From the Red Room: Screw Complacency

I remember my first senate campaign for the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) as if it were yesterday. During speech night, I remember looking across Paino Lecture Hall at the other 15 candidates, all of us vying for one of the eight coveted senate seats and sweating nervously at the thought of begging our peers to graciously give us their vote. I remember printing out campaign posters, hanging them all over the dorms on the first-year quad and strategizing the best locations for my unsuspecting classmates to stop and look at my picture. I remember seeing my name in bold the day after the elections and realizing that I had won a seat.

To many, that election may not have seemed like a big deal. But, for me, it was my first foray into student politics. After losing a low stakes middle-school class officer race, I told myself that student government was a scam, a glorified popularity contest with no actual importance. All student government did in high school was plan events, choose the playlist for prom and make corny announcements at assemblies. Screw the establishment, I told myself. What was the point of student government if it wasn’t going to do anything for me? It was at that moment an apathetic voter was born.

To be honest, I even surprised myself when I decided to run for an AAS seat. I still can’t pinpoint the reason why I decided to run. Of course, the clout that it could provide to my resume was a draw. But then again, I could’ve done different things instead if that had been the only motivation. The AAS seemed complicated with an actual constitution, three branches of government, and weekly, public meetings in the Red Room. But I did it anyway. With lofty promises of free printing and free laundry, I was entrusted by my fellow students to represent their needs and voices.

Little did I know exactly how much power I would have as a senator. To be honest, I’m surprised more people don’t realize just how powerful the AAS can be. After the first meeting, I was placed as a member of the Budgetary Committee — or to be more specific, I was placed partly in charge of a $1.2 million budget. As a Judiciary Council member, I was allowed to question my peers with authority and make rulings on two complex cases, one involving the Amherst College Republicans and one with an unfortunate election snafu. It seems silly now, but once you sit in a meeting with President Biddy Martin or other members of the administration to argue a point or to fight for a certain policy, you realize just how much influence your voice can have. I’m not ashamed to admit that having that power and wielding it, when needed, is a good feeling.

My first year, I completed both of my promises. I told myself I would fight for free printing and laundry, and I won both fights. Signing your name onto an all-school email announcing free laundry gives you a rush like no other. I still get compliments for that accomplishment more than a year later. 

Sophomore year re-election was a breeze. There were nine candidates instead of 15, still fighting for eight slots. Unlike the first-year elections, no one showed up to listen to speech night. I gave my prepared speech to an empty room, my voice ringing out in the silent auditorium. The huge pizza that the Elections Committee had purchased sat half-eaten. I could’ve promised to ban student clubs or to fight for extra homework, and no one would have known.

We’ve just now finished with another election. This time, eight candidates for eight slots. We weren’t even asked questions at our virtual speech night. I ran on transparency, continuity of student government and for the #ReclaimAmherst campaign. But I could’ve argued against all those things and still would have won. The fire that sparked me to run in my freshman year, it’s more of a small flicker now.

As an incumbent, it’s easy to feel complacent about my position. Historically, upperclassmen senate elections have always been a non-competitive affair. This year alone, only four incumbents in the Class of 2022, including myself, decided to run for re-election. It’s a surprise that four new people in the junior class had the drive and courage to step up in the first place. I ran in my first year as an insurgent, promising wide change. I’m now an incumbent, a member of the establishment. I’ve become what I hated in high school. Just this time, I’m starting to feel apathy as a member of the opposite side.

But it shouldn’t be this way. While elections for the AAS president were somewhat competitive this year, both the secretary and treasurer seats went unopposed and the incumbents coasted to re-election, just like I did. 

Yet, right now, the stakes are high at Amherst. Half of the student body isn’t on campus right now. I’m writing this piece right now at a café in Honolulu, 5000 miles away from the Red Room in Converse. We have an unprecedented #ReclaimAmherst campaign that we need to fight hard for so that we can work to add students to the Board of Trustees, to rethink ACPD’s role on campus, and to fight for an Asian American Studies Major. For the first time in AAS history, there are no club budgets — only a discretionary fund that’s up for grabs. Campus life and morale both for students studying on campus and remotely are at all-time lows. The time for change is ripe.

This is where you come in. As a senator, I can only fight for what I think is best for my class, but I can’t do that if I’m in the dark on-campus life. I will do what I can to continue to be transparent, perhaps by writing in the paper or posting on my social media. But I want to still fight for my class, especially the FLI community that helped propel my first electoral victory and continues to support me endlessly.

It’s easy to be complacent about student government  — our weekly Zoom meetings aren’t even public at the moment. But it’s on all of us to hold each other accountable. I can’t use my voice to fight if I have no idea what I should be fighting for. It’s worthless for me and my fellow senators to be lazy established incumbents with no concrete policies to pursue. It’s on The Student and its hard-working Editorial Board to report on the AAS and to hold it accountable. It’s on you to participate in elections, tell your senators about campus issues and even run to make elections competitive again. It’s on me to keep fighting for better change.

So, this year, after thanking all of my friends and my FLI community for supporting me, I plan on fighting once again. Establishment or not, it’s my duty and my responsibility to represent my class, and to fight for our interests. That’s the duty of all 33 senators. Reach out to us. Be angry and complain. Force us to fight for you if you think we’re not doing our jobs.

Email, text and message us ([email protected] is my email). We made promises to our voters. It’s time we be held accountable and follow through.