Geathers, Chen discuss increasing diversity, prioritizing student concerns, and responding to COVID-19

Newly-elected UA President and Vice President reflect on contested election and future plans

Danielle Geathers ’22 and Yu Jing Chen ’22 will serve as Undergraduate Association (UA) president and vice president for the upcoming academic year. Their campaign platform can be found here.

The Tech spoke with Geathers and Chen over a Zoom call to discuss their platform and plans. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tech: What drove the two of you to run?

Danielle Geathers: Yu Jing and I both have experience as freshmen coming onto campus and not seeing the UA as fundamental and helpful. Once I became involved in the UA and saw its potential for impact, I wished I had joined earlier and had that support in my own community. 

What really drove me this year was knowing that I was one of three people not graduating on the officer team [in addition to] my vision of the UA being more visible and supportive of its students. Then I dragged Yu Jing along. I saw her as such a powerhouse and I wanted to convince her to join me because I felt she was the type of energy we needed in the UA.

Yu Jing Chen: I joined a UA committee my freshman year but didn’t feel like I was a part of the UA. I thought [of myself as] a part of that committee and I didn’t see the UA as a student government. When Danielle asked me to join again this semester, I was surprised. I didn’t realize how much there was behind the scenes. I didn’t know half the power that the UA had and half the visibility that they had with administration. I didn’t realize I could accelerate a lot of the things I was passionate about changing at MIT through the UA. The way [Danielle] explained her vision to me was really inspiring. 

TT: This was the first contested UA presidential election since 2017. What effects did that have on your experience?

Geathers: It was a lot of dealing with organizations and people at MIT that were not used to this sort of competition, and it manifested itself pretty negatively. Remote campaigning depends a lot on organizations. I only follow people who are my friends, and they only follow people who are their friends. That’s only 800 people, but what about the rest?

The only way to reach out to them without [them] tuning into the debate or reading our platform was through clubs. The thing was these clubs also didn’t have a good idea of how to run a contested election— should they endorse, should they choose a side.

I think contested elections are good for making sure that the UA is legitimized. We get lucky that the people who are running are good, but [uncontested elections] could be dangerous. I think Fiona, Yara, Yu Jing, and I all pushed each other with our platforms. Throughout the process, we kept thinking about what was wrong with MIT and how we can change it. It was overall beneficial but it was sad it had to get so negative on MIT Confessions.

Chen: The fact that it was contested meant that we got a range of perspectives because there was another campaign that had thought so deeply into these ideas and problems at MIT. They’re very informed because they’ve done the work and have reached out to communities like we did. We had a call yesterday with Fiona and Yara to talk about things we can think about taking on in our administration of the UA, which was awesome. People don’t know what the UA is or does still, but this was the highest voter turnout in a while. Having that competition really had people more tuned in. 

TT: What were some of the highlights of the campaign process?

Geathers: There were many highlights. For me, there was a point when Fiona, Yara, Yu Jing, and I talked before elections on Saturday where I thought, if we don’t win, it’ll be okay. Everything will be okay. There was relief. You don’t want to put yourself out there and lose and be embarrassed. I was worried about that a lot during the election, but there was a point after the call where we realized we had all done so much and that no matter what happened, everything would be okay. It was my favorite moment because it was just a week of stress. The last few moments were very zen. 

Chen: I cried five times during this campaign season, but not because I was sad and frustrated. It was a whole rollercoaster of emotions, but all five times were because of how kind people were. It was like my work the past few years was finally being recognized. I usually don’t talk too much about those things in terms of community impact, but I didn’t realize that people had been noticing the work that I had been doing and the person I am. But seeing those kind words made me cry.

TT: Danielle, your election makes you the first African-American female president in UA’s history. What does that mean to you, and do you think the election gave you insight into how to increase representation in the future?

Geathers: Black female recruitment at MIT and representation has always been big for me. I did a WGS [Women’s and Gender Studies] independent study on the history of female recruitment. I’m really into archival [sources]. I think I read that the first year, [the Black Students’ Union] gave [administration] a list of recommendations and only seven got fulfilled. The history of the club being one of the most effective clubs at MIT contrasting the fact there was almost no [African-American] representation in the UA made me think something was wrong.

