During the last school year, student activists calling for changes to improve the experiences of minorities at UW-Madison disrupted the University of Wisconsin System’s governing board to get their message out and covered the statue of Abraham Lincoln on Bascom Hill with a list of demands for change.
But in the aftermath of a turbulent spring semester and a school year marked by protests over the racial climate at colleges around the country, some UW-Madison activists have gone from agitating for change in the streets to pushing for it through the more traditional avenues of student government.
A diverse slate of students that grew out of an activist group won a majority of seats on the Associated Students of Madison’s council last spring. Another student organizer was chosen to lead the group that oversees the Wisconsin Union.
So far this fall, activists have authored legislation pushing university police to disclose the equipment they receive from a controversial military surplus program, voted for UW-Madison to be a “sanctuary campus” for undocumented students and placed messages on official video boards in the Memorial Union that read, “Black lives matter.”
“I have never seen (the student council) so diverse, and I’m really happy about that,” said ASM chairwoman Carmen Gosey.
Members acknowledged that many of their accomplishments in student government have been symbolic, and their efforts have been hampered by a variety of factors — including an allegation of sexual assault against a protest leader that has splintered the activists.
Still, they say, student government bodies that once felt disconnected from students, particularly minorities, are taking a more direct role in advocating for change.
“They’ve been a lot more active and vocal, at least on direct student issues, than in the past years,” said Deshawn McKinney, the Union president.
More direct route to change
Known as the Blind Side, the coalition that won 16 of the 29 seats on the ASM council included members of groups representing black, Latino, Muslim and working-class students, among others.
A key piece of the coalition was BlackOut, a group led by black students that interrupted Regents’ meetings, organized marches and presented demands for change to UW-Madison administrators, with the goal of dismantling what they described as institutional racism that manifests in a hostile climate for minority students.
Omer Arain, a member of the Blind Side who now leads an ASM committee, said members saw student government as a way to advocate for their causes more directly, by having a seat at the table in discussions with UW administrators.
“It’s definitely the most powerful student vehicle,” Arain said of ASM.
McKinney said he considered the Union “the other center of student power on campus,” and has sought to show minority students that they are welcome in the UW-Madison institution.
After a fan wore a costume depicting a noose around the neck of a person dressed as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at a Wisconsin football game, McKinney issued a statement condemning the costume through the Union, and had the “black lives matter” message displayed in the Memorial Union and Union South through homecoming week.
He said the signs were meant to be taken literally, as “an affirmation about those lives and those people’s humanity,” and not necessarily as the Union endorsing the broader Black Lives Matter political movement.
“Sometimes it just needs to be stated more explicitly than others … so people know that this space is for them,” McKinney said.
Allegation ‘shattered’ group
The Blind Side set out with an ambitious agenda that included pushing UW-Madison to stop purchasing goods from a prison labor company and address the problems students face finding affordable housing. But as the fall semester comes to a close, few of the group’s initiatives have come to fruition.
“We’re not all where we thought we would be,” McKinney said.
He and others say the group has been torn apart since one of its leaders — Kenneth Cole, a prominent student activist and member of the Blind Side who was elected to ASM — was accused of sexual assault late last spring by a fellow member, who said Cole assaulted a person she knew.
The alleged assault was never reported to police or campus officials, a member told The Daily Cardinal student newspaper, and no accusers have come forward publicly. But the allegation led to a petition — supported by some ASM members — to have Cole removed from student government.
Cole resigned from the student council during a November meeting in which he acknowledged the accusation, but said it was false.
The fallout, McKinney said, “shattered a lot of the organizing efforts.”
“Some people left organizing and won’t come back in their time here, and some people won’t come back for a long time,” he said.
ASM no stranger to activism
Although Blind Side members say their coalition has lost momentum, they are hardly the only people in UW-Madison’s student government pushing for changes.
“I definitely see ASM as being an activist organization,” said Gosey, who is not a member of the Blind Side but has sponsored several pieces of legislation that aim to improve the climate for students of color on campus.
Gosey and ASM leaders also joined students, faculty and alumni in criticizing UW-Madison officials for their initial response to the noose costume.
Even if students are not affiliated with the protest movement, Gosey said, “We all seem to care about these issues.”
More traditional student activism has also continued at UW-Madison. After Donald Trump’s presidential election victory, students marched in protest over his calls to deport undocumented immigrants and allegations that he sexually assaulted women.
As Blind Side members look to rebuild their coalition, Arain said students’ anger and frustration over Trump could be a catalyst that gets more people involved in campus activism and government.
At the Union, McKinney said he plans to meet with students from multicultural groups around campus to get a better sense of how the Union can appeal to them.
And in ASM, Gosey said her priorities for the rest of the year center around holding UW administrators accountable for policy changes and new programs to address the problems faced by minority students.
“We are wanting to give voice to students that don’t feel that they do have a voice, or much of a voice, because they don’t make up the majority on campus,” she said. “I would say that student government has been good at that.”