Student Body President sits down with the Quest to talk food security and mutual aid
Betsy Wight ‘23 sat down with Student Body President Alisa Chen to get to know them and discuss their plans for the upcoming semester.
Tell me a little bit about your background. Where are you from, what are you studying, and what sort of experiences did you have before you came to Reed that inspired you to get involved in student government?
Yeah, that’s a fun set of questions. I’m from Michigan, so I grew up in Michigan, first in a small town then in the suburbs. Before Reed, I was a jock. I played ice hockey, like all my life, and I still do, pending COVID allowing me to. Right before Reed, I took a gap year in Taiwan through a State Department scholarship. I spent nine months there with a host family and studied Mandarin. And the entire time I had been admitted to Reed already, so I was up to date through Facebook and social media about what was happening. And I was really confused for a really long time about why the board plan was so expensive. And I talked to quite a few students about it, and they’re all like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense to us either.’ And it was one of those things where it was like an inescapable kind of confusion because people who lived on campus, I mean, still are required to have one. So when I got to Reed, it was even more confusing because I had to pay for it. And then I decided to run for Senate because I was friends with two of the people who were on Senate. And they said, ‘If you’re interested in something, you feel like you have the time and capacity and care for the community to do this job, you should just do it.’ So I ran. I was elected on a platform of food security and increasing food security on campus. Now I’m a third year senior. I’ve been the AppCom [Appointments Committee] chair as well. I was vice president last semester, and I’m the president.
So you ran initially on the platform of food security on campus, but what other work or projects have you overseen in your previous Senate positions?
I’ve worked with the Food Security Initiative a lot. I’ve worked with the Sports Center quite a bit. Before COVID, I was working with the Sports Center to create a way to make non-cis white men feel more comfortable in the Sports Center. There was a course that was offered at least fall of last year, I believe, that was weight training for gender minorities, and that was really exciting. The big student push was for there to be a way where there could be Sports Center hours that were specifically meant for non-cis white men. Michael Lombardo [Sports Center Director] did not like that phrasing, so it’s something that I would like to push for at some other point. But right now, because the Sports Center usage is so limited, I understand that that’s really difficult to even think about and to consider the reality of it. I’ve worked with CLBR [Center for Life Beyond Reed] quite a bit recently. I formed and am chairing a CLBR committee, so we talk about ways in which we can make the resources that [CLBR] offers more widely accessible and easily understood. As someone who’s applied for a lot of fellowships and feels like I have a good sense of navigating the CLBR website and everything. It’s always a disorienting experience because it’s my life, you know? You want to do well, and all these instructions can be hard. Being an exec, so being VP and then president. There’s been a trend in Senate I’ve noticed where admin, especially with this turnover in admin, have wanted to work more closely with students, and that usually means through Senate. So I’m really interested in ways to increase clear communication and mutual trust and respect in order to advance the goals of the student body, while also working towards non-hierarchical structures within Senate, so that we can all feel that we can access these people and these resources equally.
What sorts of projects and committees are you working on currently, both in conjunction with your position in Senate, but also outside of that? I know you and Senator Alondra Loza run the Mutual Aid Fund.
My big thing about Reed is that it is extremely representative of the ivory tower and the ideas behind the ivory tower and being privileged, like leveraging some level of that privilege that we each hold to be at this elitist institution, no matter our status or background. So there are ways in which that is bad, of course. But there are also ways in which we can make that a good thing or a more positive thing. So I think my work surrounding food security on campus is really important to me because this institution has so much power and so much money. And even though that money isn’t just in a bank account, ready to access — that’s what admin always tells us — it exists. So these things should not be as big of an issue as they are, and there are ways in which we can work to make this community more inclusive in that matter. I started working with Jade [Fung ‘20], who graduated last year — she was a psych major — on the Reed Community Mutual Aid Fund, because she was doing grocery runs at the beginning of quarantine. And she had started the Mutual Aid Fund in that form. And that obviously tied really well into my platform and passion surrounding food security on campus. And then as quarantine continued and it became very clear that COVID was going to be a long standing issue — and as the BLM movement picked up a lot of speed in Portland especially — it became clear that our organizational skills, and also financial support, could be used more broadly. So we changed it into the Mutual Aid Fund. We still offer grocery deliveries, but nobody really uses that. People just use Instacart. We had this funny conversation where we were like, ‘Should we just pay for people’s Instacart?’ So that’s been really nice. I think that a lot of things that are confined by what the college can do legally is really frustrating because there are all these rules around how the money can be used, who it can be given to, and for what specifically. So navigating that is always a frustrating process. I mean, with COVID-19 as well, there was the COVID-19 emergency fund that Treasury ran that I helped co-chair. In the middle of last semester, we came to this huge roadblock where people from financial aid and admissions were like, ‘You realize you can’t do this. Legally you are not allowed to be spending this money this way. So we had to navigate that and figure out ways around that while still supporting the students who were accessing that resource. But navigating within the institution can be difficult, whereas with a mutual aid fund, it’s much more independent. It’s in cooperation with the community, but not necessarily with the institution, just the community that the institution fosters. So more with the people than the structures that make using Reed money so hard. So that’s been really great because it feels very community oriented without the roadblocks that being an institution can create. My biggest committee is, of course, Food Security Initiative, which is turning into a basic needs initiative. I love working with them. I’ve been on that committee since my freshman year when I first ran for Senate. So it’s been really great to see how the committee has changed in the work that the initiative has been able to do while also seeing myself grow and develop as a student leader. I just got out of a meeting. We’re working on a group commuter point proposal where students, staff, and faculty could donate into one account and those points could then be distributed to students who are on campus and are running between classes and can’t afford a hot meal from Commons necessarily. So just increasing food access in that way. We’re also working on bringing back the fall feast initiative, which was held last year where Audrey [Bilger, President of Reed College] directly supported that and was able to give students a certain amount to cook a meal over Thanksgiving Break. Bon Appétit was also really supportive of that and provided meals for people on campus. As for my other work broadly, as an exec, me and Apoorva [Mangipudi, Student Body Vice President] have a lot of meetings with admin. So we meet biweekly with Cindy [Anderson, interim Dean of Students] and Dr. K [Karnell McConnell-Black, Vice President of Student Life], and then with Audrey and Kathy [Oleson, Dean of the Faculty], and then also with Mary [James, Dean for Institutional Diversity] and Cami [West, Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity], from OID [Office for Institutional Diversity]. And in those meetings we’re really trying to work towards increasing communication and transparency and also mutual respect and responsibility for things on campus, but also creating non-hierarchical structures. I touched on this a little bit earlier. But a big thing that we’ve been doing is trying to open those conversations up for other senators and other members of Senate because obviously all of our projects are connected in some forms, and it’s really helpful to be in those conversations. So that’s something we’re starting this year. In the past, I feel that those relationships with VP Deans and with the President have been very personal to the members of exec, but Apoorva and I are really trying to make them about having a good working relationship with all of Senate and representing all of Senate rather than just ourselves and our work. So sending agendas beforehand, being open to having other members of the administration as well as other members of the student body at these meetings, I think has really increased that capacity to do well in a working relationship and not just having a personal relationship with admin that shifts between execs every other semester. And of course, moving everything online has been quite something. So trying to keep our meeting shorter within Senate, just so people can focus and not feel like they have to be in a three hour long meeting with their peers all the time. Also trying to increase communication, because online learning is hard. We have a Slack channel, Apoorva and I do frequent check ins and offer frequent check ins using the Senate group Google Calendar, so that people can be cued into when things are happening. Just little things to try to increase student engagement in organization.
What would you say is your most important goal as president, and why is that your most important goal?
That’s a good question. I think just representing the student body in ways that I feel are honorable is really important to me. I don’t think the Quest needs to write another article about how I assumed this position. But I do think it is really important to me that the people who are representing the student body do so in a way in which the student body feels confident in that representation. I think that means working with administration in a way that’s both about mutual respect and working together, but specifically my constituency is only the student body. Anyone from admin, they’re in their positions because they care a lot about students and they want students to succeed, they want Reedies to be well set for all of life’s endeavors, or whatever. But they also have to represent staff, faculty, other administrators, and that’s difficult. That’s very different than just representing the student body. So my biggest goal through this position specifically is to tie up loose ends with all my projects, just because this will be my last semester on Senate. But also constantly checking myself and checking the rest of Senate to make sure that we feel that the student body would be confident in having elected us.
On the topic of Senate, what sort of advice do you have for people who might be looking to get involved in Senate?
I love that question! I think you should simply run. I think that it’s a very scary, intimidating thing, but the process is quite simple, especially compared to other electoral processes even at other colleges. I think if you’re passionate about something, and you think the entire student body also cares, you should just go for it. These things are very intimidating and geared towards, perhaps, a specific type of student. And students outside of that, so people who are from gender minorities and minoritized backgrounds in general, may feel that they don’t deserve this, like the imposter syndrome really comes out. I mean, I asked for a really long time, should I even run? My two friends who were on Senate and were like, ‘Of course. Why are you still asking this?’ So I recommend really just going for it and thinking critically about why you want to run, who you’re representing, how you’re going to represent them, do you have the capacity to do these things? If you feel the passion is still there, just go for it. Also, of course, if you have friends who are on Senate or you’re able to drop into anyone’s office hours, I think that’s super helpful in terms of developing a frame of reference for the work that can actually be done and the processes that go into that just because being a senator isn’t just about pursuing a project, it’s also about representing the student body and serving on committees and with liaisonships and being very community oriented in a lot of ways. I really love seeing more people running for Senate. I think it’s really important. I think a lot of students care. Senate sometimes feels very intimidating or very bureaucratic, so it’s really great to see more people running every election.