Where Do We Stand?
Polemicist looks at the SA Elections
February 1991; page 2; Volume 2, No. 4
Last year this magazine acted as a shameless and uncritical propagandist in its SA endorsement of Toni Luckett, the first candidate in years to run on a progressive platform. This year Polemicist will again endorse a slate of progressive candidates, but only after a critical examination of the issues.
As a result of Luckett's election, the Student's Association office opened its doors to a number of left organizations with their various priorities for broad reforms of the University. A number of very strong appointments led to changes in programs like Students United for Rape Awareness, which became, for probably the first time, empowering to the women for which it was designed. Eric Dixon and a handful of SA reps, assisted by members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, brought Edward Said to speak on campus in the fall - a sign of new priorities of this administration.
The resources of the office (copy machines and paper, computers, and filing cabinets for the burgeoning research) made possible a number of resource intensive projects like the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East. Her election, however, did not lead to the broad based and massive student movement that many voters had hoped to see. In fact, the student movement has lost both energy and ground in the last year.
Toni Luckett, as an elected official, must accept criticism from her disappointed constituents. On the other hand, the reasons for the current stagnation of a once promising student movement lie well beyond the narrow parameters of the office of SA President.
While the office of President, as an elected position, carries with it a channel of accountability to its voters, other students working from Student Organizations may or may not be accountable for their actions within the structure of their separate groups. They certainly have no accountability to the student population at large.
Students face a number of problems organizing through a loose-knit, non-hierarchical coalition of coalitions. Which among all the organizations within the coalition can call it to action? BSA? TODOS UNIDOS? SMUT (gay students)? the Palestine Solidarity Committee? Of the broad and sweeping changes called for by students on campus, which should provide the focus for the coalition? Multiculturalism? Corporatization of the University? University spending priorities? the War? Among the member organizations and indviduals doing work, where and how are the lines of communication to be laid?
Further, what does the coalition, and for that matter the electorate, expect of its Official? Should the sole Elected Official be empowered to voice the concerns of all the groups, as a kind of spokesperson for the coalition? Should the Official wait for others to come forward to speak to the press and at rallies? Without structure the coalition becomes prey to the unilateral actions of individuals, and the only secure channel of accountability, that leading to the elected official, carries the weight of all criticism.
Toni Luckett was tokenized. She was voted into office in part because she was the "black lesbian in dreds" who could, by sheer force of her "subject position" somehow represent a more diverse constituency of students than previous SA presidents. Her "subject position" affinity groups alone did not elect her to office, however. Liberal white voters helped elect her, and liberal white voters, like everyone else, hoped she would be able to unify the student movement.
In the following months, however, the focus on Toni by the national and local media began to confuse issues of accountability with issues of representation. In order to deflect the constantly tokenizing gestures of the press which sought in Luckett a single "representative" for the "student movement," Luckett disappeared as an elected official, from the sights of all the voters that put her in office. She was able to intimidate many potential left critics into silence by manipulating liberal guilt. Right-wing students and those she crossed in tthe SA began a poorly organized and unsupported "Impeach Luckett" campaign that returned her to center-stage in the media without articulating the isssues at stake.
Meanwhile, other students in the SA office and in the coalition (now more like a loose network of contacts) worked hard on their own issues with neither guidance nor restraint. "Officially" representing no one any longer, this group of individuals tended to become an elite, while coalition politics slowly evaporated.
The word "elite" does not refer only to those in the Tower, nor does it have to be a terrible slander against individuals on the left. Left organizations that critique hierarchy have always been plagued with problems of accountability. Jo Freeman, nearly twenty years ago, offered criticm of elitism in the feminist movement in a paper entitled The Tyranny of Structureless: Most often, she noted, those who by viture of their friends, time commitments and personal priorities, work hard to become a form of shadow government, often undercritized by those who, because of their time commitment and priorities, cannot put in as much energy. Further, without an official decision-making structure, individuals only marginally involved in the organization can represent themselves and their ideas as if coming from the larger group. The Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, for example, was plagued with problems of individual accountability from the start. Only recently when a strong (and in this case hierarchial) structure was implemented have curbs been set over the activities of both strong but fallible members and non-members.
