Question and answer: SGA presidential and vice-presidential candidates Barkha Bhandari and Sonya Epstein answer questions about their platform.

‘The end goal is that UMass is tuition-free and fee-free education’

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By Sophia Gardner, Assistant News Editor

Barkha Bhandari and Sonya Epstein are running in the upcoming Student Government Association election for president and vice-president, respectively. Barkha Bhandari is a senator for the class of 2022 and Epstein is the current secretary of university policy and external affairs.

Both candidates met with the Collegian for a question and answer session on Monday, March 9, 2020, in preparation for the SGA executive debate, which is being held at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11 in the Campus Center Auditorium. Below is the transcript from the session, which was lightly edited for clarity and length. 

What’s your experience with the SGA?

Sonya Epstein: This is my first year officially in the SGA, but starting way back at the beginning of My UMass career I’ve been really involved with The Center for Education Policy and Advocacy. I had a lot of friends who were senators, and so we did some work that overlapped with SGA through that because they were also in CEPA. It was mostly around activism, around affordability, food justice, stuff like that. Then I interviewed and applied to be the University Secretary of Policy and External Affairs for this year. I am very gracious that I got the job, so that’s the position that I’ve been in for the past year. In that position I’ve been working on a variety of things; the position in itself is kind of very vague and encompasses a lot of things, but it is mostly around making policy recommendations to the senate, to the president and to administrators around whatever is the focus of the current administration. So, I have been focusing a lot on sustainability, food justice, anti-racism work, I’ve done some research around Title IX. I also work a lot with the town, with administrators and even with the state government around advocating for specific bills, advocating for funding for UMass, working with the town to see how we can work on housing together and stuff like that. So, it’s kind of been a wide range. It feels like the right step to continue to do this kind of work in the future.

Barkha Bhandari: I moved here from India. I was the president of the student council in high school. I don’t know if that’s relevant, but I have had some experience with a position that was similar. I think my journey with the SGA really started with my freshman year here. The first non-academic activity that I engaged with was the SGA. I ran for the class of 2022 senate election and I got a seat and I’ve been a senator ever since. I love being a senator. I’ve been consistently for the past four semesters on the Social justice and Empowerment Committee. It’s my favorite committee, I think we do really incredible work, and as the name of the committee suggests, a lot of the work I do within the SGA, outside of the SGA, revolves around social justice issues. One of the first issues that I worked on was affordability for all college students. I went to advocacy day, which was my first engagement with anything of the sort. That slowly developed into something that I wanted to engage with more deeply. So I got a staff position at the center for Education Policy and Advocacy as co-campaign and advocacy coordinator And so I definitely worked around affordability related issues. This was really a transformative experience for me and I do think that it makes a difference when students show up and we can have our voices heard. And I think that that’s where the representative aspect of the student government is crucial because I’m not just speaking for me, I’m speaking for so many students on campus by virtue of being a representative in the student government. Some of the other things I’m really passionate about is food justice, so I’ve been working on making sure that students have access to food on campus for a really long time, whether that be negotiating meal plan prices, last semester a new meal plan was rolled out after negotiations that students had before me and with me and working with the food pantry . . . making sure that it’s there and students can access it, and doing continuous surveys to figure out the demographic of food insecurity. Also understanding that all of that is inextricably linked with where we get our food from, so one of the big issues I’ve been working on is Pouring Rights, the contract that the university has with Coca Cola, and how that contract is damaging essentially. I have a firm commitment to anti-racism on campus, so working around that as well. We recently worked with the Residential Assistant and Peer Mentor Union on that, and I think that these are all issues that both Sonya and I want to continue working after we hopefully take office as President and Vice President, let’s see how the race goes. I think that my experiences both within the SGA which is a legislative agenda for me because I was a senator but also at the Center for Education Policy and Advocacy because that’s more activism oriented, more advocacy oriented. I think combining the three things really makes me prepared for this role as president because I think the two of us have a vision and hopefully we will see it be fulfilled.

If elected, what would your priorities be?

