BY: THE BLACKPRINT HQ
On Sunday, March 24, the Black Caucus held its first annual "Black Caucus Debate" attended mostly by students of color and allies eager to hear the platforms of the 2019-2020 student government candidates. As students eagerly began to fill Letts Formal Lounge at 8 p.m., those arriving just a few minutes past were forced to stand in the back of the hall as the crowd grew to an unprecedented size. Moderated by upperclassmen Danielle Germain and Anthony Mensah, the two welcomed onlookers and allowed the candidates to introduce themselves restricted to two-minute time constraints. Due to the overwhelming amount of questions being asked, this was later reduced to one minute. Summing their platforms and running through the all-too-familiar icebreaker quip: name, year, pronouns, two truths and a lie. Okay, maybe not the two truths and lie, but students were able to gather candidates names and get a glimpse at what were some key issues to them. All of the candidates were in attendance: Presidential Candidates Angela Chen and Joshua Dantzler, Vice Presidential Candidates Carolyn Mejia and Mulan Burgess, Secretary Candidates Danya Adams and James Kwon and Comptroller Candidate Bobby Zitzmann who has run his campaign unopposed.
While many students in attendance showed interest in the candidates' stances on specific issues that will impact the Black community, many were more concerned with the candidates' familiarity with Black community on American University's campus. The debate consisted of pre-prepared questions from moderators and questions that were taken from Twitter using the hashtag #BlackCaucusDebate. Pre-prepared questions ranged from simple curiosities like, "Why are you here at the Black Caucus Debate today?" to more nuanced, "loaded" questions as one candidate referred to them, like, "Can you speak to your involvement and experiences with the black community on American University's campus prior to your run for AUSG?" and "In Fall 2018, the AU's National Association of the Advancement of Colored People held an event titled â€˜Sick and Tired of being Sick and Tired' where black and brown students voiced concerns of marginalization on AU's campus. What are some actions students, staff and faculty can take to avoid bias and discrimination in the classroom?" Needless to say, the audience was captivated.
Those candidates that don't identify as Black and are not a part of the Black Community continue to say "I cannot speak on the Black students.." etc., so why do you believe you are more fit for your position than the Black candidates? #blackcaucusdebate— z (@zoeelise3) March 25, 2019
While questions asked by the moderators may have proven difficult for some candidates â€” particularly Danielle Germain's request that each candidate name three multicultural organizations on campus, not including religious organizations after Danya Adams mistakenly referred to the "Muslim Student Association" as the "Muslim Student Union," Germain also asked that candidates to refrain from repeating the same organization, which left Angela Chen, the last to speak, unable to answer the question. Questions from the audience, posed on Twitter, proved to be even more difficult. Questions included: "Those candidates that don't identify as Black and are not a part of the Black Community continue to say â€˜I cannot speak on the Black studentsâ€¦' etc., so why do you believe you are more fit for your position than the Black candidates?" and "Many Aramark workers are minorities, and some do not have enough retirement funds to continue to work. If AU removes Aramark would all the current employers of the company be terminated or would they be given new positions with the replacement?" Directed towards Chen, an audience member asked: "DC is quickly gentrifying and service is one way we can combat that. This year and in years past AU panhell has prioritized their rush process over MLK Day of service. Given this history how will you ensure service is prioritized in SG?" to which Chen admitted to having had attended the controversial rush weekend.
Many Aramark workers are miniorities, and some do not have enough retirement funds so continue to work. If AU removes Aramark would all the current employers of the company be terminated or would they be given new positions with the replacement? #BLACKCAUCUSDEBATE— Hela. (@Ethio_Ertri) March 25, 2019
After all pre-prepared and audience questions were taken, leaders of Black organizations, a part of the Black Caucus, were asked to stay behind and vote on a candidate that they collectively, or by-in-large, agreed on endorsing. Leaders of the Black Caucus were quick to agree that Bobby Zitzmann was deserving of an endorsement, appreciating his in-depth answers and overall knowledge of the duties of the Comptroller. Leaders also appreciated Zitzmann's willingness to work on the the Black student body's interests on campus, particularly making sure that the Black population on campus will not further be depleted by students having to leave the university due to financial concerns â€” an issue that he has witnessed up close. Bobby Zitzmann proved to have a strong track record having had served as the Senate Finance Chair in Student Government. Key components of Zitzmann's platform include increasing college affordability through establishing more transparency within the Financial Aid Office and reducing the cost of textbooks. Zitzmann is also in favor of financially supporting campus clubs by reducing the purchases of AUSG on merchandise, and reducing the overall stipends of AUSG members, including for Comptroller. He is advocating that the stipend money recieved by AUSG members be reduced and the remaining sum be transferred to club leaders as support stipends for their work. It should be noted that although Bobby Zitzmann is running unopposed, the Black Caucus could have chosen not to endorse him in favor of students abstaining to vote for Comptroller, forcing another election, but overall the Black Caucus was impressed with him, his experience and ideals.