The left student ticket this semester offers some redress to the problems briefly outlined here. First, by sending a number of student into office together, several officially elected representatives will be answerable to the voters that elect them. This takes the spotlight off any one individual, although the media's efforts to tokenize a black student body president will probably persist. Further, the S.A. itself could function as the forum for structured communications among the various constituencies represented. Perhaps most important, Eric Dixon has an established track record working on student issues, unlike Toni who had never organized on campus.
On the other hand, the left organizations that gather in support of the ticket must also begin to work out the problems of coalition structure that continue to plague us. Further, elected representatives need to work out a reasonable and limited set of goals, because under no circumstances will the Student Association be able to, itself, implement any kind of revolutionary changes. In this case the focus on student services and allocation of funds seems to be a direct response to the overblown hopes of last year.
Twenty years ago, Jo Freeman wrote: "The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages. This does not mean that its ideas do not spread. Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the appropriateness of social conditions, the ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about. Insofar as they can be applied individually they may be acted upon; insofar as they require coordinated political power to be implemented, they will not be."
Freeman's statement could have been written today. We still have a lot to learn from our foremothers.
Endorsements: Eric Dixon and Mona Kiblawi
Eric Dixon has long been an active member of the Student Association and knows its bureaucracy. Currently the Exceutive Director of the S.A., he has been a crucial figure in securing the passage of left bills through the S.A., and oversees S.A. projects and committees. He knows both the limitations of the Student Association and its potential strengths.
Mona Kiblawi, Two-Year at Large Representative in the S.A., brings to her S.A. work the experience she has gained working with American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Amnesty International, the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, Palestine Solidarity Committee and numerous other organizations struggling now to both end the war in the Middle East and support American-Arabs and Palestinians under attack here at home.
On their platform the President and Vice President have prioritized the pursuit of the Student Services Complex, an idea put forward by Dixon and others, which would centralize health services, financial aid, degree-check processing in one building. This in itself is a huge project and would make a significant difference in tthe lives of all students. Both are committed to make reps more accessible to students. Further, they intend to revamp the line-itme budget in order to reduce the number of automatic appropriations and open the budget to more student applicants.
Dixon and Kiblawi have put forward a broad agenda that includes diversifying the faculty and student body; addressing curriculum reforms, and improving the Shuttle bus service among other things. No group of candidates will be able to accomplish this broad agenda in one year. In order to be effective, Dixon and Kiblawi must after the elections focus on a handful of projects.
Mona Kiblawi and Eric Dixon bring a strong slate of candiates with them. Among graduate students, Shelli Fowler played a key role in the E306 struggle, and Louis Mendoza has worked through TODOS UNIDOS trying to implement changes in the Center for Mexican-American Studies, as well as broad curriculum reforms. Susan Hays, running for TSP Place Two, knows how TSP tries to disempower students, having struggled to maintain her independence as editor of Utmost. Joshua Thomas, having just returned from Baghdad, is a strong member of the Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, as well as an organizer with ACT-UP. Polemicist endorses the entire ticket with the confidence that this is as strong, intelligent and diverse a group as UT students could hope to find representing them in the Student Association.
Polemicist recommends the Progressive Collective Ticket:
President: Eric Dixon
Vice President: Mona Kiblawi
Two Yr. at Large: Stephanie McGee
One Yr. at Large: Bob Rankin Jr., Shola Lynch, Joshua Thomas, Monem Salam
Communications: Mimi Sawatka
Graduate Reps: Louis Mendoza, David Ritchie, Shelli Fowler, Kim Emery, Lisa Hernandez
Liberal Arts: Leigh Arrendondo
TSP Place One: Mimi McKay
TSP Place Two: Susan Hays