Student Senate criticized for cultural unfamiliarity

Hispanic Student Association president Gabriela Fierro speaks at their banquet on Thursday. Photo courtesy of HSA

By Rewon Shimray | Staff Writer

The Baylor multicultural coalitions, representing 37 chartered organizations, wrote a letter to Student Senate expressing that they felt “disrespected, unheard and embarrassed to call Student Senate the representatives of Baylor,” read aloud at the Student Senate meeting Thursday.

The week prior, Hispanic Student Association president Gabriela Fierro requested funds for the 31st Hispanic Heritage Banquet from the Student Government Allocation Fund. The banquet took place at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Barfield Drawing Room.

In both the meeting with the Finance Committee on Sept. 26 and the meeting with Student Senate on Sept. 27, Fierro said she witnessed “unprofessionalism,” signs of “unfamiliarity with the Department of Multicultural Affairs” and “a singular lens of Greek life events.”

Fierro said the President of Student Senate Elizabeth Larson, External Vice President Sloane Simpson and Student Body President Hannah Causey, have been working to improve the relationship between Multicultural Affairs and Student Senate.

“Change is happening because we aren’t accepting the way things have always been; we’re talking about it and changing the system together,” Fierro said.

Dr. Elizabeth D. Palacios, dean for student development, said the incident was a “teachable moment,” and progress is going to require change from both the organizations and senators.

The Student Senate granted $2,500 of the requested $4,000. Fierro said she was disappointed by the decision, because Hispanic Student Association (HSA) has been “more fiscally responsible” this year. Last year, the Hispanic Heritage Banquet was budgeted for $7,000.

“There wasn’t one portion of that event that wasn’t with a cultural intention — even the vendors that we use are small businesses owned by Hispanic families,” Fierro said. “We were very intentional about where we got things.”

Gilbert, Ariz. senior Sam Lin is a member of the Financial Committee and said the final amount approved was a compromise. Approval of the bill had been prolonged for four weeks because of numbers constantly being changed on the budget, according to Lin.

Lin said he understands from an event-planning background that numbers are subject to change due to last minute arrangements, but from a senator’s perspective the bill appeared underdeveloped.

Fierro said the contrary about her level of preparation.

“The amount of preparation that I did before that meeting was in terms of the budget and cultural significance of every aspect down to the dressing on the salad,” Fierro said. “I gave a full analysis. I walked them through the event from the moment you walk through the doors.”

One of the unclear aspects of the bill between the Finance Committee and Fierro was the expected attendance. The budget incorrectly said there would be 80 attendants, but the seat capacity was 160.

The Finance Committee voted 10-0 for giving $2,500.

“At that point, I think the senators in finance were tired of seeing it and didn’t want to keep tabling it for later,” Lin said. “There were also growing concerns of them [HSA] not getting money at all, which would be really bad.”

Lin said the meeting with the finance committee the day before set a precedent for the meeting with the Student Senate to vote the amount down.

Lin said the Student Senate meeting on Sept. 27 “as a whole was a fiasco and a half.” The three and a half hour meeting started with an hour of discussion over confirming new Senate members. He said senators were telling each other to stop talking, that they did not care about what the other was saying and claiming each other’s ulterior motives or biases. There was so much frustration that everyone took a five minute break before transitioning into Fierro’s bill proposal.

The biggest reservation Student Senate had about Fierro’s bill was the demographics of the expected attendants. One of the aspects senators consider in fund requests is the impact on the Baylor community. Fierro said only 20 percent of the event would be Hispanic Student Association members. Lin said senators had trouble believing her statement without any way to confirm who the attendants would be.

After Fierro said Hispanic Student Association has 400 dues-paying members, speculation was made that the organization would not need money from an outside source, according to Lin. Lin said senators were “jumping to conclusions,” but he understood their logic.

Fierro said members of the finance committee and Student Senate called the funding plan “sketchy,” which is an especially offensive term for minority groups.

Both Lin and Fierro said there was a lack of understanding of multicultural events among Student Senate. They both also said Student Senate has a large culture of involvement in Greek life.

“During the Finance Committee and during the full Senate, when I’m standing there analyzing the behavior that’s going on, I see all the Greek letters on all their laptops and realize that there’s only two people of color in the room,” Fierro said. “And people of color shouldn’t be the only people defending multicultural events, but it definitely makes a difference.”

Lin said there are only five people of color in the 52-member senate.

Fierro said senators questioned the value the banquet would bring the community based on “Panhellenic rhetoric.”

“They asked about philanthropy, which again, if they were familiar with the Multicultural Affairs office, they would know we don’t do philanthropy,” Fierro said. “Our service to the community is multicultural engagement. The education component is the purpose of our events.”

Fierro said the cultural aspects of the event — art, music and food — were necessary to the nature of the event, which senators deemed too “ornate.”

“Cultural events are a bit more unique,” Palacios said. “Cultural events usually will entail food and decorations because that is the essence of a cultural tradition or celebration. Sometimes when you’re not familiar with different types of student organizations, you don’t understand the value, or you may not understand why a specific thing has to be there.”

Lin said Finance Committee head Nolan Chumbley actively works to learn more about the differences between Greek Life and multicultural organizations. Lin also said although many of the members of the committee are in fraternities and sororities, he has never seen any signs of bias. Senators will abstain from voting for conflict of interest if they are involved in the organization of discussion.

Lin said the amount of money in the Student Government Allocation Fund limits the number of events that can be supported. According to Lin, the Student Government Allocation Fund has been the same amount for the same 10 to 15 years, but the number of student organizations continues to grow by 50 to 60 each year.

“We can only give so much to students,” Lin said. “If every organization on campus decided to apply [for SGAF], we wouldn’t have any money. But that’s what we want. We want this to be a resource for every organization to be able to reach out to and utilize.”

Palacios and Lin said both multicultural associations and smaller student organizations face challenges in applying for the student government allocation fund. Palacios said helping senators learn more about diverse student life groups would shape their values and consequently the way they want to spend the money.

Fierro said she worries about hurdles in the funds request process because multicultural events will remain small and unpopular if they never receive funding.

Fierro confided in her roommate San Francisco junior Shevann Steuben about the bill proposal process. Steuben is a Multicultural Affairs Black Student Coalition intern and wrote the letter with Fierro voicing collective opinions from all the Coalition Interns.

The letter was written in disappointment with the Student Senate and was sent in an email chain to all the multicultural organizations. She said some organizations replied that they were not able to speak on the specific account of Fierro’s meeting with Student Senate, but they did not disagree with the sentiment of neglect toward their group.

Lin said the general consensus was that the letter called for self-reflection. The Finance Committee met after the meeting and gave each other feedback on how they treated Fierro as well as each other. Lin said the members of the committee grew closer to each other through the experience.

Lin said senators are developing a diversity training soon to be proposed to the Student Senate. It would be a revised version of “Leave Your Mark,” trainings especially for members of student government. He said the objective of the training would be to do more than identify characteristics of microaggressions and further appreciate the differences between cultures.