Candidates in CC debate focus on promoting dialogue

From left to right: Meghana Vunnamadala ’16 and Jochebed Bogunjoko ’16; Teddy Cohan ’16; Marcus Christian ’16 and Jesús Espinoza ’16; and Record Editor-in-Chief Rachel Lee ’16
From left to right: Meghana Vunnamadala ’16 and Jochebed Bogunjoko ’16; Teddy Cohan ’16; Marcus Christian ’16 and Jesús Espinoza ’16; and Record Editor-in-Chief Rachel Lee ’16–JERRY LI/PHOTO EDITOR

On Monday evening in Baxter Hall, this semester’s second set of College Council (CC) presidential candidates debated the issues facing both CC and the College community in general following the annulment of the first election. At the forefront of the debate were concerns about repairing a perceived divide between CC and the student body and providing avenues for open dialogues about issues of race, class, gender and sexuality on campus. The debate was mediated by Record Editor-in-Chief Rachel Lee ’16, with Managing Editor Eva Fourakis ’16 keeping time.

The debate featured three presidential tickets: Meghana Vunnamadala ’16 with Jochebed Bogunjoko ’16, Teddy Cohan ’16 and Jesús Espinoza ’16 with Marcus Christian ’16.

The debate opened with statements by candidates for the position of Vice President of Community and Diversity, which was vacated by co-presidential candidate Espinoza. Andrew Lyness ’17 presented a platform that includes increasing alternative weekend activities for students interested in a non-drinking social scene in a “diversity of spaces” on campus and encouraging difficult conversations about ideas like gender, race and equality. Jonathon Burne ’17 and Elizabeth Curtis ’17 communicated their belief that honesty is vital to the College community, and stressed that the focus should be on talking about the imperfections in the community rather than the imperfections themselves. Specifically, they stated support for reevaluating the Community Matters Initiative. Jacqueline Simeone ’18 stressed that, as an athlete, she offers an outsider’s perspective on CC and would work to improve communication between diverse groups of students, such as those of athletes and nonathletes, to create opportunities for everyone on campus to voice their opinion. Finally, Mike Davis ’17 presented his campaign as being “in search of a more unified, happier and accepting Williams,” stating that the only way for this to happen “is for the student body to have a voice.” A central part of his platform involves starting a “CC Fair” during First Days to offer students an opportunity to ask CC questions and understand what it does on campus.

The presidential candidates began their portion of the debate with two-minute opening statements, which the candidates used to introduce themselves individually and present their platforms.

Vunnamadala began by apologizing for “breaking the trust of the Williams community” by sending texts whose misleading information to potential voters was found to have violated CC bylaws. Stressing her excitement over the opportunity to regain the community’s trust, she presented a platform that includes expanding the Superfan program to support club sports teams, extending Grab and Go two hours to close the afternoon food gap, working with the Rape and Sexual Assault Network to address rape and sexual assault, and working with campus environmental groups to improve sustainability measures on campus. Bogunjoko added that they would initiate an open forum each semester with CC in Baxter Hall to encourage CC interaction with the student body.

Cohan acknowledged that while he will still be inextricably associated with the racially insensitive photo of himself in a Mariachi Halloween costume that resurfaced after the previous election, he has learned from his mistakes and is committed to his earlier promises to improve awareness on campus of social justice and power structures. “Everything I stood for before, I still stand for,” Cohan said. He said that his campaign is “about learning from your mistakes, and better yet, doing something about them.” He stated that for him, the election is not primarily about winning, but about recognizing his mistake and facing up to it.

In their introductions, Christian and Espinoza stressed their involvement with campus life, Christian as a Junior Advisor and varsity soccer player and Espinoza as a longtime CC member. Espinoza explained his decision to run for co-president in this election by saying that while he had earlier hoped to continue his work as Vice President for Community and Diversity, he sees the present situation as a good time to implement a “platform with a vision … [of] honesty, accountability, and reform.”

In answer to Lee’s asking what the biggest challenge facing each candidate’s ticket is, the candidates focused on the events of the recent annulment.

“Winning the campus’ trust in light of the recent annulment,” Bogunjoko responded, elaborating that addressing the issues raised by conflicts of interest and the CC-student body divide would not be easy. Cohan returned to the theme of repairing his personal relationship with the student body, mentioning his commitment to re-educating himself. Referring to the photo, Cohan stated, “I don’t believe I’m defined by that moment.” Christian brought up the apathy toward CC on the part of the student body, stressing the need for student involvement in CC operations.

Lee’s second question, “Whose voices go unheard on campus, and how will you strive to make them heard?” also resonated among the candidates, who reiterated the need for more open dialogue. Christian stated the need for creating an environment where people feel comfortable speak-ing up, while Bogunjoko said that part of the problem is that students often see disagreement with their opinions as a personal attack, which they internalize. Espinoza mentioned that apathy again plays a role – people will speak up when they think their voice will make a difference.

To Lee’s question regarding how the candidates would use the power that comes with the position of CC president, Espinoza responded that it is about channeling the voice of the community. “The leaders have to know what the people want,” Espinoza said.

Vunnamadala said she sees the position as being one of “shaping the dialogue” of CC as a non-voting member, while Bogunjoko added that the position offers opportunities to work directly with the administration. Cohan was in agreement, saying that the position of CC president is a “bully pulpit” for shaping and driving conversation.

The idea of dialogue carried into the final portion of the debate, in which the candidates were offered the opportunity to ask each other a final question.

“The reality is that we can’t get rid of it,” Espinoza said in response to Cohan’s question about dealing with Yik Yak. “The only way we can address it is by talking about it and having dialogue.”

In the final minutes, the debate became considerably more heated, involving difficult questions about personal honor and motive.

In Espinoza’s question to Vunnamadala and Bogunjoko, he suggested that their platform naively incorporated ideas, such as closing the 2:30 to 5 p.m. food gap, which had proved impractical in the past. He mentioned, for example, that one obstacle to eliminating the food gap is that it provides a break for overworked food service workers.

Bogunjoko and Vunnamadala reasserted that their campaign does offer new ideas and countered that it contains specific plans for carrying them out. Bogunjoko mentioned that one possibility with regards to the food gap involves a student worker manning Grab and Go for an extra two hours and responded to Christian and Espinoza by questioning whether their platform components, such as creating a permanent elections committee and a VP for Sustainability, were achievable through the presidency alone given that they require substantial support from CC and potentially from the student body. She also accused Espinoza of speaking in favor of annulment in the CC annulment debate when this represented a conflict of interest given that he is now running for co-president.

Espinoza responded by pointing out that at the time of the annulment debate, having just returned from abroad, he was not a voting member of CC and did not vote in the final annulment ballot. He reiterated the importance of his platform components, despite the difficulties they would present, and pointed to his extensive experience as the Vice President for Community and Diversity.