Staff Spotlight: SGA Advisor Lydia Washington

“The first thing I tell my Student Government Association members is ‘are you taking care of yourself and what does that look like?’”

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Anish Roy / Daily Collegian

By Alex Genovese, Assistant News Editor

Amid recent changes in the Student Government Association at the University of Massachusetts, staff advisor Lydia Washington remains the central foundation of the organization. As the associate director for student engagement and leadership, Washington has spent nearly 15 years at UMass covering student governance and student organizations. In that time, she has provided the SGA with leadership through an impeachment and resignation, a pandemic and huge changes to the SGA’s relationship with administration.

“I’m the person that whenever they want to bounce ideas or they want to work through some difficult and hard conversations when it comes to working with administrators, I’m usually the go-to person,” Washington explained.

Washington began her time at UMass as a graduate student in the college of education, where she was the advisor for the National Panhellenic Council. Once she earned her master’s in higher education, Washington was hired into her current position.

“The biggest challenge in my role currently is adjusting to COVID. I think COVID was something that none of us really thought would happen anytime soon and [the challenge was] trying to figure out how we still engage with students,” Washington said.

“I’m working with so many people who may have lost family members or may have taken a significant financial hit or just do not feel safe due to the different variants out there,” she continued.

Despite COVID-19 impacting the SGA heavily, Washington worked with students to find solutions to their issues. “I call myself the student whisperer,” Washington added. “What I mean by that is helping to understand or working with student government students to figure out what they’re trying to say and how they’re going to articulate it.”

Washington earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, where she was the vice president of their Student Government Association.

“One of the things I love about the University of Massachusetts Amherst is the Student Government Association. I believe that they’re one of the most powerful, strongest student governments in our nation. And the reason why I say this is because they have this wonderful document called the Wellman document,” Washington said.

The Wellman document is an authorization from the UMass Board of Trustees for student governance to exist and create change.

“When appropriate, governing bodies shall have the privilege of recommending policies and procedures affecting the campus and the University as a whole, including, among others matters, academic matters, matters of faculty status and student affairs,” the document reads.

Washington also pointed to the SGA consultation policy with Chancellor Subbaswamy with regard to creating effective sustainable change. “[The consultation policy] was something that I worked on with him and other admins and student organizations about five-to-seven years ago, where there was a point where students were struggling with the word consultation,” Washington explained.

Washington also spoke about the issue of mental health and time management in the SGA. Recently, the President and Vice President of the SGA both resigned due to these issues, with Vice President Katzman explaining that “the SGA wears you down” in his recent farewell address.

“The first thing I tell my Student Government Association members is, ‘Are you taking care of yourself and what does that look like? How do you let go of this governance profile identity and take care of who you are as a person?’”

“Sometimes you have to prioritize what is meaningful for you and your engagement as a student leader,” Washington continued.

The SGA has also faced issues with student voices and opinions at their meetings, with some feeling disenchanted with the organization. “The last couple years there has been a lot of conflict in the Student Government Association, but as an advisor, the conflict is facilitating this conversation when our students are really nervous or scared to have a true dialogue when it came to a difference of opinion,” Washington said.

“I also noticed just our Student Government Association was, in my opinion, for the last couple of years mirroring our current government, whereas if someone had a difference of opinion, they don’t exist,” Washington added.

“One of the things I’ve been trying to work really hard in the Student Government Association has been, you know, you can coexist with someone who definitely has a different opinion. Now you shouldn’t coexist with someone who’s disrespectful, I think that’s something that we always need to make sure we have, like the same common ground, but that was a really hard turning moment point in our Student Government Association is that we had a lot of people on all sides,” she continued.

Washington pointed to SGA “Committee of the Whole,” where student leaders can voice their thoughts without Robert’s Rules of Order.

“You can’t have dialogue and Robert’s Rules of Order. You have to ask questions, you [have to] debate, and sometimes that particular systematic or institutional way of communicating and governance does not help out when we talk about issues that may be very sensitive to folks, and so to go into committee of a whole has been really helpful for us to really spit everything out,” Washington explained.

Washington explained that she has been proud of the SGA’s resilience despite COVID and other problems. “It’s really hard to lead a student body of 33,000+ students with different ideas, different asks, different things,” Washington said.

Washington praised the SGA for helping student groups, even when the student groups were not fans of the SGA. “From the movement with the Survivor’s Bill of Rights to the Black student emails, I’m really proud of the Student Government Association not being afraid to go into those different communities, even when some of those communities have been very clear that they don’t really like the Student Government Association.”

“I think that’s my proudest moment of the Student Government Association, is that they continue to show up, even when people may have a stereotype of them,” she added, noting that they work long hours for little pay. “I’m just a proud advisor because if the students did not do that, I don’t think the engagement here at UMass for a lot of students [would] be as great or as productive.”

Washington also offered some words of advice for undergraduate students trying to make it through the semester. “Take a moment to breathe and always ask questions of clarity whenever you know you’re trying to understand things that may not make sense to you,” Washington said.

“We’re in a period, not even just here at UMass but like in our world, where there’s cancel culture, there’s not any space to have true dialogue. And so my best advice is those three things so that way we can enter to have really good dialogue because the majority of the time, it’s a misunderstanding, a perception. And I think that in order to understand that, you do have to breathe, you do have to ask questions of clarity and you do have to, you know, engage to get a better understanding.”

Alex Genovese can be reached at [email protected] and followed  on Twitter @alex_genovese1.