An ASG race already centered on the needs of marginalized students broke into a contentious and emotional debate Tuesday night, with each side presenting competing visions for Northwestern’s relationships with activists and students of color on campus.
Hosted by the Coalition of Colors, the debate focused on issues of race and marginalization. However, with presidential candidate Christina Cilento and her running mate Macs Vinson already focusing their campaign almost solely around racial justice, undocumented students, LGBTQ+ students and low-income students at Northwestern, the talk had already become heated.
Hours before the debate began, student activists staged a walkout of a dinner for ASG senators at President Morton Schapiro’s house. While presidential candidate and current vice president for community relations Joji Syed stayed at the dinner, Cilento, the current vice president for sustainabilty, and Vinson, the current vice president for student activities, walked out in solidarity with divestment activists who were protesting the University's response to student demands. Syed’s vice presidential candidate, Archie Baskaran was not in attendance at the dinner.
“We felt this administration was not paying attention and not doing enough work surrounding divestment movements,” Cilento, also the former co-chair of Fossil Free NU, said at the debate. “We’re not afraid to back down in those instances. Our entire slogan, ‘Don’t Settle,’ is centered around the fact that we as individuals don’t settle for administrators that are dragging their feet on issues that are important.”
During the debate, Cilento and Vinson repeatedly used their activism record as evidence that they would continue to fight for marginalized students.
In an applause-generating pronouncement, Baskaran said, “If the Board of Trustees is not going to listen to us, then we’ll knock on their door, and if they won’t answer the door, we’ll kick the door down.” Yet Vinson responded by asking when Baskaran had done any of those things.
Hours before the walkout, the Cilento and Vinson ticket earned the endorsement of all three divestment movements, who published a joint letter on the campaign's Medium page. FMO senator Gwendolyn Gissendanner also endorsed the pair Sunday.
The endorsements set the stage for a debate in which Cilento and Vinson seemed to have almost constant command of the crowd.
Although both groups agreed on the need for ASG to better represent students of color and that ASG needed to become a safe space for students of color and LGBTQ+ students to speak, they disagreed sharply on how to do so.
Syed and Baskaran, whose “NU Deal” is designed is to help every student at Northwestern, argued that because marginalized students are most affected by problems with CAPS, the University’s alcohol policy and the Student Organization Finance Office (SOFO), they will be most helped when those issues are fixed.
“All of these issues disproportionately affect marginalized students on this campus,” Syed said. “So, if I can improve the hours of SOFO so that a student from a low socioeconomic status can go to SOFO after his class and his job, to me that’s a win for students.”
For Cilento and Vinson, however, these solutions do not tackle the root of the problem. They advocated to “unionize” with, rather than just represent, marginalized students and to support divestment movements so students of color could walk around campus knowing their university is not actively invested in their oppression.
In a rebuke to their opponents, Cilento and Vinson criticized past campaigns that only made helping marginalized students a small segment of their campaigns.
“It’s time for students who are marginalized to have a campaign entirely dedicated to their identities,” Cilento said.
While both campaigns in principle supported aiding marginalized students, a clear division emerged when Weinberg junior Marcel Hanna, a member of Northwestern's chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, asked the candidates where they stand on the divestment issues.
Cilento and Vinson reiterated their full-fledged support. Syed, however, said that her personal opinions shouldn’t be relevant. She said she would not declare an opinion that could alienate some students and prevent her from working with them.
“I want every single student to see me as a resource, and if I take a public stance on an issue, [I] really stop [myself] from doing that,” Syed said. “My goal is to elevate you in pursuing your cause.”
As the debate grew more heated, Syed said in her closing remarks that she felt the debate had devolved from a discussion around the issues to an attack on her identity, with some asserting that she was against marginalized students. On Facebook, students have compared the rhetoric about helping all Northwestern students to #AllLivesMatter.
"Both of us are two brown students," Syed said. "I’m Muslim and Pakistani, so I hold my identity very dear to me. Throughout this entire campaign, whether it's on Facebook or in news articles in The Daily or NBN, I feel like my identity has been attacked through this campaign... Our entire social justice platform is centered around elevating students and every other student on this campus, but more so every other element on our platform from alcohol policy to student groups to mental health, all of these issues also disproportionately affect marginalized students, and that’s why we wanted to pursue them in our platform. It’s a disservice to everyone in this room to tell us that we don’t care about marginalized students."
Cilento quickly rejected the assertion. "We are not saying that you as people do not care about marginalized students," she said. "We are saying that the rhetoric that you are using about the NU Deal and a paradigm shift do not get to the root of the issues."
Afterwards, students from both sides said the rhetoric was getting too divisive and dehumanizing.
"[Syed and Baskaran] want not only the opposing teams, but those who support them or the entire Northwestern community, to realize that they do care about these students. They’ve been painted as a ticket that does not," Weinber junior Vineet Aggarwal said.
The final debate will take place tomorrow night at 9 p.m., before the election kicks off Thursday.