SE: One of them is affordability. We are both really dedicated to the end goal that UMass is tuition and fee free education that everyone can access no matter what. With tuition rises and fee increases and all of that happening year after year after year, it pushes out any low income student, it pushes out communities that are already under represented and stops them from an education, which is a human right, it’s not a privilege. Everyone should be able to pursue a higher education if they want to without going into enormous amounts of debt. So that’s a really huge priority for us, and within that making sure that meal plans are accessible so that students aren’t going hungry, making sure that housing is accessible to everyone so that students aren’t homeless just because they’re trying to save money. What are the top-three qualities you think an SGA president/VP needs to have? Another big highlight for us is restoring the conduct process in order for it to be a lot more justice centered. A big way we are hoping to do this is through restorative justice, which is a version of conflict resolution, which instead of framing the conflict between a person and an institution, it’s between person and person, so when something happens in a residential hall, where someone may have been being really loud, or there is damage done, instead of them being fined or kicked out of housing, they have a discussion with the other people living on their floor, with their RA, where there able to talk about what’s going on, what happened, and what can be done to allow them to be welcomed back into the community without these punitive punishments. That really helps this whole process become a lot more inclusive, and build community rather than sever these bonds,and helps students be able to stay at school and focus on what they need to focus on. It also puts a stop to the school to prison pipeline, which we see from preschool and continuing to higher education up until when people graduate. It is especially important for underserved communities which so consistently don’t get the justice that they deserve. So really making sure that we are working with the dean of students office, with UMPD, with Amherst PD, to make sure that there are no more punitive punishments for things that don’t need punitive punishments.

BB: I think some of the other things that we want to prioritize are environmental justice. Both of us have been working on issues of environmental justice for a really long time. We are facing a global climate emergency and I think that a majority of the students here see that, but we need to have the administration see that as well, and take measures that are protecting this community from that emergency. Another thing to understand is that this emergency is affecting people of color far more adversely than it is affecting other privileged communities. It is affecting low income people more. There’s a lot of class, race and gender intersectionalities within this crisis and there are definitely an under-served and an under-represented group of people that are affected by it much more quickly, and I think that we need to center that in the work that we’re doing. The previous administration of the SGA got a commitment from the administration to have the campus be 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. Bringing up the conversation about divestment after the 2016 campaign for fossil fuel divestment because we need to again make sure that that stays on track as well. We are constantly pushing for a single use plastic bottle ban, and hopefully that ban can expand to being just a plastic ban, because we don’t need to be using that plastic, but starting with a single use plastic bottle ban. We are already in conversation with the administration about that, as well also not having as many CocaCola products on campus. All of these are things that we’re doing to make sure that our commitment to environmental justice stands firm, and we are centering those who are most affected. We also really want to, if we do become president and vice president, do effective outreach on campus, talk to students around us, and hear what they need to make his a more environmentally just campus, because it is not about us, it’s not about the people in the SGA, it’s about everyone. That outreach is just crucial as well, especially to under-represented groups on campus. That brings us to one of our other platform points, something that is really important to us is centering marginalized voices on campus. I’ve been on campus for two years, I’ve already witnessed hate crimes. One hate crime is too many, but we’ve seen more than one, and people that are affected in these hate crimes are not being centered in discussions around them. They don’t feel safe, though many accounts that we’ve heard, but they also don’t feel welcome on this campus, which is not a way that anyone should be feeling. Of course hate crimes are the absolute worst, but even with the decision making processes with the administration, with the state, within student bodies as well, I think we need to be seeing more under-represented minority voices because their voices matter just as much, and me and Sonya want to have a commitment to centering those voices, whether it be establishing way of outreach to these communities, whether it be having them come to senate meeting and talk to senate about what their needs are, there are many ways  for us to do this, maybe establishing something through the administration to do this as well. I think that some of the issues we talked about . . . can come together in our commitment to centering these voices.

What would you say that the current administration could improve?

SE: These are my bosses, you know, they’re my friends, but there’s definitely things that can be improved upon. I think that something that can really be strengthened is the bond between the executive, the legislative, and the general student body. Just improving the communication around that, making sure that there is this key aspect of transparency and accessibility to the SGA which I think has just been a fault of so many administrations before, because you get into these positions, you get your SGA email, you get administrators talking to you, but you’re representing such a large student body. I think it’s so important to make sure everyone knows what’s going on and that’s something I tried to do within my position of reconnecting to people who have felt underserved by the SGA . . . in order to really strengthen the accessibility and the image of the SGA, because once people see the SGA as a powerful body, they’re able to come to it and ask for what they need. I don’t think it is this administration specifically because it’s such a pattern, but SGA is an extremely white space, and it unfortunately has been for a really long time, and it’s something that we need to transform not just by going to people of color and being like ‘hey come into this space’, because it’s still an uncomfortable space, but by doing anti-racism work, by doing all of this work within ourselves, looking at respectability, politics and all of that to see how SGA can be a space where we can have diversity.

