New BSA President Faces Challenge
‘Community’ is a campaign theme
Olamipe I. Okunseinde ’04 beat out two other candidates for the presidency, basing her platform on the three broad values of “community, tradition and innovation” that she says “will define next year” for the BSA under her leadership.
The BSA members also elected Anne M. Morris ’04 as vice president, Marissa A. Mike ’05 as secretary and Lawrence E. Adjah ’06 as treasurer.
Okunseinde, who is also a Crimson editor, is a psychology concentrator from Eliot House. She has served as the BSA publicity chair for the past two years.
“I’m very excited [about being president]—also about the strength of the board,” Okunseinde says. “And I’m also very excited about the voter turnout and the number of candidates.”
The theme of community was also present throughout the platforms of the other presidential candidates—Angela A. Amos ’05 and Jennifer N. Hawkins ’04.
“My vision for the BSA is that it will fulfill its mission to be a pillar of strength and unity in Harvard’s black community and in the greater communities of Harvard and the world,” Amos writes in her position paper.
Hawkins delineates in her paper her aim as BSA president of “strengthening familial ties in the black Harvard community.”
No Easy Task
While the primary goals of the BSA president—to foster a sense of community and fulfill the agenda which the membership sets—seem clear from the constitution, the president’s job of being the spokesperson for the organization’s approximately 200 members—many with diverse views—is not always easy.
Outgoing BSA President Charles M. Moore ’04 says it is impossible for the president to please everyone in the group “because people are different, they want different things from the BSA.”
But Amos says walking the fine line between different factions’ opinions can prevent the group from effectively voicing the opinion of anyone in the group at times.
“The problem with the BSA is that we are so concerned with misrepresenting someone that we don’t represent anyone,” Amos, the outgoing BSA secretary, said in her election speech.
Amos says the “responsibility of representing every black student everywhere” is “a privilege and a burden” for the BSA.
Hawkins, who has served as publications chair and president of the Freshman Black Table (FBT), says the president has the discretion of deciding which issues to speak out on.
“In terms of political action I guess they can be seen as having an activist role,” Hawkins says. “You pick your battles.”
But Okunseinde says it is not necessary for the president to consolidate all the different viewpoints of the membership.
“It’s really up to the president to be cognizant of who they’re representing and how best to serve them...it’s not trying to temper everyone’s vision to one vision,” Okunseinde says.
Moore says the BSA tries to accommodate the interests within the group by organizing a variety of events and promoting a variety of issues.
“We make options available; that’s the most community organizations can do,” Amos says. “It’s like you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”
A Question of Style
The BSA president’s duties, as mandated by the constitution, include moderating meetings, meeting with leaders of other black student groups and being the BSA spokesperson.
But many members say the style of the president may be more important for the BSA than any of his or her practical tasks.
Okunseinde writes in her position paper that the president does not have to be outspoken in order to be successful.
“Leaders aren’t always revolutionists/radicals,” Okunseinde writes. “One can be quiet and effective, still knowing when to speak out as a visible entity.”
Fred O. Smith ’04, outgoing BSA vice president, says that there is no template for the BSA president to follow—instead he or she can craft his or her own leadership style.
“Next year’s president might not necessarily be as vocal as some presidents, but she’ll get the job done,” Smith says.
Smith says that he believes BSA presidents have been “very moderate” during his years at Harvard—although Smith does not specify whether this is a positive or negative trend.
But the president does not always decide what role he or she plays—it is the BSA constituency that largely dictates the direction of the group, according to many members.
This balance of power is vaguely outlined in the BSA constitution, with the president fulfilling the duties of chairing meetings, heading the board and acting as the spokesperson.
Smith says the board usually votes on political issues in order to determine the official stance of the BSA on a topic.
But Smith said the president does have discretion to speak out.
Smith cites Moore’s public statements in the media this fall on affirmative action—which he made after simply informing the board of his stance.
The board, however, is just another link between the full membership and the president—and the membership’s opinions matter most, according to many members.
Several BSA members acknowledge the importance of the president’s ability to step away from his or her personal beliefs in the role.
Hawkins says strong personal views have to get “pushed aside.”
“I would never push my own personal agenda over the community’s interest...I would speak to the board because the board was chosen to represent the community,” Okunseinde says.
Toussaint G. Losier ’04, the outgoing political action chair, says the breadth and diversity of the BSA membership has made it hard for the president to take a politically activist role in the past few years.
“If you spend too much time walking on egg shells there’s less of a possibility that you’re going to get a lot of stuff done, especially when it comes to something like politics,” Losier says. Losier says despite the group’s more than thirty year history, some members worry about the possibility of a contentious issue dividing the group.
“It kind of comes out of concern that if you end up with people on both sides of a specific issue that will tear people apart and cause some sort of irreparable harm,” Losier says.
But Losier says a single issue has not undone the community yet—and he would like to see the president taking stronger stances on political issues.
Smith says, however, that the election of Rachel S. Bolden-Kramer ’06 as the new political chair may mean an increase in political activity for the BSA in the coming year.
In her position paper, Bolden-Kramer writes that she thinks the BSA should be more involved in addressing issues relating to employment rights, access to education, incarceration, poverty, heterosexism and war.
“My primary concern is the lack of participation of black students in regards to major social justice initiatives that are happening on campus,” she writes in her paper.
Smith says her election indicates a consensus of the membership to delve farther into these issues.
“I hope she uses [the consensus],” Smith says.