Editor's note: This story was updated Wednesday to include Advait's perspective.
A new Student Government Senate and executive administration will convene for the first time Wednesday after weeks of dialogue surrounding the outcries from BIPOC students for action regarding campus equity and inclusivity.
While diversity and inclusion have been at the forefront of many discussions at Iowa State, Student Government has addressed the issue during public forums for the past month.
Former Vice Speaker Mariana Gonzalez said a number of events accumulated that contributed to the divide within Student Government. After the past election, the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests escalated tensions within Student Government further.
“I just remember sitting in the room and realizing that I was the only person of color making decisions and informing and being in a discussion where really important things were being discussed,” Gonzalez said. “I am so blessed and happy that I get to speak for people like myself, women of color, but after so many times, it does become very daunting and tiresome.”
There was a slow start to the beginning of the year trying to adapt to changes from COVID-19. Gonzalez said there weren’t as many bills and projects, and it was hard to brainstorm ways to return to the positive environment she experienced her first year.
Throughout the year, Student Government saw a decline in student participation, partially because of the pandemic. There were five senator resignations during the 2020-21 term.
Gonzalez said some senators who were students of color resigned due to the toxic environment, and she couldn’t blame them.
“Oftentimes, the burden of being BIPOC and taking up space in majority-white spaces takes a mental toll,” Gonzalez said.
Lauryn Perk, a senior in animal science, served on Student Government since she was a junior.
Perk resigned from her position as diversity and inclusion director after her experience advising Student Government President Morgan Fritz and Vice President Jacob Schrader against releasing a statement regarding tweets from a panelist for Women’s Week.
Fritz said the tweet was brought to their attention by multiple students, which concerned them. Women’s Week is an event hosted by Student Government, granting the organization unilateral discretion on the panelists. The Student Government still allowed Rita Mookerjee, assistant teaching professor of sociology, to serve as a panelist.
“This statement was not intended to discredit the individuals’ experience or expertise but rather to acknowledge that the personal tweets in question were concerning to some students,” Fritz said. “In doing so, [we're] still allowing her the platform to share about her knowledge and fulfill her freedom of expression.”
The executive cabinet met to discuss a course of action regarding the tweet. During the meeting, Perk experienced her worst microaggression: she said Schrader interrupted her to ask, “Are we still talking about the current situation?”
Schrader said in an email that he said the discussion was about whether students attending Iowa State would have a problem with the tweet from the panelist. According to Schrader, his interruption on the call was, “Well, I hope they would.”
After the statement went out, Perk said she was so frustrated by the interaction that she could no longer attend any more meetings. Perk said Schrader apologized for the interruption but not for what the interruption truly meant.
In the past, Perk developed and presented an educational presentation about inclusive language and equitable policy.
“I saw what I said being thrown out the window in the last few weeks, and so I don’t know how far education can go,” Perk said. “I think it is going to take people in there who know what is right to see who uses their voice to stand up for issues rather than going along with the rest.”
Perk said she can only speak for her own experience as a woman of color, but she wasn’t expecting Student Government to be so prim and proper.
“As a woman of color, you have this feeling of having to prove yourself no matter what setting you are in,” Perk said. “Within Student Government, that feeling was amplified times 10.”
Both Perk and Gonzalez said they have learned a lot from Student Government, but it was best for their mental health to step back from the organization.
Some members of Student Government have said more people of color should get involved to see the change they want, but Perk doesn’t fully agree with this suggestion.
“I think that the people in those positions — no matter if they are white or nonwhite — should want to advocate for those changes regardless,” Perk said. “I don’t think forcing them into spaces in which they are uncomfortable is going to allow them to do the work they want to do.”
Gonzalez said those who join Student Government are students whom already are informed on leadership opportunities on campus. She would like to see better outreach to students who could be leaders but don’t know as much about the organization.
“I am noticing a lot more of the bad stuff that happens at a predominantly white institution (PWI) than when I first came,” Perk said. “I think that is necessary because students go through this stuff on a daily basis, so someone needs to be seeing it, even if they are not experiencing it.”
Leslie Lona, a senior in biological systems engineering, represented the College of Engineering while serving on the finance committee. She said diversity and inclusion have been largely ignored by Student Government.
Her experience with Student Government was positive, Lona said. When she served on the finance committee, almost $3 million was allocated to student organizations. But the last few weeks have been a roller coaster for her as a woman of color.
“When BIPOC students are speaking about their experiences with real racism on campus that largely get ignored and senators are on their laptops or ignoring these stories, it really does hurt, and it is hard to be in that position,” Lona said.
Breanna Diaz is the vice president of community outreach for the Multicultural Greek Council.
During her time here, Diaz was harassed for speaking Spanish. Diaz attended the public forums over the last month to speak out against the racist acts that continue at Iowa State.
“It is not really surprising; things do consistently keep happening because people in power typically tend to be complacent,” Diaz said.
During the second public forum, Diaz experienced her breaking point. Diaz spent the course of her time at Iowa State fighting injustices on campus. Diaz decided she needed to take a step back from Iowa State and began the withdrawal process. Last school year, Diaz was a part of Students Against Racism and said she has yet to see any progress on diversity and inclusion from the institution.
Diaz said Student Government’s lack of diversity is reflected in the institution, and if those in positions of authority do nothing to defer the microaggressions and acts of hate that occur, they will only continue.
Advait M., a senior in engineering, said in an email that the biggest takeaway Student Government should focus on is to serve students better and not detract from that goal.
"There have been some fantastic people working on some fantastic projects, but when students come through feeling like they aren’t being heard, that is a signal that we need to do better," Advait said.
Lona said someone needs to examine whether Student Government is financially supporting multicultural organizations.
Student Government President Julia Campbell said the last few weeks were emotional and manifested a lot of frustration and anger. The Campbell-Decker campaign reached out to mentors at the administrative level and student groups to gain perspective on the discussion.
“We see a large part of our role in this is bringing in the people from both sides of the table to have these discussions that ultimately, we move forward in unity and we meet people where they are at with their current level of understanding and comfort on different topics,” Campbell said.
Gonzalez said she hopes to see the incoming administration take recommendations from the memorandum from the past administration. One of the recommendations the Campbell-Decker administration will include is a liaison between the finance committee and the diversity and inclusion committee to ensure there is equitable distribution of dollars.
“We are putting our money where our mouth is, and we are able to make sure there is an equitable distribution of dollars, which is one of the ways Student Government drives change on campus, is through various sources of funding,” Campbell said.
Lona said she hopes to see more cultural competency within Student Government and from Iowa State as a whole.
Diaz said there still needs to be accountability from students, regardless of whether they are serving on Student Government.
"For me, conversations really are the way to go. There are always going to be differing perspectives, including perspectives I am not on board with," Advait said. "Still, it is our responsibility to speak to all parties involved and attempt to persuade — in the end, we are all students, and we all need to be open-minded and share this campus."
Perk agreed that issues of diversity and inclusion are not isolated to Student Government. The institution and administration should address the campus climate. Advait hopes to soon return to a "new normal" and begin meetings, deliberations and committees to work on specific issues of interests to students.
"We need to have a tangible impact on student lives, and as a returning senator, I sincerely hope to help and steer the organization to the benefit of all our fellow students," Advait said.
As a new Senate term begins, diversity and inclusion will continue to be discussed. Campbell said she hopes to bring back town halls to allow all students to share their grievances.
“We want you here. Student Government is here for students, and it’s students working and helping on behalf of students,” Campbell said. “Our message is we want you to join us, and we want you to feel supported and represented.”