The SA’s incoming leaders should focus on building relationships with students

The students of GW have spoken – albeit fewer of them than any time in at least a decade – and have elected senior Christian Zidouemba and sophomore Yan Xu as Student Association president and vice president, respectively.

This year’s SA elections demonstrated both the flaws and the promise of the SA’s power. Low turnout matched the abysmally low confidence the student body seems to have in the SA. After a listless campaign season – with most SA Senate seats going uncontested and almost no one showing up to the traditional postering event – the race returned to its usual dramatic character.

Now is as good a time as any for the SA and the student body to reevaluate their relationship. The SA as a whole needs to do a better job laying out what it can and cannot do, and members need to start acting like the advocates they are instead of the politicians they aren’t. Students, for their part, also need to lay off the vitriolic hate toward the SA.

The new SA leadership should make an effort to change the image of the SA, from presenting themselves less like professional politicians and more like peers who have the opportunity to make change around campus. For instance, in a thoroughly unproductive kerfuffle last year, the SA’s Office of the Legislator General filed a lawsuit against a resolution introduced in the senate, which resulted in precious time spent on bureaucracy and procedure over pursuing and tackling student advocacy efforts. One way to promote a more relaxed image would be to actively debunk myths and simplify the language of the senate, for instance explaining what exactly the legislator general’s office does in the GW context on social media. Current Vice President Kate Carpenter set an example of how social media can be effectively used to interact with the student body and integrate herself within student circles instead of remaining social media-less.

Jenna Baer | Cartoonist

The SA also needs to be better at communicating the extent to which they can improve students’ issues. Much like Carpenter continuously updating her loyal Twitter followers on what is going on with the SA, the next SA president and VP should keep up that tradition. They should educate the student body on what are specific actionable issues they work on, what issues they are only able to address but don’t have the power to change and what issues are completely out of their control. Many students don’t have a proper understanding of what the SA has the capacity to do and what they don’t.

Much of the SA’s job has to do with taking students’ advocacy efforts, bringing them to administrators and putting them into action. For instance, GW’s Sunrise Movement, which began as Fossil Free GW in 2013, had been pushing for divestment since its inception. Starting in 2013 and all the way through 2020 – at which point then-University President Thomas LeBlanc finally announced that the University would divest from fossil fuels – the SA had held two student referendums on the issue. These brought significant attention to the push and clarified students’ position.

In another instance, SA leaders created the framework for a task force to get rid of the Colonials moniker in September 2019, four months after students launched the first petition to do so. In 2020, the Board of Trustees created the special task force that the SA created the framework on.

This clear communication of what the SA’s job is is especially crucial as GW undergoes major administrative changes. Officials are also looking to fill more than 10 senior administrative roles, including a permanent University president and senior roles in GW’s provost and development offices. The incoming SA leaders should double down on becoming loudspeakers for students’ needs because new administrators won’t be as familiar with what students on campus want and need.

The student body needs to be part of the change too. Many students seem to see the SA as simultaneously hapless and omnipotent in their criticisms on social media, alternately condemning the organization as serving no real purpose and at the same time breathlessly demanding more decisive action from them. Just as the SA needs to level with the community about what it can and cannot do, students need to recognize that members of the student government can’t force administrators to enact large-scale policies on the fly. After a professor said the N-word in class and after another professor refused to allow a student to keep a service dog in a classroom, the SA caught criticism for not doing more to ensure these faculty were punished. In reality, there is not much the SA can do in situations like that beyond criticizing the perpetrators and listening to students. The SA can, for example, work with administrators to try to increase training and rules for faculty aimed at making classrooms more inclusive. But they do not have the power to get faculty fired, and students should not expect them to. If students think the SA should have been more vocal about these incidents, that’s entirely valid, but students need to make reasonable demands of the SA that are within their capacity to deliver.

But students need to act like members of the SA are their peers, too, not internet randos to be criticized in personal terms with impunity. Anonymous social media accounts’ unique, vicious and ad hominem criticism of Carpenter – which she characterized as “cyberbullying” and made her consider taking a leave of absence – was an embarrassing display of immaturity from college students.

Students absolutely should keep holding the SA accountable, though. After all, it is unlikely that the SA would have sat down with administrators to advocate for fossil fuel divestment without groups like Sunrise strenuously demanding that they do so. Community backlash and well-founded outrage also helped force former SA President Howard Brookins to resign after he was accused of mismanagement and sexual misconduct. A more constructive relationship between the SA and students can be built on shared goals, not mutual antagonism.

As Zidouemba and Xu take the reins of the SA’s executive branch, they have the unique opportunity to reshape the relationship between the SA and students. With a new SA administration on the way, now’s the time to make change.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake, based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller and copy editor Jaden DiMauro.

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