I Cannot Sit Idly By

Sarah Lilly, ’17, Information Systems, is Speaker of the UMBC Student Government Association Senate.

sarah-lillyThe most common question I hear from other students when talking about UMBC’s Student Government Association is, why do you do it? That, or the more frustrating what’s the point?

Well, I am so glad you asked.

Yes, I have a lot on my plate. Occasionally, it’s even overflowing. I work full time at a government agency, attend school full time, try to have a social life, and am heavily involved with student government.

Whoa. 

Right? That’s quite a bit of responsibility.

Out of all of these commitments, by far my favorite is the one I have made to SGA and to the UMBC community. Throughout my undergraduate journey, the one consistent theme that has emerged in many ways at UMBC is this: If you don’t like something, change it. It is honestly that simple.

Yeah, right.

No, but, like, for real. For 50 years, students have been a part of every decision making process. Soliciting student feedback is expected here. For students not to be included in campus changes would violate our norms. Everything from making choices about food services to planning new buildings to developing policies – you betcha students have had a hand in them. Case in point: I am currently passionately on fire about Title IX issues both at UMBC and across the University Systems of Maryland. Student government gives me a network of fellow students, faculty, staff, and partner organizations to help me address my concerns. All it took for me to get all of this rolling was (1) having a concern (2) talking to other people about that concern and (3) gathering the concerned people to talk about what we can do.

But SGA is where baby politicians go to practice.

L O L. Did you forget that I already have a job beyond UMBC? While #SGAisLife may be true, SGA does not necessarily mean a commitment to being a professional politician after college. Our current SGA President is a music major and our Vice President is an aspiring engineer. Yes, we are socially and politically and *insert adverb here* active. But we’re not politicians. We’re students with a real desire to make effective change on this campus. So we get together and do that thing.

Okay fine. But adults don’t listen to you.

Wrong again. Wanna know why? Spoiler alert: we’re adults too! Adults listen to other adults. We don’t whine to get what we want, we have meaningful discussions. It would be very easy to cry and say “The dining hall doesn’t have the specific chocolate cake my great-great grandmother used to make, therefore I am never going there.” Well, I’m sure your great-great grandmother was a lovely person, but if you don’t talk about that concern, how will it ever get addressed? And you’ll never get the joy of a delicious omelette from Omelette Guy on the weekend. It’s a give and a take. You bring more to the table than you recognize.

Great, but I don’t care about dining or Title IX.

I am going to pretend I didn’t hear the Title IX comment. But SGA has a ton of different departments including Environmental Affairs, Health and Wellness, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs and more. It’s really, really cool to be a part of a unique collective of students who just care about stuff. We keep each other on our toes with new updates, initiatives, ideas. I get to be an active member of an organization that represents 11,000 people. That is insane! I absolutely love my SGA family. We laugh together, we cry together, we learn together, and we grow together. Sure, it can be frustrating at times, but at the end of the day we are always a team.

Nice ad for SGA.

Thanks! I’m our biggest fan, aside from my aunts, who love my SGA-related Facebook updates. SGA just so happened to be where I found my home. I feel as though I’ve been “called to serve” or whatever in this community, and in all of my communities. If SGA isn’t your home, there are over 270 other organizations you can join. I cannot sit idly by with all of this passion and all of these feelings and just hope something will change. I need to be an active part of the change. I am empowered in this organization and I hope that I empower others too, growing with peers as we better our institution. That’s why I do it.

Contact the author, Sarah Lilly, at slilly1@umbc.edu.

Black Issues are Retriever Issues

Vanessa Barksdale, ’17, Social Work, is the UMBC Student Government Association’s Assistant Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs.

Vanessa Barksdale[Cross-posted from To UMBC, For UMBC]

Can I be candid? Sometimes being adamantly and publicly pro-black is hard. Particularly when you’re supposed to be the one that has a snappy comeback for every single high profile and racialized incident having to do with Black people. Its almost impossible. The gravity, immensity, and depth of always addressing Black issues, speaking for “The Blacks,” or being “a Black” is exhausting, and I don’t want to do it. That’s not my job. But it is literally my paid job to speak up to social injustice, and I’m honored to do that.

Since I’m being candid, I have to acknowledge my that I am indeed human. I’m a human being with flesh and bones and eyes and ears and a weird taste in music and a large obsession with kale smoothies. I am a lot of things. I’m also proudly a Black woman, in every sense of that word. Down to my full lips, my broad nose, and my kinky curly hair. I am not naive to my history.

I am also not naive to the fact that my Jackson Five nostrils and full lips subconsciously communicate about me to strangers first, and the actual content of my words come second. I am not naive to the fact that people like me scare or aggravate some people before I ever get a chance to utter a word from my mouth. Just like my sisters and my brother and my cousins and my mother and my father.

And so I have to consider death, perhaps a lot more than someone who doesn’t look like me. I have to consider my perceived image a lot more. I don’t have the luxury of downloading anonymous apps where anyone can post their dislike for “niggers” or “those ghetto affirmative action babies,” and not feel personally attacked or vehemently paranoid or uncomfortable in a room of strangers. I don’t have the luxury of walking into a store and shopping alone without having the store owner watch my every footstep. I don’t have the luxury of turning on a TV and seeing the dead bodies of people who look nothing like me. No, I don’t get those things, and it’s damn exhausting.

