Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Student leader profile: Q & A with Charlotte Kelly

By Anthony Rentsch

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Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

The Daily Collegian is running a weekly series this semester which profiles student leaders on campus and highlights their impact on the community. If you wish to nominate someone you feel is making a significant impact on campus, please email your suggestion to [email protected]egian.com.

Charlotte Kelly is a senior and a political science and communication major at the University of Massachusetts. She is also involved with the Student Administration Accountability Coalition, and the Center for Educational Policy and Advocacy. Kelly has been involved in a number of student activism efforts on campus, most recently in lobbying the Board of Trustees and the state legislature to reconsider the passing of motions to raise tuition and fees for UMass students.

Anthony Rentsch: Talk to me about your involvement with the newly-formed Student Administration Accountability Coalition.

Charlotte Kelly: Some members of a couple of different organizations and student businesses were working together to get Dining Dollars implemented at all student businesses here on campus. They needed kind of an uninstitutionalized organization to work through in order to protect the student businesses that were fighting for Dining Dollars but at the same time making sure that the organizations that were doing a lot of the work weren’t going to be jeopardized by the tactics that they were using.

This summer we were trying to figure out what alias we should be running under because we were all coming from different organizations – we had people from MASSPIRG, we had people from CEPA, we had people from SGA. What should we call ourselves? We knew we were going to have to be doing press releases and reaching out to administrators and coming from our personal emails might get a little bit tricky because then it turns into, ‘Oh, is this person the leader on this project?’ when we really want to have it be a collective.

So we asked the people from SAAC if we could use the SAAC email and they said yes.

We found out they were going to be implementing a new internet fee in May. It is very difficult to organize when you are not all together. We set up some conference calls and started talking. We figured out what our talking points were and what we were going to ask the Board of Trustees and we started sending emails and getting petition signatures via change.org. We took all of the email addresses for the board members and popped them into the change.org petition, so every time somebody signed the petition the email got bounced to the Board of Trustees. So, they had about 1,500 emails in their inbox by the end of the week.

We then figured out we could request to speak at a Board of Trustees meeting and we had about 15 hours to prepare a speech to represent the whole collective that was working on this issue. I remember I ran home from work and got on a call and we spoke for like five hours, then went and edited the speech for two hours, then took a Spanish test, hopped back on another call with (Jeremy Tibbetts) and we talked for two more hours. At that point it was 1 or 2 a.m. and I went to bed for three hours, woke up and then went to Boston and spoke at the Board of Trustees meeting and told my work I was having a personal emergency because I thought it was only going to take an hour.

I know that students are struggling with bills this semester but we have to push forward because there is a chance we could get a supplementary budget.

AR: Tell me what your role is in the Center for Educational Policy and Advocacy and what you all are doing right now.

CK: CEPA is a collective that uses student power to fight for issues of inclusivity, accessibility and affordability to the University through a very intersectional lens that focuses on the fact that the people who are most marginalized in society are oftentimes just as marginalized if not more in a university setting. That’s people of color, queer students, people with disabilities, low-income students, women, et cetera. We tackle issues of racial justice, economic justice, environmental justice, labor justice and more because we know that as people we don’t live single issue lives so we can’t run single issue campaigns. We have to fight as a collective in order to bring success to the work that we are doing.

I’m the communication and outreach director, so I try and work with as many different groups as possible to try to get them involved with CEPA. While there are people who can identify as members exclusively of CEPA, I think we are trying to move toward a space where people can come in and work on things that are really pertinent. Oftentimes the University does a really good job of trying to break down students as a community and make us individuals; we live in a neoliberal university – that’s the point.

We’ve worked with student business on the Dining Dollars campaign; we worked with the peer mentors to help them unionize; we worked with students on some of the Diversity and Strategic Plan critiques; we helped plan the annual Lobby Day, which brings students from all of the institutions of higher education to the Statehouse to lobby their legislators every spring to fund our institutions; the fossil fuel divestment team is run out of CEPA – (it seeks to) get UMass to divest its endowment from the top 200 fuel corporations by 2020 and their plan is, once winning that – hopefully – to shift to prison divestment, which is basically divesting our endowment and our products that are created here on campus and used here on campus from the prison-industrial complex.

This year we are really looking toward coalition building and building a collective sense of student power. I think oftentimes students get caught up in the issues that are pertinent to them. For example, I was very focused on the issue of tuition and fees and that was because I knew that when tuition and fees are raised it excludes the most marginalized communities here at UMass.

AR: Your name was splashed across many news outlets this summer; you were seemingly the go-to person when they were looking for a UMass student to interview about the tuition increases and the state budget. What was that like for you and was that a role you enjoyed?

CK: It’s something that I’ve been grappling with for a while, because, as a very privileged person, I do have the access to time and resources to take interview calls during my job and to maybe work a little bit less so that I can run campaigns.

It was a very interesting experience because I got to first-hand endure what it’s like to be in the political or public spotlight. At the same time, I’ve been at this for three years now. My role in the upcoming year is really to facilitate student development and create more leaders. I’m graduating; the work that I’m doing now is only so pertinent if I leave with all the knowledge I have. While it was really invigorating this summer, I want to help mold folks that are going to be in similar situations and I want to make sure they have the tools to flourish. I want to make sure there are 15 people that can do that job and do it well and do it better than I can. If we are not passing on our knowledge, we are really doing a disservice to the work that we do.

AR: Tell me about the state of student activism on campus and, specifically, what your role is right now.

CK: Student activism is at a very interesting point. I think the issues that are of interest to student activists are becoming more and more mainstream. People are becoming more and more aware of them, for example Black Lives Matter, student debt, gender identities and what kind of resources we are giving to trans folks and trans folks of color are becoming more and more pertinent.

We are going to see a lot more of it this year. Students are really ready to go, ready to challenge the hegemony of the University and push it toward a place where they want it to be versus a place where we are comfortable with. I think people are oftentimes okay with the status quo and I think a lot of people are being challenged on what it means to approve the status quo.

For me, I am working to facilitate these dialogues and to push my classmates who might not understand institutions of oppression toward actually thinking about them and making them more aware to a world they do not experience on a daily basis. I am also working to facilitate dialogues within student organizing and student activism and make sure student activists are working together and talking because we are stronger when we stand together. I’m definitely not going to be the one with the bullhorn at the rallies, but I am going to be doing my best to get 100 more people at them.

AR: Tell me how you got involved in student activism on campus.

CK: I went to a high school where it was fairly diverse – there were a fairly good amount of people of color there, a decent amount of low-income students, but there was also a large chunk of white class folks and middle and upper class folks. I remember when President Obama was first elected in 2008 I was a first-year in high school and I remember being super pumped about the idea of the (Affordable Care Act). But I got a lot of pushback from the white boys in my class and they were of the mentality, “I don’t understand why the government needs to give everybody healthcare, can’t people just get jobs and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” For me, I was like, “I don’t understand why I deserve healthcare over anybody else.” Just because my dad has healthcare through his job doesn’t mean you, whose parents work two jobs or are unemployed, don’t deserve healthcare. We’ve all been dealt a different deck of cards and some of us are luckier than others.

I didn’t have the language at the time to understand what it means to be institutionally oppressed. Coming to college I went to my first Lobby Day in the spring of 2013 and I was hooked at that point. Let’s make sure those who are typically left out are being pulled in and being given what they need and what they want and what they deserve. From that point it was growing and developing and learning what all of these thing I didn’t understand in high school meant and how it translated into the University setting.

Anthony Rentsch can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Anthony_Rentsch.

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