Being an officer in community and diversity, I was afraid of running [for UA president]. I thought that I could definitely do the diversity stuff because it was my sphere, but who am I to be president? I talked to a couple of people who said “that is the problem with America.” People who care about equity never want to run for the main role because they think they're not for it.

It didn’t surprise me that no black women had been president. Someone asked if the UA president was a figurehead role [during the debate]. I think no, but minimally, a black female in that role will squash every perception that MIT is still mostly white and male. Minimally, the immediate image of that will make MIT a more welcoming and inclusive place. 

During the election there was a lot of “let’s ignore that she’s black” and “why are you calling them the diversity ticket?” I felt like [addressing diversity] made sense because I work in diversity. We try to ignore the communities that people are from, but that’s what’s gonna make them good.

TT: The “Unity” pillar on your “Initiatives” page mentions establishing a “pipeline for proven successful UA projects to be undertaken by administration.” Could you elaborate on the current barriers and how you plan to resolve them? What projects do you want to have undertaken permanently?

Chen: The main barrier is money. A lot of offices at MIT don’t want to give up that much money to be taking on this new initiative that students created. If you think about the Banana Lounge, which costs $60,000 per year, it’s a lot of money to make it a permanent thing. Having to find some way to negotiate that or some alternate way to fund that permanently is going to be difficult. It’s also about the facilities and administration of these student initiatives. 

From my experience with CASE [Class Awareness, Support, and Equality], we were working on Commencement Housing. For people whose families can’t afford to come to Commencement, we set them up with professors’ homes so they don’t have to pay hotel prices. But that sort of thing should be institutional and overtaken by MIT. That’s just one example of something that should be pipelined to administration. It’ll be especially difficult with COVID-19 to get administration to absorb those funds, but it’ll be a combination of pushing administration and seeking outside help.

Geathers: I love MIT students’ ability to organize things and have successful things, but once we have been able to prove that it’s successful, it becomes a barrier to further improvement. Black Students Union has done Ebony Affair for forever, and it’s added a recruiting component [for admitted students]. Part of it is good that the black students are throwing this event, but I do think it would be better with institutional support.

TT: The “Equity” pillar mentions creating a “Diversity Council” that focuses on “actual implementation of joint initiatives rather than just discussing them.” Why do you think there’s been a lack of active progress? What changes need to be made to fix this?

Geathers: As an officer on diversity, I witnessed firsthand the lack of collaboration, even among [student] groups of the same racial demographic. I ask people what can be improved upon and everyone says that it’s hard to recruit students, that Activities Midway is the only time, and that they want to work with other students but don’t know how.

There’s MIT OMESAC [Office of Minority Education Student Advisory Council], but it’s OME-led and more formal. I know that LCC [Latino Cultural Center] wants to work with SAAS [South Asian Association of Students], BSU wants to work with LCC and SAAS, and LCC is creating a diversity officer. We all want to solve the same problem at MIT, and the creation of the Diversity Council will really get the leaders of these organizations to the table. 

I think why this hasn’t happened in the past is because UA has never truly had a diversity focus, though we’ve always had an officer on diversity. Part of the benefit of having Yu Jing and I in the center is that we really care about these issues. We think diversity is important. It’s our number one thing because it matters. Prioritizing it this year, especially with the new ICEO [Institute Committee and Equity Officer] John Dozier, we can help him onboard quicker and get things done.

Chen: With COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to put community perspective and dialogue all in one place. This pandemic is affecting different communities in many different ways, and there’s not one place for that. I didn’t realize how powerful [bringing together] so many groups like that would be until I went to my first OMESAC meeting.

The fault with OMESAC meetings is that you can’t talk between groups because there’s an agenda set up by the OME, and it’s only once a month and doesn’t allow for a lot of dialogue within those groups. I’ve been working on a lot of projects and had ideas that involve a lot of racial groups, but it was difficult to set up. I’d email all the groups, sometimes get a response, and have to coordinate all the When2meets. It sucked up a lot of time [whereas] the Diversity Council is a place where we can get that going. 

