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Last year, white male undergraduates were doubly represented by their student government. It's true-white men made up 50 percent of the Undergraduate Council, but only 25 percent of the student body. Women held 28 percent of council seats, but were 45 percent of the student body. Different minority groups were also vastly underrepresented. At the end of the year, for example, only one Asian-American woman served on the council, though Asian American women made up 9 percent of Harvard's student body. Clearly, the council has far to go to reflect the diversity of the student body.
Making the council more representative is not just another PC plan; a student government that represents the student body demographically will have a greater impact. Why is this the case? Shouldn't race or gender be irrelevant as long as the representatives have good intentions? I grant that good intentions go a long way toward making a difference, and I cheer loudly the white men who have fought to give a voice to women and people of color. I'm not talking to these men; I don't need to. I am talking to those of us in the student body who have always thought that the council had nothing to do with us.
The council has everything to do with all of us, for two reasons. The council is the face of the student body for the administration and the council spends over $120,000 of our term-bill money. Simply, students deserve to be represented in College decisions and to have a say in how our money is spent. Right now, most of Harvard's students-as women and as people of color-do not have adequate representation on the Council. Building a truly representative body is like building anything: You do it better with the right tools. Sure, we can stand on each others' shoulders to build a wall with a hammer, a few nails, and some scrap wood. But wouldn't the wall be stronger if we had power tools, screws, drywall and a ladder? Until a previously underrepresented group achieves a critical mass within a representative body, important issues are left untouched. We saw this in Congress with the 1992 elections. Remember "The Year of the Woman"? Well, it wasn't until the newly elected women joined their House colleagues (to make a still small total of 48 women out of 435) that the Family and Medical Leave Act could pass.
The same phenomenon exists within student government at Harvard. The issues that are most important to the largest number of council representatives rise to the forefront of the council's efforts. Last year's council was successful on many issues like reforming the Core, extending the hours for shuttle buses and libraries, sprucing up Loker-issues of general student interest. These topics were addressed because of their relevance to the daily lives of council members: shuttle service was of great concern to those from the Quad, first-years had a stake in Loker, etc.
But the council also dealt with some issues that came to the floor as a result of the efforts of under-represented groups: the council funded a rally supporting Faculty diversity and stood for the rights of lesbian and gay students to hold commitment ceremonies in Memorial Church. The Council encouraged the University to include "gender identity" and "mental illness" in its nondiscrimination clause. These issues, too, arose because of their relevance to the daily lives of council members. These are the kind of issues that hang in the balance between good intentions and the real thing. If this year's council truly reflects the diversity of the student body, issues like the lack of women and minority faculty will swing squarely into front and center.
And other important, previously undiscussed issues will arise. There are as many things to change at Harvard as there are students with ideas. Some of my concerns this semester include the virtual absence of child care on campus for faculty, staff, and students; tutor sensitivity to the concerns of underrepresented groups; and desperately needed improvements in campus safety(all too often seen as a "women's" issue). I want to make clear that I am not just talking about racial or ethnic minorities and women when I talk about underrepresented groups. Students of different sexual orientations, transgendered students, students from different socio-economic classes, and students with different religious backgrounds must be fairly represented as well.
Transgendered students should be protected under Harvard's non-discrimination clause. First-year international students should receive QRR materials before they arrive on campus for the first time. The move-in policy implemented this year has got to change; not only was it a terrible hassle, but it unfairly forced working parents to juggle a mid-week move-in. Some council debates have made me shudder at the unintentional intolerance which can result from the underrepresentation of different voices. This was epitomized by the strong conviction of some council members in the fall of 1995 that Harvard should adopt John Harvard as our official mascot. I know I am not alone when I say that the pilgrimish John Harvard figure represents everything that Harvard should not-chiefly, exclusivity. Harvard in John Harvard's day did not welcome women, students of color, Jews and Muslims, and there was certainly no tolerance of differences in sexual orientation! Yet, here I was, in a meeting of the student government, listening to folks (clearly possessing good intentions)talk about John Harvard as the mascot par excellence. I was stunned as they reported their delight at the administration's favorable response.
Yet another time, a resolution was introduced to wish all students at Harvard a Merry Christmas. This bill was remarkable both because it was utterly useless as well as being offensive: Not all of us celebrate Christmas. As president, I strive to focus the council on issues that I feel the student body wants to see addressed. This will include, especially, taking a leadership role this semester with Faculty diversity efforts. But I am limited, too, in my ability to represent all groups. I have not had the same experience as women of color; or of a lesbian; or of a Muslim student; or of an international student. I cannot, alone, bring all voices to the table.
I'm often told not to say some things that I say because they make white men angry. Why don't I listen to that advice? Because I do not believe that anyone needs to respond to these ideas with anger, and I have great trust in white men's ability to see the value in equal representation. Many white men I know have been active crusaders for opening up spaces to others. Even more are happy and eager to share. Please join me-if you can-to bring diversity to our student government. Run for the council. It's a few hours of meetings each week, and a chance to really make a difference. Your voice is important, and it is needed. Though I will try my very best, I cannot guarantee that your voice will be heard authentically unless it comes from YOU. We deserve to have a student government that has all the tools it needs to work up to its potential, one that isn't prevented from meeting its potential from the start, due to a lack of diversity.
I promise you: Your participation matters. A diverse council will have all the right tools to build-for the first time-a truly representative student government body. And it will accomplish more than we ever dreamed was possible.
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