To effect long-term change, SGA should focus on realistic initiatives

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD | February 14, 2019

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Next week, the Student Government Association (SGA) will hold an impeachment trial against Executive President Noh Mebrahtu behind closed doors. SGA members introduced articles of impeachment at their latest weekly meeting, but not before telling one of our reporters to leave the room. That same day, SGA sent an email advertising a Students Against Private Police rally with the subject line “ICE Protest Tomorrow!” And last semester, it had to pass a bill to stop members from using social media, texting, web surfing and shopping during meetings. 

We believe that there are SGA members who genuinely care about our interests and are deeply committed to advocating for the student body. Yet SGA’s recent acts make us question whether our representatives are able to tackle increasingly urgent issues on campus, especially if they are not informed, transparent or focused. 

In the past, SGA members have succeeded in improving the Hopkins experience when they passed small, concrete initiatives that focus on the individual student. For example, SGA has made steps toward improving existing mental health resources on campus. In partnership with the Rec Center and HelWell, SGA’s Healthy Hopkins Initiative gives students access to nutritional counseling services and free personal training sessions. And on Feb. 23, SGA plans to hold a Student Mental Health Summit, where students can share their experiences and discuss “mental health resources on our campus, peer-to-peer support and mental health in the wider Baltimore community.” 

However, SGA has been less effective in its attempts to take more symbolic and radical action. In August 2017, SGA members hoped to hold a demonstration in response to the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va. After months of planning, they finally held the Rise Up Rally in April 2018, which was not well-attended and lacked clear messaging. In October 2018, SGA passed a bill to fund the Homewood Brick Rally in support of a student center, but the next week revoked the initiative after Dean of Student Life Smita Ruzicka advised against it. 

Unlike student activists, whose role is often to disrupt normal University operations, SGA members should play a different but equally important role on campus. They are uniquely positioned to advocate for students and make change within the system by working alongside administrators, faculty and staff. And they have the power to decide how to allocate resources – whether that’s funding or space – to various student groups. Their role is a privileged one because they have direct access to decision-makers on campus. It is also a difficult one, since they operate within a framework of bureaucracy and in many ways lack real power to check the University’s policy decisions. 

Yet, SGA members can still advocate for us by doing what they have done well in the past: creating and following through on smaller, focused initiatives. Last October, SGA discussed a JHU Community Council to expand its influence over University decisions — a good idea. The Council is intended to include students, faculty, staff and Baltimore residents. SGA members can start building student support by listening to their constituents and taking the time to speak directly with the people whom they represent. Instead of holding office hours or coffee chats, they be more proactive by walking around campus and asking students what they want SGA members to work on.

While SGA has shown that it’s capable of taking on student-centered projects, it has trouble following through. For example, SGA passed a bill in 2016 to make menstrual products free and accessible to students. Tampons and pads were meant to be accessible to students in locations like Brody and the FFC. Now it’s 2019 and these menstrual products are nowhere to be seen. SGA and Wings, a group dedicated to hygiene product accessibility, have said that they intend to restock locations with tampons and pads in the coming months. Going forward, SGA should fund and ensure the sustained implementation of this and other comparable initiatives.

We hold SGA members to high standards because we know they’re capable of meeting them. But in order to meet these expectations, they must hold themselves accountable, following through with the bills they pass. They must be transparent. They must be informed and take their responsibilities seriously. As of now, they’re falling short.

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