SGA Representatives have the power to influence major aspects of student life, including by planning a myriad of beloved student events. However, when their elections come around, the bulk of the student body is nowhere to be found. Will this semester be different?

On Tuesday, students gathered in the Diana Center to watch the SGA’s candidates forum, an opportunity for students running in the upcoming election to share their platforms and field questions from voters. The current election will determine who makes up Barnard’s Student Government in the 2022–23 academic year. Voting opened the day after the candidates’ forum and will end at noon on Monday, April 25. 

For the most part, the event progressed as expected—candidates for all 25 of the upcoming election’s positions spoke briefly about their platforms, before taking questions from a sparse audience about specific policies they hope to enact during their tenures. Then, about halfway through the forum, SGA welcomed Yola Ashkenazie (BC ‘24), Gaby Diaz-Vendrell (BC ‘25), and Jenniffer Koita (BC ‘24), the three candidates running for Representative for Inclusive Initiatives. According to the official job description, the Representative for Inclusive Initiatives heads a committee whose goal is to “promote open discussion, foster community dialogues, support and develop programs and practices that engage the community in building an inclusive campus climate.” Among other responsibilities, the role includes planning the event Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard, the College’s annual celebration of its Black student population. Founded alongside the position itself in 2019, Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard features a myriad of events hosted in conjunction with B.O.S.S. (Barnard Organization of Soul & Solidarity), including panel discussions, performances, and community events like movie nights. According to the current Representative for Inclusive Affairs, Mariame Sissoko (BC ‘24), at the time of its creation, Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard was considered “a huge achievement and an overdue celebration of Black students at Barnard.” While the COVID-19 pandemic caused many elements of the event to be put on pause in 2020 and 2021, under Sissoko, this semester marked its return to in-person programming, something the next representative will be tasked with continuing. 

In some ways, the three candidates shared similar platforms, particularly when it came to expanding accessibility and inclusivity for Barnard’s FGLI (First Generation, Low Income) student community. In particular, Diaz-Vendrell shared her plans to create more equitable NSOP programs for FGLI and international students. 

In her speech, Ashkenazie emphasized her experience as the Assistant Chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of Columbia’s chapter of Sigma Delta Tau, where she instituted weekly opportunities for members to share presentations about their unique cultures. 

Then, Koita spoke about the importance of developing strong alumni networks for students of color, as well as creating cross-cultural programming with groups like B.O.S.S., Mujeres, and the Muslim Students Association. All three candidates emphasized the importance of open communication with marginalized groups on campus, particularly FGLI students.

However, when asked specifically about their visions for the Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard event, the candidates’ perspectives seemed to noticeably diverge. Both Ashkenazie and Diaz-Vendrell stated they had never attended the event. Speaking first, Diaz-Vendrell emphasized that she believed the event would benefit from stronger advertising campus-wide. Ashkenazie agreed, before stating, “I think publicizing this [event] to the broader Barnard community—not just to one specific population of the Barnard community—is very important.” Ashkenazie also stated that she hopes stronger advertising, as well as changing the time of the event, will make it more “accessible,” so that it ceases to “come as a burden to many students.” Koita, the only Black candidate, spoke last, and took issue with this framing, stating, “Because the event is called ‘Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard,’ what’s important to me is centering the Black students at Barnard.” While she agreed the event could benefit from additional advertising, she emphasized that “while it’s important for other students to know that this is an event, [the event] is for Black students,” stating, “It’s about them, it’s about their joy, and it’s about their experiences, and that’s important. That’s a key part of this position.” 

The race for Representative of Inclusive Initiatives became such a prominent issue at Tuesday’s forum in part because it is one of many races this election cycle that carries drastically different possibilities for the future of campus life. While the candidates certainly diverged during the Q&A session, they share similar sentiments about the weight of this election. 

When asked for comment, Diaz-Vendrell emphasized the importance of increasing voter turnout, writing, “Our student body has the opportunity to physically instate radical change. One vote can mean a start towards nonbinary inclusive language, abortion pills ON campus, F[G]LI prioritization—all the essentials to not only dominate administrative agendas but enhance our own qualities of life.” 

Koita echoed this sentiment, telling Bwog, “If we want to be heard, to make our years at Barnard the best they can be, and to leave a legacy for future classes to enjoy, we need to not only vote but also be mindful of who we vote for.” Ashkenazie could not be reached for a statement. 

Tuesday’s candidates’ forum may have signaled a particularly contentious race, but historically, SGA elections have garnered strikingly low engagement. According to SGA leadership, last semester’s election saw voter turnout peak at just 28% after the organization spent the last several semesters struggling to return to pre-COVID-19 voter turnout numbers. For context, in Spring 2019, just over 25% of the student body voted in the SGA election. By Fall 2021, that number had dropped to less than 10%. While the COVID-19 pandemic certainly damaged voter turnout numbers, even pre-COVID-19, participation was noticeably low. This low level of engagement even seems to transfer to the candidates themselves—this semester, 13 of the 25 elections are uncontested, meaning a candidate is running unopposed. So, with so few students historically taking part in SGA elections, what makes a race like this one so important? 

The answer is multifaceted, but boils down to one core element of the role: its tangible impact on student life. The Representative for Inclusive Initiatives is one of many positions on SGA that involves taking a leadership role in the planning of a major student life event. If elected, Ashkenazie, Diaz-Vendrell, or Koita will have discretion over the funding and planning of many events, including next year’s Bold, Beautiful, Black @ Barnard. Among other events, in the last year, the current representative has created a drive to secure chest binders for transgender and non-binary students and co-sponsored Barnard Mutual Aid’s multiple community closet events. Whoever is elected to serve next year will be responsible for deciding whether to continue these initiatives, as well as planning additional events.

Outside of this specific position, SGA representatives are also responsible for planning beloved campus traditions like the Senior Gala, the Senior Cruise, the Tree Lighting Ceremony, and Glass House Rocks, often in collaboration with representatives from CCSC, ESC, and GSSC. This election, students who have experienced dissatisfaction with campus life events so far now have the opportunity to decide who will plan these events in the future.   

Even beyond planning student events, SGA Representatives wield significant power. The next University Senator—a position for which three candidates are currently running—will influence how Barnard is factored into Columbia’s university-wide policy changes, as the College’s sole student representative on the Senate. Both candidates for Representative for Food & Dining Services have proposed notable changes to Barnard’s dining halls, including changing daily menus and reducing calorie markers. At the forum, a myriad of candidates, including those running for Junior Class President and Representative for Health Services, articulated plans to push Barnard to expand its healthcare for transgender and non-binary students, provide access to abortion pills on campus, increase the availability of STI testing, and increase general accessibility for disabled students, among other health initiatives. 

In and of itself, SGA manages a budget of over half a million dollars, and the students elected to those positions are responsible for deciding how to spend it. Thanks to the students who voted in March’s Constitutional Review election, this upcoming year, SGA representatives will be paid stipends for their service, the funds for which are drawn largely from student activities fees. In the same way that tax dollars fund the salaries of U.S. elected officials, this upcoming year, tuition dollars will fund these representatives. 

Tuesday’s candidates’ forum made it clear that the decisions made by SGA Representatives have significant implications for campus life. Yet, for the last several election cycles, these implications have not been met with engagement from the vast majority of Barnard’s student body. With a race as tight as this, will the election for Representative of Inclusive Initiatives have the power to change that? 

Voting is open now, and closes Monday, April 25, at 12 pm. To vote, Barnard students can access their unique survey link using their school email. 

Barnard via Bwarchives