After branches of Penn Student Government elected Black student leaders to certain positions for the first time, three student leaders sat down with The Daily Pennsylvanian to discuss the importance of Black representation in student government and efforts to increase diverse voices in PSG.
This semester, the Nominations & Elections Committee brought on its first Black chair, and the Social Planning and Events Committee is currently led by its first Black female president. The NEC and SPEC presidents and the Speaker of the Undergraduate Assembly spoke to the DP about their work in PSG and their goal of diversifying student programming and leadership at the University.
College senior Sabria Henry-Hunter, who is the first Black individual to serve as the NEC Chair according to NEC records, said one of her primary goals is increasing diversity and recruiting students that may not self-select for involvement in PSG. To that end, she said NEC hopes to work with the University’s Cultural Resource Centers to achieve this goal.
“One of my goals is making sure that students know what’s going on and that we reach students who aren’t self-selecting for student government or other positions of advocacy," Henry-Hunter said.
She also highlighted the NEC’s historical lack of diversity, saying that prior to this semester, less than ten Black students had served on the Committee during its 50-year history. This semester alone, by contrast, the NEC took on five new Black first-year members, according to Henry-Hunter.
“Having new ways to reach students comes from having that representation on our body,” Henry-Hunter said. “This is our most diverse freshman class that we’ve ever had.”
College senior Evonna Moody is the first Black female student to be elected as SPEC's president. Moody said that the position has become something she deeply appreciates and that she is intentional in her responsibility of representing students of many different identities and backgrounds.
“First and foremost, being a student leader is a responsibility. You have an obligation to give rise to perspective, ideas, interests that encompass the student body,” Moody said. “I do have a responsibility to represent not only myself but also students across different groups.”
Before her election to the presidential seat, she served as the director of SPEC Connaissance, a sub-committee of SPEC. In this role, Moody said she worked to bring diverse talent to campus for SPEC events and ensure that these events were accessible to everyone.
For example, SPEC Connaissance arranged for 50 free tickets to be distributed by the Penn LGBT Center for LGBTQ students when "Euphoria" actor Hunter Schafer spoke at a SPEC Connaissance event.
“It’s one thing to bring diverse talent and voices here to school, but it’s another thing to make it accessible to the student body,” she said. “Diversity of events is nothing without accessibility.”
As SPEC President, Moody emphasized that she hopes to continue bringing in talent from various backgrounds and provide funding to diverse student groups from its three funding boards. By being intentional in who SPEC funds, Moody said, an emphasis can be placed on diversity.
“SPEC has great power in being able to actualize the diversity of Penn’s campus,” she said. “That’s basically what SPEC is — actualizing culture and diversity through events that resonate with the student body.”
Wharton junior and UA Speaker Xavier Shankle said that he is working to engage other students of color in UA and PSG in this capacity as speaker. In line with these goals, UA has created an Equity and Inclusion Committee, and PSG leaders meet biweekly with Penn's Vice Provosts to discuss such initiatives.
One of the current equity and inclusion initiatives involves going through course syllabi to ensure professors and instructors used inclusive language. The UA’s DEI committee is also working with various departments at Penn to prioritize equity and inclusion in their programs, according to Shankle.
"The group of students in that room needs to be diverse," Shankle said. "It can't just be people that look the same."
He added that one of the primary ways University administrators engage with the student body is through student government leaders, emphasizing the importance of having Black representation in all branches of PSG. Shankle said that he was surprised by the level of ignorance many administrators demonstrated regarding issues Black students face at Penn.
As Speaker, Shankle said he felt that the UA has been proactive about having speakers of color — with three in the past five years. He also said that he is really proud to see NEC elect its first Black chair, especially considering NEC’s role in ensuring fair and equitable elections in student government.
"[We need] to do the work now, so we're not just celebrating firsts, but firsts, seconds, and thirds," he said. "I hope it's not just Sabria today, and then not [another Black chair] for another 10 years."