The Voices of Students, Organizers, and Senators Matter More Than Ever

Disclaimer: In this opinion piece, though I am speaking about my experiences as a student senator, I am discussing these occurrences as a student — not as a senator. 

The actions of last week deeply frustrated, appalled, and saddened me. I acknowledge that Student Senate’s March 11 statement has played a part in derailing campus political dialogue. However, I wish to move forward and discuss a different outcome of Senate’s statement, one that has been intensely personal and upsetting. I have accepted a significant amount of the fallout over Senate’s statement, but I am unsure why it has been a burden that I individually have had to bear. While it was my job to deliver the message to the student body, I was not its sole writer. If you read the entire statement carefully, you will notice that every single senator signed the statement. Thus, I’m forced to wonder why no other senator’s experiences over the past week have mirrored mine, even though we all contributed to and signed the exact same statement.

I wonder why I have been met with such direct criticism — often by people that I don’t know well or have never even met. I wonder why I was referred to as a “cop” on social media when I’ve dedicated years of my life to racial justice organizing that combated police and state violence in Pittsburgh. I wonder why it’s being claimed that I’m an opponent of student activism when I came to Oberlin and ran for Senate to continue and amplify my work as a student activist. I wonder why some are claiming I’m a pawn of the administration when my most extensive conversation with President Ambar took place when I was a prospective student about a year ago. I wonder why countless people feel that it is OK to approach me about Senate-related issues no matter how inappropriate the setting.

On this campus, I carry multiple identities — Senator, student, and organizer. However, these identities are ignored when we continuously try to force ourselves into compartmentalized boxes in order to fit in on this campus. When we divide ourselves along these lines, we further a narrative that antagonizes student government and student organizers. Such a tactic negates the idea that people can be a part of both camps. This false dichotomy causes us to lose sight of our mutual goal — a student platform in the Academic and Administrative Program Review process that incorporates demands from all sides.

What I’ve been forced to realize this week is that a lot of people claim to know me without taking the time to learn my story. This experience is part of a larger phenomenon in which the labor of women and femmes of color is both undermined and consumed, but not appreciated. While this phenomenon is not unique to Oberlin, it is incredibly prevalent on this campus. Thus, since so many people think that they know me, I wanted to utilize this platform to reintroduce myself on my own terms.

I am Serena Zets, I use she/her/hers, and I am an 18-year-old first-year. I identify as a queer multiracial Indian American woman and as a survivor of sexual violence. In Pittsburgh, I served as a racial justice organizer whose campaigns focused on uplifting marginalized student voices, supporting survivors of sexual violence, and fighting against police violence and militarization in schools. In addition to direct organizing, I also worked as a freelance journalist covering social justice movements for five years. For much of my life before Oberlin, I carried the identities of community organizer and political journalist.

It seems to be an intentional choice on behalf of Student senate to utilize its only woman of color as its Communications Director and public face. Placing a student who carries that identity into that position not only misrepresents the racial and gender makeup of Senate but also forces that student to take the emotional burden and fallout for all of Senate’s actions while working for minimum wage. It hurts to be called “intimidating” and “unapproachable” by older white students that I considered my allies in the fight for bettering this institution; hearing such claims has forced me to evaluate their inherent gendered and racialized understones.

I came to Oberlin because I understood it to be a space in which my voice and perspective would be valued. However, after this week, my voice feels commodified and exploited. My emotions feel policed. My actions feel surveilled. I understand that an elected official might have these expectations placed upon them. However, forcing these expectations onto a first-year student of color who is new to the institutional and campus politics of Oberlin feels irresponsible and dangerous. In many ways, I have been thrust into a position I did not ask to be in and inserted into a complex spectacle that predates my arrival onto this campus.

If Oberlin wishes to live up to its legacy of inclusion, its community must better understand and support the needs of the students that it works so hard to tokenize and idolize. In my words, I hope that you hear not only my frustration, but also my passion and hope for a better Oberlin. I ran for Senate because I believe that it has the potential to be an effective channel for student advocacy, but — as a community organizer myself — I know that it is not the only channel for advocacy.

I value direct action and public pressure on institutions. Furthermore, I believe that amplifying student voices is the only way our demands will be taken seriously. I regret that the conversation surrounding this particular action and its response have taken a polarizing course. It’s a daunting yet critical time to be an Oberlin student, let alone an organizer and/or senator. I thank you for your time, and I look forward to working with you and being in conversation with you in the future. Our future is dependent upon the actions we take in the coming days. Let’s unite our resources and our power to work together and reclaim an institution that must answer to us.