eMerge navigates politics of diversity and representation

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 - 8:23pm

Anushka Sarkar walked out early from the first Central Student Government mass meeting she attended freshman year. None of the faces in the room, she found, looked like hers. No representative present shared her Indian-American heritage, and barely any attendees were students of color at all.

Sarkar, now an LSA junior, launched her campaign for University of Michigan student body president Monday night. She’s running alongside her vice-presidential candidate Nadine Jawad, a Public Policy junior. Together, the two head eMerge, the first and only party to announce its candidacy in this year’s race so far.

Jawad, presently a CSG senior policy adviser, and Sarkar, a former chief programming officer, share four years of campaign experience between them; the ticket’s core team also features a number of student government veterans, many from the administration of current CSG President David Schafer, an LSA senior. Both boast extensive experience in crafting policy recommendations: Jawad championed affordable housing reform this year, while Sarkar advocated for increased mental health resources as a part of the Mental Health Leaders Network last year. eMerge’s executive candidates, though, are shaping their campaign around more than policy credentials.

Together, if voted into office, the pair would be the first women elected on one ticket as president and vice president since at least 1993. 

Much of the excitement about eMerge’s launch, and indeed the party’s platform as a whole, centers around these questions of identity and inclusion. Driving the platform is Sarkar and Jawad’s aim to broaden the base of voices in student government, to include groups on campus not familiar with, or even faithful in, CSG.

“It’s about representation and empowerment,” Sarkar said. “We want students to speak without us necessarily speaking for them. Some students don’t feel like CSG does anything for them … CSG should listen and not be autonomous because 10 people in a room don’t know what’s best for 43,000.”

Jawad, clad in hijab, is quick to clarify neither candidate represents all women of color. She agreed, though, that as a Lebanese-American Muslim outside of the upper strata of family income levels at the University, politics of representation greatly affected her time on CSG. The average member of CSG, a recent demographics self-survey reported, is white, hetereosexual and male — and 37.2 percent of the governing body comes from homes earning more than $250,000 a year. 

“Our identities are pivotal,” Jawad said. “There is power working with students different from yourself, and me being different is a new avenue for students who look like me. My identities haven’t been represented before. I want them to know this is a real thing you can do.”

“I forced myself to break the homogeneity,” Sarkar said. “Some people told us not to run together as two women of color, and that to me was the most empowering thing. We can still win … we know how important it is to bring people who look like us to the table.”

Current CSG Rep. Arlyn Reed, an LSA junior, hasn’t endorsed eMerge, but lauded Sarkar and Jawad’s credentials.

“Even talking to my friends, a lot of people are asking if they can do it,” she said. “And they absolutely can. I think representation is important, and that this is really cool.”

In a year fraught with racial tension and political anxiety, eMerge hopes to foster unity and collaboration, following much in the footsteps of Schafer’s stated goals. Many of its short-term policy proposals, labeled “hold us to it,” were crafted with the entire student body in mind. Such initiatives include stronger Wi-Fi on the Diag and off campus, improved bathroom facilities and making phone and computer chargers available at on-campus study spots. Campaign Communications Director Cassie Fields, an LSA junior, said the goals are simple, but tangible.

“We want to make it easier for students to be students, and (make) campus more accessible,” she said. “There’s no false advertising.”

Jawad agreed small barriers to accessibility can often amount to significant hurdles. She strives to create a centralized hub for students to find both resources and avenues to lobby for even more. This year, Jawad helped launch the Leadership Engagement Scholarship, which is geared toward alleviating the economic burden of extracurricular activities.  

“Coming from economic hardship, I know how important it is to convey those resources,” she said. “The economic disparity is really reflected in student engagement.”  

eMerge accordingly weaves inclusion into most of its broader goals: creating mentorship programs for non-traditional, multilingual and first-generation students; connecting students to service opportunities and expanding in-state tuition benefits to undocumented graduate and non-traditional students.     

The feedback she’s heard on the campaign, Jawad said, is overwhelmingly positive. Many students have thanked her for her “empowering” candidacy announcement, and outreach to student groups has been positive.

LSA senior Danielle Rabie, a Palestinian-American student, wrote in an email she viewed the campaign announcement as unprecedented for women of color.

“For so long we have seen that women of color or women in general are just tacked onto parties as an afterthought and are put in positions merely as an accessory to demonstrate ‘diversity,’ ” she wrote. “The fact that these two women are running for the highest positions possible without any reservation or qualifications makes me incredibly happy.”

Both Rabie and Reed, however, noted top-down administrative turnover does not guarantee institutional change. The last two winning parties, Schafer’s newMICH and former CSG President Cooper Charlton’s Make Michigan, both emphasized diversity in their campaign platforms.

“We have seen that representing ‘all students’ has been used by almost every party running for CSG positions and typically, these parties have fallen tremendously short of that goal,” Rabie wrote. “While I am elated at the prospect of two women of color leading this new party, there is still the point to be made about which other students are chosen to be representatives under their party and what stances they take. While I am pessimistic that institutions that have been created for, and uphold, the beliefs and ideals of majority students will ever fully change, I am excited to see what EMerge brings to the table.”

Sarkar stressed eMerge does not regard diversity as skin-deep. The party’s core team consists of four Asian-American students, five white students and Jawad, an Arab-American.

“There are no quotas,” Sarkar said. “I know the feeling of ‘am I here because of what I look like?’ We’re recruiting key campus leaders to identify the students they think will be most effective in uplifting their communities.”

Reed warned of the difficulty in recruiting groups of students long estranged from CSG. In engaging her own Black community on campus this year, Reed said she repeatedly ran into hostility against CSG, or simply deep-seated apathy.  

“It was very hard,” she said. “I’ve reached out to them multiple times to do things around housing — or really just anything — to combine groups like CSG and (the Black Student Union) … and I’ve gotten minimal or no response from them. I’ve tried to be that liaison and support their interests, but if I’m not getting any feedback from my community, then it doesn’t provide me with a lot of space. It’s hard.”

Rabie said candidates’ track records are vital in mobilizing and engaging marginalized students.  

“Students need to see that the representatives chosen truly embody those ideals,” she wrote. “They need to see themselves reflected in the stances that EMerge choses to take, the representatives they elect, and be accountable to the multiplicity of students at this university.”

Jawad and Sarkar affirm they are committed to steering a transparent, accountable administration. Despite reservations, the pair is garnering praise early on the campaign trail — as of now, they’re the only candidates out there. 

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