When Yordanos Dejen was elected to the ASUC Senate last spring, she spent months preparing distinct platforms for her senate tenure beginning in fall.
But as the Black Lives Matter movement captured local and national attention, Dejen, who is running for ASUC president with CalSERVE, realized that those plans for the remainder of her senate term had to change.
“I prioritized having conversations within the black community about what has been happening in Berkeley and the nation,” Dejen said. “That’s something I didn’t plan for … but it was something that had to happen.”
In addition to focusing on her initial plans, Dejen realized that as the only black senator, it was her “role … to support black students specifically.” In response, Dejen hosted conversations with UCPD Chief Margo Bennett about student concerns and demands after complaints regarding police response to protesters in December.
As part of CalSERVE’s executive slate, which comprises entirely women of color for the first time, Dejen is campaigning for the presidency by broadening her constituency with platforms that address student life, campus climate and financial aid.
Currently, in addition to her role as an ASUC senator, Dejen works as a peer academic counselor through the Educational Opportunity Program, tutors through the Athletic Study Center and interns at the UC Berkeley Cross-Cultural Student Development office.
“(These experiences) shaped how I handle situations, especially those that can be triggering for me, and (helped me) understand other points of view,” Dejen said.
According to Austin Pritzkat, one of Dejen’s campaign managers and a fellow ASUC senator with CalSERVE, Dejen has developed strong relationships with administrators, fostering a level of respectability that allows her to simultaneously push for attention to tough issues and hold administrators accountable.
Because Lower Sproul Plaza is scheduled to open by fall, Dejen’s first platform is concerned with ensuring that it becomes a central space for the campus community to gather — a “home” for students.
“There’s never any programming, outside of sports, that call all students together so you can feel the Cal spirit, and so I want to push that,” Dejen said. “No matter who you are and what your experiences are, this is something we all can connect to.”
Dejen also has a two-tiered approach to improving student life, which includes bringing “world-class” entertainment — similar to UC San Diego’s Sun God Festival — to the campus and extending orientation programs such as Bear Pact and CalSO.
Her second platform centers on facilitating conversations about cultural differences in order to create a more inclusive atmosphere. She said campus climate is something that she has been concerned about since she first stepped on campus and that influenced her advocacy as a senator.
Dejen said that during her freshman year, there were no black ASUC senators and that she did not understand the implications of representation until CalSERVE senator Destiny Iwuoma was elected in 2013. Dejen said Iwuoma’s presence in the ASUC resulted in more information relayed and better financial support, as well as more accountability of the ASUC to the black community.
In her second platform, she also aims to increase support for the recruitment and retention of underrepresented students and create spaces for cross-community conversations — two goals that fall in line with demands the Black Student Union proposed to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks in March, which Dejen helped write. Additionally, she would like to close the wage gap for female faculty and faculty of color.
Spencer Pritchard, party chair of CalSERVE and member of the BSU, said that although Dejen helped write the proposals, there is a group within the BSU committed to advocating the demands.
“As someone who created the demands, I think it’s essential people are pushing it on all levels, (including) students, faculty (and the) ASUC,” Dejen said.
Dejen’s last platform centers on financial aid reform and addressing the lack of food security among students.
According to CalSERVE media coordinator Denim Ohmit, Dejen realized that the formula used by the financial aid office to calculate aid packages is outdated and is not specifically tailored to the campus’s needs, as all UC campuses currently use the same structure to calculate aid. Thus, the projected cost of living in Berkeley does not adequately reflect actual costs.
Beyond that, Dejen is concerned that students do not have steady access to food and that if they do, it may not be nutritious food.
“She gives a damn about people and the lives they are leading, so she always has such true, genuine compassion and humility,” Pritzkat said. “(This) makes her exceptional for this position, outside of her experiences.”
The 2015-16 ASUC general elections will take place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.