For Angela: DC is quickly gentrifying and service is one way we can combat that. This year and in years past AU panhell has prioritized their rush process over MLK Day of service. Given this history how will you ensure service is prioritized in SG? #blackcaucusdebate— india (@__indiaC) March 25, 2019
Similar to Zitzmann, James Kwon, one of the candidates in the running for Secretary proved to the crowd that he wanted to make a meaningful impact on AU's campus. Jumping into the debate, Kwon spoke about the role of Secretary being a direct line of information from AUSG to students. While serving as a Senator for the Class of 2021 her freshman and sophomore year, as well as being an Oversight Chairwoman for AUSG. Danya Adams, Kwon's opponent, is running on the platform that students shouldn't be left in the dark when it comes to all the hard work student government does. It was hard for Adams to gain favor with the Black Caucus considering her lack of initiative to dive into the issues with student government, on top of the fact that she was unable to list her involvement with diaspora organizations on campus.
When researched, Kwon saw the @austudentgov Instagram page has been inactive since Welcome Week of 2018, and AUSG's Master Calendar, which was last accessed in March 2019, appears blank. The Black Caucus was very much so attracted to Kwon's ambitious ideas which included revising the functionality of the AUSG Master Calendar, fixing the accessibility of the AUSG website by revamping the site and creating an anonymous google form that would allow students to express grievances in weekly Q&A sessions. As an AUSG outsider, unlike Adams, Kwon, has the unique perspective of seeing the necessary changes AUSG needs to implement in order to truly represent the student body through increased transparency, accountability, and inclusion -- therefore receiving an endorsement.
What proved to be difficult for leaders of the Black Caucus was endorsing a Vice Presidential Candidate. Many mentioned both advantages and disadvantages to the two candidates Carolyn Mejia and Mulan Burgess. While some appreciated Burgess' detailed answers in response to questions, some wondered was he "all talk" noting that some of his aspirations like the ridding of the Founder's Day Ball seemed too large and unattainable. Burgess did not provide any concrete plans on how he would make this dream a reality, leaving many to worry if this would indeed be an empty promise that he would not be able to deliver on once in office. Burgess' mentioning of the ridding of the ball is also at odds with his platform which states that he will work towards: "Connecting with Campus Departments, Schools, and Deans to have the event be financially supported by both the students and the university in order to grow the ball so we can afford larger venues and include more students to celebrate." However, a key component in the caucus' decision to endorse Burgess over Mejia was his role as Deputy Comptroller following Gisselle Gladden's suspension earlier this semester. While some noted that Burgess' opponent Carolyn Mejia was also a strong candidate, some were turned off by the lack of multicultural events she has attended this past semester and overall relationship with the Black community. Many at the Black Caucus were also left wondering on how she would precisely advocate for Black students, not of Latinx origin.
Leaders of the Black Caucus were also quick to endorse Joshua Dantzler over Angela Chen for Student Government President. Leaders noted that Dantzler proved to be personable and his answers were concise and reflective of his knowledge on different multicultural organizations on campus. No disadvantages of Dantzler or his campaign were expressed. Alternatively, for Chen, many in the room expressed disappointment in not only her lack of criticism about rush taking place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but in her decision to partake. Some were also turned off by Chen's platform stance on reporting bias in the classroom. Chen has been advocating for a "Professor Bias Report Form" that will hold professor's "accountable for comments in the classroom." However, this is an initiative that the AU NAACP has been working on for some time and has received no contact from Chen regarding their work. Overall, many in the room shared grievances about Chen's lack of communication with the member organizations within the Black Caucus and were not confident in her ability to work with their interests in mind. However, some did raise the concern of a lack of gender diversity with an endorsement line-up of Joshua Dantzler for Student Government President, Mulan Burgess for Vice President, James Kwon for Secretary and Bobby Zitzmann for Comptroller, but the overwhelming majority stood by them. The Black Caucus has chosen these four individuals to lead the American University student body during the 2019-2020 academic year, confident in their abilities to lead and best represent the Black community on campus.
The Black Caucus is an affinity of several Black organizations on campus including The Blackprint, American University's National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (AU NAACP), Caribbean Circle, Ethiopian Student Association, African Student Organization, Black Student Union, Sister Sister, Men of Empowerment and Excellence and Divine Nine organizations: Alpha Phi Alpha, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Zeta Phi Beta and Phi Beta Sigma. While the Black Caucus is an affinity group, it must be made clear that their student government endorsements are not reflective of the individual organizations that make up the caucus as these organizations are welcome to endorsing candidates of their choosing. These individual organizations are also free to abstain or not partake in the collective vote made by The Black Caucus â€” although it is unclear if any organization did, in fact, choose to forfeit their participatory vote.
The "Black Caucus Debate" is not the first event hosted by the Black Caucus nor will it be the last. Similar to The Darkening Town Hall, that occurred in years prior to The Darkening's dissolvement as an active organization on campus, Black students on campus understand that their voices and their concerns are stronger in numbers and should be addressed by those wishing to represent them.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mentioned that an expletive found on a candidate's social media account was a defining factor in the Black Caucus' inability to endorse them. The Blackprint is not able to confirm these allegations and failed to contact the candidate in question for a comment.