BB: I echo everything that Sonya said. I also think that a lot of people don’t really know what SGA is because our image is just as a group that funds RSOs, funds agencies, and that’s that. Our priorities really echo how important advocacy is to the work that the SGA does…that’s something that this administration could be doing better, although I know that they’re trying for sure. I think what Sonya said about doing anti-racism work and making the SGA feel like a safer space is really important. I think that there could be more membership for the SGA and I don’t mean that we should increase the number of seats in the senate or positions in the cabinet. I think that there could be more people running, I think we’re seeing a decline in the number of people that are running for senate seats, the number of people that are applying. I think that if we talked about the SGA as a body that is effecting change, I think that we would see more people running in the elections. We would see more vibrant involvement with the SGA, and that’s definitely something that we can be doing better. We need to increase voter turnout. Consistently it’s been in the 10-20 percent range, and I think that it should be at least 50 percent, if not more. I don’t think people see what we’re doing, and I think if they did that they would come out to vote.

What are the top 3 qualities you think an SGA president/VP needs to have?

BB: I think number one is transparency. I say that because I think that the fact that we are representatives of the student body is lost sometimes . . . We are trying to gauge what the needs of this campus are, and then take those needs and do what we can to fulfill them. I think that that is not possible without us being in contact with the student body. If they don’t know what we’re doing I don’t think they can trust us to make their decisions for them, and that’s the very purpose of being in these positions.

SE: The top one that I truly believe in is a devotion to empathy and having this true empathy for every single student on campus. It’s a big role in terms of how many students you’re representing . . . [a president should] really understand everything that everyone’s going through, even if it’s not something you can relate to, because it’s so important to the voice that to administration, to decision makers, to the senate. They’re fellow students, and they deserve to thrive at UMass.

BB: I think determination is what comes to mind . . . I think we are constantly faced with challenges on this campus, when things like hate crimes happen, when students are feeling unsafe on campus it’s often very difficult to move forward with the work we’re doing . . . sometimes when we’re representing minority voices on campus we are met with a type of opposition that can be very hard to deal with. A person in this position needs to have the will and the force to keep going when those challenges arise.

SE: Dedication to the work, and to the campus.

BB: The fourth one is making sure that we are expanding the boundaries of our imagination as far as we possibly can. I think every leader should have that . . . you need to be in a space where you can constantly push the boundaries for your imagination. That has to do with envisioning a world that is larger and better than we live in right now.

How do you look to draw more attention from the student body, and respond to the requests/needs of students?

SE: How we talk about making SGA a more welcoming, anti-racist space where people can just come into it. Along with that, doing town halls. It’s really intimidating to walk into a senate meeting sometimes, but being able to just invite people in. Making sure everyone elected or chosen to be in these positions is attending student groups, general body meetings, events, so that it’s not making people come to us but we’re going to them and asking ‘what do you need from us?’ A lot of people don’t know the full potential that the SGA has, and they’re really struggling to fix some of these problems on their own . . . I think also outreach, making sure that everyone knows about us, and that it is not just poli-sci majors, reaching out to people in STEM as well.

BB: Another thing I want to add to that. I think we should also be getting input about the way that we are making decisions on our end. Like, incorporating their feedback in the solutions process and the creative decision-making process because we need that as well. It’s their needs that we are trying to fix so we should be a part of the solutions . . . I think that there are so many different communities that we could be serving better.

Now that the recent impeachment hearings are over, how do you plan to mend any differences between the executive and legislative bodies?

