In the chaos of bodies pressed against each other, I watched in horror as students dressed in graduation gowns were put in handcuffs. Their satin blue robes glimmered beneath the wintry Washington, D.C., sun as they were escorted away by Capitol Police. In the shadow of the U.S. Supreme Court building, I stood among hundreds of students who rallied to protest a federal budget plan that would cut billions of dollars from the Pell Grant program. In that moment, I wondered what justice looked like.
This was my first true introduction to student government at UCLA.
My first year as a Bruin was tumultuous, to say the least. In November 2014, the University of California Board of Regents proposed a five-year plan that would increase tuition by 27.7 percent. In response to this, students drove overnight with the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s Office of the External Vice President to attend the regents’ meeting during which the vote to raise tuition was to take place. A few months later, I traveled again with the EVP office to Washington, D.C., to advocate against massive cuts to the Pell Grant program.
As a low-income student who relied entirely on financial aid to afford a UCLA education, I was emotionally invested in those two trips. I was already trying to save every penny possible by handwashing my clothes, not buying mandatory books for classes and counting swipes to minimize the meals I needed to eat. I spent nights lying in bed on an empty stomach, flipping between countless browser tabs of scholarship portals and transfer applications.
In many ways, the EVP office became my saving grace that year. It gave me an outlet to speak on my own behalf as a low-income woman of color and first-generation immigrant. So when I made the decision to run for EVP last year, I thought back to how much this space radically transformed me, and how it has the potential to fight for the needs of those who don’t have the voice or resources to fight themselves.
Student government is more than just programming and event planning. We students of marginalized backgrounds rarely see ourselves represented in mainstream academic, political and artistic spaces. We need to challenge these systems of oppression that disenfranchise people of color, and USAC is poised to act as that engine – if it allows itself to.
Historically, USAC has always had the potential to be a space for relevant and radical organizing, not just passive programming. In 1999, Erika Yamasaki published her doctoral dissertation on a historical case study of Asian American students in USAC. Her thesis, titled “Politics in Racially Diverse Contexts,” analyzed the ways in which student government evolved from “being a bastion of the fraternity system to serving as a platform for progressive students of color” between 1968 and 1998.
Galvanized by the civil rights and Black Power movements, UCLA students formed the Progressive Coalition, which was later rebranded as the Third World Coalition and eventually became Students First!. These movements led to the election of UCLA’s first Asian-American student body president in 1981 and the UC divesting $3.1 billion from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.
This tradition of grassroots activism has continued. In 2009, for example, progressive USAC leaders organized protests with campus communities against a 32 percent tuition hike. The mass outpouring of almost a thousand students rallying against the regents is now considered to have been a precursor to the Occupy Wall Street movement. This activism, however, is only possible when we put into positions of power those who understand that being political isn’t merely about voting, but also fighting for students’ very survival.
On Jan. 17, a Daily Bruin submission encouraged students to run for USAC with Bruins United. It also called for USAC elections to be a less toxic space. I agree with the latter. Year after year, the campus climate has deteriorated during spring quarter because of crass behavior.
However, we students whose identities are relegated to the margins don’t have the luxury of separating ourselves from campus politics when these politics consistently erase and demean our existence. For students whose identities are attacked on a regular basis, delegitimizing our feelings as petty politics is asking us to placate our anger and exhaustion – to make it more palatable for those who only speak on racial and economic justice when it’s convenient.
If running for USAC is something you’re considering, you must also support the campus communities who have been doing the work all along. Be intentional about learning their history. Ask questions and stay critical, because nothing exists in a vacuum. For students whose very existences on this campus depend on advocacy, we will always fight for change – with or without student government seats. And if you do have the honor of serving in student government, recognize the space that you’re taking. Make room for those whose voices often aren’t heard.
It just might be the progress we’ve been waiting for.
Pan is the 2017-2018 USAC External Vice President. She ran as an independent candidate.