TT: The “Authenticity” pillar includes a plan to prioritize student concerns at Institute working group meetings. Current student concerns, such as those over the overhaul of East Campus security, are time-sensitive. How soon do you plan on implementing this system? What current issues do you see being tackled in time at these Institute meetings?

Geathers: It’s tricky. We’re picking Institute committees from the end of this week until May 12th, and we’re picking a Chief of Staff to train them and figure out the student recommendation system. Part of it is training student reps on communicating and presenting their recommendations. Working groups are more tricky because they’re more haphazard and don’t always go through the UA, but I think that once we standardize it for Institute committees, those reps tend to overlap. For EC, it’s hard because they already have a working group and kind of went back on it. I don’t know if the working group angle is the best [for EC] and meal plans since it’s already been changed. One thing I know is that [the UA] is working on a Title IX working group, which is a powerful thing. However, I definitely acknowledge that this is more of a long-term change.

Chen: Setting that precedent from the student level of presenting recommendations and concerns makes it harder for administration to pretend that you never brought it up or to dismiss it. If you bring them to the meetings in plain sight and take notes, it will keep administration more accountable.

TT: Did COVID-19 reshape any parts of your platform and plans for the upcoming year?

Geathers: 100 percent. We met with different groups and wrote down their concerns. When we wrote our platform, we realized that everyone we talked to didn’t care about anything else except COVID, so we tried to shape our platform to cater to that. I think that’s why people criticized our platform for not being specific enough, but we don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. Because it’s COVID-19, people will be voting based on their values — anyone can say any platform, but what gets done and how your voices are going to be represented depends on your values and the type of people you elect. 

We knew that COVID-19 happening meant that equity was going to be more important than ever. I think we shaped it completely based on coronavirus. Unity, equity, and authenticity is what we needed sitting alone with our computers at home. The thing we need is security and for the UA to be more visible and active. We had conversations about how being remote would change our platform in the fall, and the consensus was that it won’t change that much. We’ll make sure we’re there for students and change some priorities, but things like the Diversity Council will still need to happen. We want a prepared platform for whatever happens. 

Chen: We thought about how we can be the most proactive responding to COVID-19, which was engaging student input and being transparent with students from the UA perspective because this is going to affect different students in so many different ways. It was really important for us to have our platform be very student-focused.

TT: With that being said, what is your next plan of action?

Geathers: We have to pick our officers, to start. The Diversity Council will be important to do as soon as possible because groups feel disconnected. Another thing that is necessary is getting students to be able to have an open call with us where we’re actively talking about COVID-19 and getting student feedback. Yu Jing and I have an idea of what students are going through, but at the end of the day it’s just an idea. I know that the coaches in the Student Success Coaching Program probably have a lot of information, so I think it’s a matter of gathering information on how COVID-19 is affecting people. The Diversity Council is part of addressing that, but the first step is to audit that to know where to go. 

Chen: One thing that’s interesting about Danielle and I is that we know that we aren’t the experts on every topic, and we don’t want to be. We want to be surrounded by smarter people in the room so they can challenge us and give us ideas. Our priorities are informed by conversations with students, officer teams, and committee chairs, and it will be an ongoing conversation for the best plan forward.

TT: I know we didn’t get to touch on all parts of your platform. Are there any other initiatives that you would like to highlight?

Geathers: One thing is the class councils. I lived in Chocolate City this year, and we have two class council presidents there. We want to change the way UA collaborates with both class council and DormCon [Dormitory Council], and having a spirit week in collaboration with class council will really brighten everyone’s moods. The UA includes everyone because everyone’s a student, so we can use that to help unite the student body. 

Also, the UA could benefit from meeting with the class councils more regularly and getting updates. I also had an idea of possibly coordinating the spirit week with the in-person Commencement to make it a homecoming celebration with everyone hyped up and welcoming [the Class of 2020] back because I know it’s been hard on them. Not all of them can come back, but instead of making it a somber thing, we can make it a fun, exciting, community-welcoming event. 

Chen: To add onto collaborations across MIT, there are way more present governing bodies on campus at MIT than the UA. Dorms trust DormCon way more because they’re the ones that are present in their lives, and the UA is not visible. That’s definitely a priority going forward —  to be more in collaboration and amplifying groups like DormCon, IFC, Panhel, and class councils.