SE: Luckily we’re both coming from different branches, which is a strength that we are bringing. I really think that all of these people in student government are so passionate, and that we all have the goal of helping students and creating a better UMass, and so really being able to solidify over that. I recently started working on bringing conflict resolution to SGA with our advisor, for the start of the new leadership cycle, so probably sometime in April. Having a facilitator come in, having everyone sit down . . . there’s these tensions building, and a lot of the time, not these communications that need to happen. Really seeing each other as people, as humans, who have this solidified goal.

BB: Another crucial part of this is that there are a lot of new senators coming in who weren’t quite as involved in the impeachment hearings, we really need to be talking to them about this equally, because for them it’s like stepping into this conflict. I think we’re actually doing really well in terms of moving past that. We want to make this a space that feels safe and inclusive. . . I think restorative justice is an incredible way to work through conflict. One thing we would want to do if we got elected is to emphasize the fact that we may feel different ways about what happened but it’s important for us to move forward because the values that we center are similar. . . We are all pushing for a common goal in the end.

Do you have plans to improve how the SGA works with RSOs?

 SE: With RSOs, there’s a lot of work which is being done in different ways . . . There’s a lot of frustration that weirdly pits us against each other, which is weird when so many people are in both. I think a huge part of it is working with council presidents and saying ‘how can we interact more often?’ . . . so that it’s not only us interacting when something goes wrong. They should know exactly who’s in SGA and have someone that they can turn to when something goes wrong. We need their input in order to properly do our jobs. Also not seeing RSOs as separate from us because we’re a part of them and they’re a part of us. It’s all very intermingled. There’s going to be a lot of mending relationships in the beginning in order to get to a place where we can set norms of trust and reliability.

BB: A crucial part of this is the funding. At the end of the day, some of the biggest frustration is that student groups are not getting enough money . . . I don’t think that people understand that [the SGA] is really just doing their best, you know, it’s not their fault if they are not able to get enough money for their student groups, but I think that’s where our work around getting just more money from us, from the state, from our administration, is crucial. I would really just like to see a way in which we reach out to every student group that there is and talk about other ways for us to get funding because I think the root of this problem is disillusionment around why some groups are getting money and other groups aren’t . . . [ we need to] include the student groups in the discussion of how we’re getting more money. I also think that RSO council presidents are very rarely present at senate meetings . . . we should definitely try to talk to RSO council presidents and revive that.

SE: I think a huge part also with this incoming administration that students should be looking at this move into the new student union. That’s going to be a huge thing. The move from the student union was huge, the move back in is going to be crucial, making sure that it’s handled correctly and communicated well. Both of us have experience communicating with RSOs, as well as agencies, and administrators, which is something so key to making sure that this process goes smoothly.

With the break in campaigning in this election (spring break), why do you think your campaign’s message will resonate with students?

BB: I think that we really want to utilize the five days that we have right now, and also that fliering, postering, and chalking is really important . . . but I think that more important is making sure that the people that we want to empower and serve are reached by going and talking to these student groups at their meetings. I think that they won’t really know what we’re doing until we talk to them. These are the people that we want to center in the work that we’re doing so if they don’t know what we’re doing, none of this really makes sense. Also leaving open space for questions and communication. We want people to be able to rely on our Instagram with questions. I think that if we do these things, that will resonate with the students that we’re reaching out to.

SE: We really believe that our message is something that resonates with students and that they believe, and also that we have the strongest platform. Another thing is just students remembering to vote after that big break. We are really asking the administration to pull their weight in advertising [the election], because we’ll be doing our part 100 percent.

BB: We created our platform because we’ve heard concerns about these things already. I think that the fact that our platform combines both what we want to see and what students want to see on campus will make it so that they remember it. It’s about solidarity.

There are a lot of specific rules when it comes to campaigning; does your campaign have any specific plans in place to prevent violations?

SE: One of our lovely campaign managers just made a slideshow for our campaign workers so that they really understand all of these bylaws. We were at the meeting on Friday, took vigorous notes, asked all of our questions, and made sure everyone working on our campaign understood everything, to make sure that we have a clean campaign without any violations.

BB: I am also meeting with another one of our campaign workers to design a training for all of our workers. That training will include the slide show about the bylaws and make sure that they have someone who they can come to with questions. We email the commission even if we have the slightest question. At the same time, if by accident something happens, we believe in the commission’s’ ability to work through that the way that they deem fit.

Sophia Gardner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @sophieegardnerr.