking a moral high ground. For those who remain silent, again, you are neutral in situations of injustice and in being neutral, you are on the side of the oppressor. Silence is never passive, it is active. Silence does not go unheard.

SGO symbolizes the wider problem with Swarthmore’s institution and administration. Despite claiming to function on behalf of the students, similarly to admin at this campus, they are only functioning in the bubble they are comfortable with. One of the largest problems that have I come to recognize is that in Swat, despite how “liberal” it is, governing bodies such as the administration and SGO seem to prioritize upholding “free speech” and the diversity of opinions over protecting marginalized and underrepresented students. More than once have I heard a desire to make our mission be breaking the “liberal bubble and echo chamber” of Swat. However, in protecting the diversity of opinions, they are not challenging systems of oppression. There is a hypocrisy behind the free speech they are pushing for. It is a free speech that allows the people with power to get away with devaluing certain identities while calling for the silence of groups when they protest the unjust ways they have been treated. Furthermore, there is hypocrisy behind how they approach the problem. While claiming that the main issue is that they never receive the credit they are due, ironically, they shift the blame to others rather than acknowledge their own problems of inaction.

Is there a solution? I believe this is a much more complex issue that involves a structural change that is required not only on the SGO level, but also on the administration and institutional level. I have a list of changes I feel need to be made, and with more transparency and advocacy, they can be. There needs to be reflection on what our mission truly is. There needs to be a radical shift in how the SGO and the administration addresses student’s needs. There needs to be a wider understanding of how institutions such as racism are still deeply entrenched even on our campus. Furthermore, there needs to be a shift from protecting “free speech” to protecting marginalized students. People need to understand their own privileges and positionalities and the importance of validating people’s lived experiences. People in these positions of power also need to actively reach out and stop expecting that groups/students should always be the ones to go to them or that if they host an event with food, people will show up and divulge all their concerns.

However, I am leaving the organization. Leaving isn’t always the best option, but I believe it is the break I need at the moment for myself. I hope that by revealing some of the setbacks I have faced in my position as co-President of SGO, I can begin a wider recognition of some of the deeply entrenched problems this institution has and the need to address governing bodies in power such as SGO. SGO may no longer be the space where I believe I can best apply my efforts, yet my vision for moving forward has only gotten larger.  My hope has not died.

I still hear your voices. I still hear your truths. You are not merely petals on someone else’s exploitative, flowery vision, but rather, are the roots of your own destiny. You are the seeds of a history that can and will not be silenced any longer. Nothing in the corruption of our Student Government Organization will change that. We were never meant to be someone else’s petals.

This is a narrative that needs to be told—not through speculation, and not through publications like The Phoenix publishing confidential emails without permission and out-of-context. This is a story that needs to be told, a story of how the governing body supposed to serve our needs is failing, of the way the system was never designed to serve us, of the groups who are dedicated in fighting a battle for justice despite little support from the people who asked for their trust. Whether it is through an infiltration from affinity groups or a complete restructuring of SGO, revolution is imminent.

As SGO makes its next move, we are watching.