Heated Senate Plenary Meetings Draw Audience

Madeline Peltz, Staff Writer

Since Fearless and Loathing began recording Student Senate plenary meetings in February, Student Senate’s agenda has been a topic of much debate on campus. Persistent conflict in light of disagreements concerning the purpose and structure of the body has left some skeptical of progression any time soon.

“It seems that they are unwilling to negotiate and put aside their differences to actually do the job they were elected to do,” said a student that attended last week’s plenary and preferred to remain anonymous.

Senate has been fraught with tension since the beginning of the term. The semester’s first meeting concluded without committee assignments completed due to arguments surrounding the fairness of spring elections. Only a month into the semester, Senate’s ability to cooperate took a turn for the worse when a number of senators were involved in a public confrontation that was ultimately disrupted by Safety and Security and a College dean. Although not directly addressed at the subsequent plenary, the resulting tension was implicit in the tone and position of each senator.

“Many were aware of what happened earlier that week, and it was clear that word had gone around,” said a student that attended the following plenary. “You could just feel the tension.”

The first 30 minutes of the meeting proceeded as planned until Senator and College sophomore Kiki Acey raised concerns regarding the postponement of a training session for the senators with the Multicultural Resource Center. Senator and College sophomore Machmud Makhmudov was accused of making an “executive decision” in delaying the training, leading Acey to put forth a proposal that called for the senator’s dismissal from Student Senate.

“It was nine people who expressed discomfort having the training, and it was not one person who unilaterally made the decision,” said a student senator.

According to several senators, the ability to engage in productive dialogue has been worn down by a year of plenary meetings occupied with mutual disregard for differences in opinion among individual senators. Since the controversy involving Senate spread, more students have begin to attend weekly plenaries on Sunday evenings. Last week, more than 30 students were in attendance.

“Who made the process of Senate?” asked a student that attended last week’s plenary. “Was that a body that was governed by people of color? Did people of color decide that? Did women decide that? Who did? And if they didn’t, even if you can’t change it in total, how do you compensate for the fact that this system, Senate as a body, was made by white cis–hetero men years back, and it’s still being used? And then you try to say that you’re trying to include voices, but where are those voices and where are those faces? It’s only when we come to this room and then everybody feels uneasy because, ‘Oh, wow, you showed up?’”

For better or worse, Acey recognizes that they have made a big splash this year in Senate. “What I have to say is not institutionally backed. If it were institutionally backed then I wouldn’t have to say it,” Acey said. “I would have to assert it in a certain way, and so I think a lot of senators feel uncomfortable with brown and black students speaking up for what we feel is right and what we feel is best for our communities.”

While many senators initially expressed that their decision to run for elected office was motivated by their desire to bring change to the community, most have lost sight of what that means.

In the words of one senator, “I was interested in getting more involved with policies on campus. I didn’t have any specific agenda or constituency that I was trying to represent. I don’t really think of myself as a political person really, I just thought it might be good experience for me to be in that kind of setting.”

Acey frequently returned to the idea that their frustration stems from the need to navigate the “politics of respectability.” “There is a certain way to behave and to act and certain spaces to be loud and certain spaces to be quiet,” the senator said.

The stagnation of Senate’s work does not seem to concern Acey. Rather, the urgency of the institutional oppression faced by students of color motivates Acey’s service, as well as a desire to make the Student Senate benefit that community. Although focusing advocacy efforts on students of color, Acey expressed that the aim is not to represent a racial community.

“I don’t feel like I have to represent an entire community… that would be very presumptuous of me to assume that all black people have [the same notions of politics], and that I’m representing those politics,” Acey said. “My politics are moving toward a certain type of revolutionary way of thinking, framework. I like to be in constant communication with how can I move forward with gaining things for underrepresented and marginalized communities without further oppressing other communities.”

Acey’s political ideology has been met with both blatant hostility as well as revelation. As one senator said, “Our goals are to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible and create a home environment in Oberlin. Do we always do that? Potentially not. I can’t say that we do.” The senator continued, “I have all the systematic privilege in the world, and to be frank, nothing is ever going to get done until we accept that we are privileged. Is there anything to be gained from the conversations happening? Absolutely. I wish it could be done in a different way.”

Another senator expressed hope for cooperation. “You might wholeheartedly disagree, might even hate me as a person, but for the sake of the student body let’s get some progress going. There are plans we can all support to put in place. We managed to re-interview all the honor code interviewees and appoint all of them, except one, because Acey felt uncomfortable with them. That’s progress to me! If we can keep doing that through respectful dialogue, I don’t understand why that can’t happen.”