In Defense of Diversity: An Open Letter to SIPASA
Columbia SIPA values the diversity of thought, background, and individual experience. Though not perfect, students interested in issues of inequality, social justice, peace and reconciliation, representing their homelands, and representing their respective perspectives have always felt tolerated, if not encouraged, to form groups that reflect their unique experience and approach their challenges in different ways.
Over the past weekend, student organizations presented their budgets to the new SIPASA budget committee. These presentations were met with an unprofessional, hostile environment led by the SIPASA president. These actions displayed a profound lack of knowledge regarding the diverse profile of SIPA’s student body and ultimately, how to approach this as a leader. This is concerning as, without the necessary understanding and sensitivity towards diversity and inclusion, a president can not seek to genuinely represent their constituents.
Student groups — particularly those with a mission of forming spaces for under-represented groups, advocating for vulnerable populations such as people of color, women, LGBTQIA+, and with diverse ethnic or social backgrounds — were asked to defend their purpose in an environment that left them feeling that their contribution to the SIPA community was not valued by SIPASA leadership.
Student organizations that seek to encourage members of, and advocate for, vulnerable communities are essential to our school. They provide spaces at SIPA for such groups to share in their experiences, share coping resources, build understanding across lines of difference, and fill the gaps in community and curriculum that the administration cannot do on its own. Beyond building community, they ensure that future cohorts continue to reflect the diversity needed in this field for meaningful and impactful change to occur.
Student organizations were blindsided at their budget meetings with the suggestion to merge with other organizations with different stakeholders, audiences, and necessary contributions to the SIPA community. The line of questioning was, for the most part, unrelated to the student group’s organizational finances, which was the explicitly stated reason for the appointment. Rather, the 15 minutes was a cross-examination of the organizations themselves and their very reasons for existing. This approach portrayed a lack of respect and understanding for the diversity of issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, solidarity, social justice, or the need for intersectionality in public policy, for which our groups advocate. The tone of these conversations left many of us feeling disrespected and marginalized.
While we recognize that SIPASA is managing a limited budget that must be divided between a large number of groups, the questions posed by the president focused on the following:
Questions concerning whether or not white people are served by SIPA Students of Color (SSOC), an organization whose purpose is to create a safe space for and advocate on behalf of SIPA’s students of color (as evidenced by the organization’s name);
Proposals to merge various organizations, without having consulted board leadership first - such as a proposal to merge all groups which cater to the East Asian population or all groups that engage in gender advocacy, policy, and leadership (despite the cultural and historical variation in the region, and the different visions, missions, and audiences these student organizations serve);
Unfounded statements about the limited appeal or lack of purpose of different groups based on personal judgments; and
Questions about the nature of solidarity and inclusivity and the interaction between gender, human rights and what the scope of “gender studies” actually entails.
What is of paramount concern to us is not merely the issue of funding, but the lack of sensitivity displayed by the SIPASA president to the racial, gendered, cultural, and power dynamics that underpin the existence of these groups. As student groups, we are absolutely willing to debate, defend, discuss and disagree on our ideas regarding student budget allocation. That’s why we showed up on a weekend to present our ideas. But we believe these discussions need to stem from a place of respect and community, rather than the discounting or belittling of the groups that make up our community.
In addition to the indignant defense of her problematic views, the SIPASA president has presented an integrity issue. She has attempted bargaining with, or strong-arming, members of the student body into complying with her actions with incentives such as a higher budget allocation if they acquiesce to her demands. The SIPASA president has also suggested budgetary rewards to organizations that agree to merge with others. For example, she offered a higher probability of full budget funding to the Working Group on Race, Inequality, Solidarity, and Economics (RISE) if they merged with SSOC, one of the largest student organizations at SIPA, out of a belief that SSOC’s scope was too narrow. This suggestion was made without first consulting SSOC or convening a joint meeting for all sides to state their case.
Our collective concern calls us to demand deeper conversation before any unilateral policies are enacted and further, to rethink the SIPASA board’s present configuration. The president’s willful ignorance of the variety of needs of the diverse student body she serves is indicative of deficiencies in our student climate which need to be addressed. In order to foster a climate of acceptance and inclusion on campus, we need to start from a place of respect and common knowledge. The situation also highlights the need for greater training on the SIPASA leadership code of conduct and operations - especially when it comes to making decisions on behalf of the student body.
SIPA is diverse — it’s something we want to celebrate, not reduce. How we choose to spend student budgets, how student groups work together, and how we evolve and grow to make SIPA better are all worthy topics to tackle. Let’s work together to do so, positively, constructively and in a spirit of inclusion.
A Coalition of Concerned Student Leaders and their Allies