The ability to pretend and oversimplify are simply luxuries; I don’t get either. Getting to say “All lives matter,” believe it or not, is a luxury. You don’t have to think about differences in racial experiences, or think about whether Black people are set apart, or if we actually aren’t a unified collective of people who all face the same problems indiscriminately, and if we really all are nonetheless valued. That would be cute. Instead, I have no choice but to assert that Black lives matter. I acknowledge the fact that we are not the same, and I fight for our ability to acknowledge that. I will fight for my right to be treated like I actually am nonetheless a valued person.

I’m not divisive for saying Black Lives Matter. Like it or not, divisions stemming from imaginary assumptions about one’s race have always existed. They’ve existed since the very conception of slavery. But until you recognize what is broken, you can’t fix it. Until we recognize that we are hurt, we will never get well. And I am not going to apologize for saying that this country is hurt and bleeding.

I am truly proud to be a UMBC Retriever. But I am also proud to be a Black Retriever, amidst proudly queer, straight, Muslim, Sikh, Israeli, Irani, and Dominican retrievers. I am proud of what I am and where I came from, amidst many Retrievers who feel the same about themselves.

But what is most profound, most unifying, most important, is that we are all Retrievers. Black issues affecting Retrievers aren’t just Black Retriever issues. They’re Retriever issues, significant to the whole of us. Exclusion, ignorance surrounding social justice issues, and the fostering of environments where the discussion of cultural differences is discouraged aren’t things that we can pass off as someone else’s problem anymore. They are our problems.

Amongst many different things, I will use my position to make sure Retrievers are educated on Black issues. Black Retrievers matter too much.

Contact the author, Vanessa Barksdale, at vanbark1@umbc.edu.

All That Power

Bentley Corbett-Wilson, ’17, Music Education, is President of UMBC’s Student Government Association.

BentleyA friend came up to me last night and asked me, “How’s it going with all that power?” I thought for a second, and I said something along the lines of “You and everyone else who’s a student here are the ones with all that power. I’m just a primary voice for the power.”

I want everyone to know that YOU as students are the ones who can make this campus better. It is your ideas and passions that help drive this campus community, and I want you all to feel comfortable and inspired to use SGA to make those visions become reality. We want to do the work WITH you all, not FOR you.

So far, it has truly been an honor representing the student body, and SGA as an organization has started off the year on an AMAZING note. The SGA retreat was incredibly successful, and full of motivated and empowered student leaders. We welcomed new students to the campus by hosting Bubble Soccer. I had the honor of speaking at the Convocation, and (hopefully) inspired new students to make UMBC their home and pave their own ways to success.

I want to thank everyone who helped this summer to make sure that SGA started off on the right track this 50th anniversary year, and to everyone has shown their support and continued to have faith in me. I’m excited for all that this year has in store for myself, SGA, and UMBC!

Contact the author, Bentley Corbett-Wilson, at bcorbet1@umbc.edu

UMBC, BreakingGround Featured in New Publications

Craig Berger is UMBC’s Coordinator of Student Life for Campus and Civic Engagement

Craig Berger--SquareTwo new publications are shining a light on the theory, history and cultural practices encompassed in BreakingGround, and exploring its significance for higher education and democratic renewal.

The Winter 2015 issue of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) publication Diversity and Democracy, published in partnership with Imagining America, showcases promising approaches to advancing publicly engaged scholarship. UMBC and BreakingGround are featured in two articles. “Cultivating Growth at the Leading Edges: Public Engagement in Higher Education,” by Imagining America co-directors Timothy Eatman and Scott Peters, describes how innovations in scholarship, teaching and cultural organizing are “shifting the languages and practices of public purpose and mission in the academy.” They identify UMBC and BreakingGround as suggesting promising answers to questions about how innovative institutions can contribute to this emerging culture.

In another article in the same issue, “Democratic Agency and the Visionary’s Dilemma,” David Hoffman, Bev Bickel and I describe BreakingGround’s history and philosophy, including the ways BreakingGround responds to a challenge common to many movements for positive social change: How to gain traction at the beginning?

Democracy's Education CoverEarlier this month, Vanderbilt University Press published Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship & the Future of Colleges and Universities, edited by Harry C. Boyte. The book is a collection of innovative ideas: new conceptualizations of citizenship and work; visions of change in the curriculum, student life, and faculty and student roles; and practical strategies for everyday citizen empowerment. The book contains a chapter written by UMBC’s David Hoffman entitled, “Fostering Civic Agency by Making Education (and Ourselves) ‘Real,’” which describes his research with UMBC undergraduates and emphasizes one of BreakingGround’s core tenets: the need for students to co-create our campus culture as agents, not objects.

David’s chapter and the two Diversity and Democracy articles reference great work from Student Affairs, the Shriver Center, the Student Government Association, The Garden, and other campus departments and initiatives, and I’m thrilled to see that work called to the attention of a national audience.

Contact the author, Craig Berger, at berger@umbc.edu.