The Michigan Student Assembly was once seen as intimidating and unwelcoming to students from underrepresented minority groups, said newly elected LSA representative Melton Lee.
But MSA aims to improve its reputation this year by working toward a more minority-friendly according to some MSA representatives.
“We’ve been doing a lot of work to expose the issues of climate in student government bodies to help to counteract some of the things that turned off students of color and minorities to participating in student government,” Lee said.
Lee, who is black and is this semester’s co-chair of the Minority Affairs Commission, said much of MSA’s unfavorable reputation among minority communities came from the now defunct Students First party.
He said that Students First went too far in recruiting minorities as candidates in order to improve the party’s image, eventually becoming a blatant form of tokenism.
Alexandra Moffett, an LSA sophomore and recently elected MSA-LSA representative who is also black, said she agreed with Lee’s description of Students First. “Obviously with Students First there was a lot of tokenism that went on to get minorities in the assembly,” Moffett said.
“It was good in the fact that it got minorities into the assembly, but bad because no minority student should ever have to be tokenized,” Moffett added.
Yet the stories of tokenization are becoming a thing of the past, said newly-elected MSA-LSA representative Alice Chen. As a freshman in MSA, she said she has heard conversations about minorities being used as tokens in previous years, but has not seen it in her tenure on the assembly.
“My experience … so far it’s been really good. I don’t feel like minorities are underrepresented,” Chen said.
Lee said MSA is currently working to overcome the issue, by having retreats at the beginning of each semester with icebreakers and other activities to help representatives get to know each other and to spur a more friendly environment.
However, a recent study found that this issue goes beyond student government. According to the study, minorities are underrepresented in top-ranking government jobs around the country, but are frequently asked to lead tasks such as civil rights commissions. The study said that while minorities composed 32 percent of the nation’s population, they held only 16 percent of key appointed policy positions in state governments in 2004.
The study was done by the Center for Women in Government & Civil Society, a part of the Nelson A. Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy at the University at Albany, State University of New York.
At the University, many minorities say they are underrepresented on MSA for a variety of reasons.
Some representatives in MSA said the lack of minority representation was not just because of MSA’s negative reputation among minority communities, but also because of political apathy among minorities, the challenges that come with being a part of MSA and the lack of minorities at the University.
“Minorities are underrepresented in the University as a whole, so MSA is very reflective of that,” Moffett said. She added that “MSA is a tough place to be in for anybody,” because it requires a great amount of effort and time to accomplish MSA’s goals.
Mustafa Gulam, an LSA freshman who is South Asian and ran for an LSA seat on MSA but did not win, said minorities sometimes feel that they cannot or do not want to go out and seek the power that lies in government positions.
“Minorities … will not have power so long as they themselves don’t seek it out,” Gulam said.
Lee said that minorities have problems getting excited about the political system due to a general distrust and apathy of the system.
He also said that not just minorities feel intimidated on MSA. An unfriendly atmosphere is created because representatives are not familiar with one another, he added.
“When you’re a minority in an assembly full of people that are different from you, and the environment is already relatively unfriendly, then it kind of compounds the issue of trying to get work done as a minority,” Lee said. “It isn’t an issue specific to minorities, but as a minority, it’s a lot worse for us.”