Don’t ask what USG can do for you

I sat in on the Undergraduate Student Government’s weekly Senate meeting Tuesday night, frozen in incredulous bemusement. I was transfixed by the sheer lack of self-awareness with which this assembly was conducted. It was as if I had stepped directly into the French Revolution, watching as aristocrats stuffed themselves with self-congratulatory cake. Why was I spending my evening listening to each senator rehashing their summer? Though attending this meeting was just a formality of mine to write this article, by golly gee was I glad I had been there to experience just how out of touch everyone seemed to be. 

Well, not everyone. In the midst of off-hand jokes that garnered not even the slightest sharp breath through the nose, someone in the back row asked a question I certainly had been thinking: “What efforts have you made to bring in people that don’t fit under the USG umbrella? Because everyone here, more or less, is a part of USG.” Imagine my shock when I found out I was the sole non-USG member in that room. All the speakers who had been speaking about outreach and connecting with the student body had been spouting off to … USG?

But does USG actually garner respect? Throughout the summer, I’ve had the opportunity to follow along on the trajectory of the reallocation of the Green Engagement Fund, and by the looks of it, they may not deserve it. On June 8, the Daily Trojan reported the Senate voted 7-5 to approve the budget for the coming year, effectively reallocating GEF funds to the Legislative budget, which is only available to senators and legislative committees. The bottom line? It’s going to be harder for students to get funds, especially in contrast to UCLA’s $200,000 The Green Initiative Fund for student-initiated projects. As a political science student, some of the processes that led up to this reallocation smelled of foul play, and I don’t mean the compost used by the SC Garden Club. 

I combed through hours of recordings to understand the full story, and I was shocked to find that the whole fund was cut in a mere two-week period. Valerie Kuo, a co-executive director of the Environmental Student Assembly, spoke with me about the lack of timely warning. “We were kind of blindsided because we are stakeholders in the situation, and we were never at the table when they were discussing about cutting Green Engagement Fund… a lot of the senators didn’t really know about that happening either. And we’re honestly not really informed about what they were voting for in terms of what they were cutting,” Kuo said. 

For a group that’s 142 years old, USG is certainly acting their age. With the lack of transparency and disconnect they have from their own student body, it makes me worried about other types of programs that are in line for the guillotine. As President Hannah Woodworth said herself, “There’s a reason why students aren’t reaching out to us and that means that we’re unapproachable, inaccessible. There’s an issue here, and that is our problem.”

If we were to look at the arguments against the reallocation of GEF funds, we see the desensitized nature of the leadership. The Executive Director of the Native American Student Assembly spoke of the intersectionality of environment and religion, a relationship rarely recognized by both the University and its USG. There are real, personal connections with these issues USG speak about.

Let’s get into the biggest issue of USG as we know it: The senators had also been blindsided by this information, which wouldn’t be the only time. Systematically, there is no standard or guarantee for how informed a senator must be to vote on crucial topics. Though many non-senators voiced their concern with time, three senators pointed out the importance of careful consideration, an idea seldom utilized within USG. 

Senator Aidan Feighery started, saying, “I think this Zoom chat is the epitome of the conversations that I believe should have happened to be before the budget or the creation of this budget.” Senator Paul Yi concurred, “Many of us have maybe touched this particular budget at a very recent light and haven’t had a full, holistic, broadened scope or understanding for it to be specifically geared towards the next year.” Though the fault might not be directly on them, senators are making decisions that are not informed, and this takes away from their roles in reflecting the student body.

Now, there were promises made to connect with the student body. Alvaro Florez, Speaker of the Senate, addressed this by saying, “When somebody’s drowning, I’m going to be ready to go out there and help them. And I think that’s what our Senate is going to try and do.”

I’d like to start seeing the USG take steps to be proactive in their processes, not reactive. To continue the metaphor presented, USG isn’t truly saving people, but rather placing them in vats of water for them to drown. When the problem-causers become problem-solvers, that’s not a solution. That’s Stockholm Syndrome.