Racially charged tweets, anti-racist initiatives addressed at final SGA meeting of semester

“I don’t want to hear anyone say that we’re anti-racist again until we actually mean it”

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Judith Gibson-Okunieff / Daily Collegian

By Sophia Gardner, Assistant News Editor

During the Student Government Association of the University of Massachusetts’ final meeting of the semester Wednesday night, several SGA members spoke about their disappointment with the way leadership has responded to a recent controversy regarding several racially charged tweets by Chair of Finance Prabhu Rajkumar, which recently resurfaced.

The controversy was addressed at a separate meeting on Tuesday, where several SGA members and students were present. The Daily Collegian was not allowed to attend this meeting.

Speaker Julia Fox said she did not want to have an in-depth discussion regarding these issues at the senate meeting Wednesday.

“I don’t want to fully hash out everything that’s been going on, and all the intricacies, at this meeting,” she said. “I think further discussions need to be had, but if anyone wants to address me on the side, on my email, I’d be more than happy to do that.”

Despite Fox’s request to discuss the controversy at a later date, many members of the SGA spoke on how the body should move forward following the resurfacing of the controversial tweets.

Fox laid out what the next steps are, based on the Tuesday meeting, which included “speaking with [Rajkumar] to see how he would like to proceed. There was an ask for a public apology, and we’re still making sure that chair Rajkumar is comfortable doing this, and that will be coming from him.”

Fox also noted that the executive and legislative branches will be meeting to discuss “more immediate steps that we can take.” She also cited that they will continue anti-racism training within the SGA, “beginning with the first step tonight, with a training that’s being put on by the [Social Justice and Empowerment Committee].”

“Action steps are really making sure that we’re taking this head-on, being completely transparent, putting ourselves out to be vulnerable and have these discussions,” said Fox.

President Sonya Epstein said they plan to continue conversations with their cabinet about the controversy and “ensure that we are all committed to racial justice.”

Epstein said they will be making action steps to reach this goal, as well as “making those action steps a bit more transparent, and also improving [their] own personal outreach to students of color and communities that [they are] not a part of.”

Fox said she cannot create an exact timeline for the SGA in working toward anti-racism.

“It’s not something that can have a date set on it,” she said.

In regard to the controversy around Rajkumar’s tweets, Fox said, “I am hoping that very soon we are able to get some more immediate resolution with addressing the original situation, but that is dependent on other people, making sure that they’re following up.”

Secretary of Diversity Carla Montilla said it is time for white students in the SGA to put in the work.

“I want to make sure that we’re not just asking students of color to talk about their trauma, we’re also asking especially white people in the SGA to talk about action steps and how they are going to address the situation,” she said. “I will not let this organization use the trauma of students of color to make themselves feel better.”

Brandon Barker, senator for the class of 2021, said there needs to be a specific timeline for concerned students outside of the SGA, to show them that the SGA is taking concrete action.

“For them, I think it might be comforting to show a timeline of, ‘Okay this is what we’re thinking,’” he said.

Kyle Kendall, chair of administrative affairs, apologized for “misspeaking” at the Tuesday meeting. It remains unclear what Kendall said at the meeting.

“Some of my comments that were brought to my attention caused harm to some of the attendees last night. Be respectful that this is going to take time,” he said of the SGA becoming anti-racist.

Montilla responded to Kendall’s statement: “Kyle, quite honestly I don’t want to hear what your plan is for this after the words you spoke.”

Kendall then interrupted Montilla, saying, “point of order, this is a time for questions.” The discussion was taking place during report outs.

Kristal Yee, the secretary of public relations and marketing, advocated for a specific timeline so the issue is not forgotten. “What it sounds like, from my point of view, is that we’re just counting on it to be forgotten so that the next body can handle it.”

During her report out, Montilla spoke about her disappointment with the SGA.

“I don’t want to hear anyone say that we’re anti-racist again until we actually mean it,” she said.

During Kendall’s report, he chose not to answer a question regarding how he would uphold anti-racism. Montilla commented to the The Daily Collegian about this decision:

“As a student of color, I saw that as if he didn’t care about racism or anti-racism, which means he didn’t care about me or the communities I represent as [secretary of diversity], but also that he represents as a chair of the SGA,” she said.

The Daily Collegian reached out to Kendall for comment but has not yet received a response.

The SGA also approved several RSOs: Film Discussion and Critique Organization, SMART Women Securities, Leading Women of Tomorrow, UMass Amherst Badminton Club and Advancement of Diversity in Business.

The SGA went into committee of the whole so the Social Justice and Empowerment Committee could give a presentation on anti-racism.

The presentation contained three main objectives: “Acknowledging personal biases and areas of improvement,” understanding “what it means to be anti-racist, especially as a senator” and “using this knowledge for personal growth and reflection.”

The presentation also explained how race “is a social construction that has very real consequences,” said Audrey Gabriel, chair of the Social Justice and Empowerment Committee.

Gabriel went on to explain anti-racism: “Anti-racism is actively doing something to undo the racist structure.”

She also explained how the presentation fell short, referencing previous conversations had during the meeting Wednesday night.

“This training fails to acknowledge things that even happened tonight,” she said.

The SGA also appointed 21 SGA members to the winter coordinating council.

Epstein created a new position titled Advisor to the President on Mental Health, who will meet weekly with students, faculty, administrators or student groups to discuss mental health. They will also help advocate for the mental health resources for students.

The SGA also created a new task force called the Index Yearbook Task Force, who will “be charged with developing a plan to revive the university’s 150-year-old yearbook by May 2022,” according to the agenda. The task force will work with administration and student groups to achieve this goal.

Sophia Gardner can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @sophieegardnerr.