Geathers, Chen reflect on year in office, discuss changes for the coming year

The incumbent UA president and vice president are running unopposed

Danielle Geathers ’22 and Yu Jing Chen ’22 are running for re-election for Undergraduate Association (UA) president and vice president.

The Tech spoke with Geathers and Chen over Zoom to reflect on their year in office and discuss their platform and plans. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tech: What part of your experience over the past year drove you to run again?

Danielle Geathers: I definitely think the biggest thing is understanding that the work we started isn't finished, and understanding how short institutional memory is and how short it has been in the past. In looking back on our past year we’re really proud of everything we have accomplished, but at the same time we think “we could have done that better” or “oh, this is actually a better way to do it.” Having done a full term, we really do understand where everything fits in. We still have learning to do, but at the same time we have a completely different understanding of how the Institute works, how the UA can work, and what students want; we have the chance to start anew while keeping our values the same. We’re willing to put the time in, and we’re ready to get some more stuff done.

Yu Jing Chen: We definitely wouldn’t run again or invest so much time and energy into this, unless we really believed that there was a difference to be made in this coming year, and the difference we think can be made builds off of what we started. You can see this reflected in our platform. We wanted people to get the sense that we’ve done a lot, but we need to make sure that this isn't lost.

TT: Are there salient differences from or additions to your campaign platform from last year?

Geathers: There are differences. We accomplished a lot from our last platform like Indigenous Peoples’ Day, creating the Diversity Council, free menstrual products. So obviously, it wasn’t going to be exactly the same. There was more [focus on] institutionalizing things. Our platform this time is very much like “we got Diversity Council, and they met for a year, but if we leave, who's to say they meet ever again?”

Yu Jing is involved in the first generation low income (FLI) coalition and creating an office has become a top priority for us. Figuring out how to make sure the Institute creates an office and a space, and hires staff, and provides the necessary resources for that community is one major thing that we added on to the platform. Last time, we were definitely less experienced, our platform was definitely like naming things. Rather than the sporadic initiatives we wanted to do, it's more so tying it all together and figuring out how we can actually long term make changes and institutionalize things that will have a great impact on the UA.

Chen: Instead of just listing all the things we want to get done, like the initiatives and outcomes, we really want to invest in the process. We really want to invest in a foundation of the process, where people believe that they can make the change, whether they're a first year or a senior. Our three [platform points] —protecting the magic of MIT, leveraging student power, and uplifting every voice — require bringing everybody in. That process is the big trick. We didn’t think about processes at the beginning, but now we've learned a lot more about organizational leadership.

TT: What has campaigning been like amidst the pandemic? How have you been reaching out to people, getting people involved, or making them aware of the election under present circumstances?

Chen: We definitely have done less campaigning this year and that’s because there is no other person running, and for all class council elections, there’s no contested election. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to engage people because there’s no competition. We’re thinking strategically and planning how we want to engage different communities for this new term. We’re thinking about how to make sure that what we work on is what the student body wants us to work on. That’s why a lot of our platform isn’t a list of things; we want that list of things to be made from the communities and student body themselves. I think the most community engagement will be happening not really this campaign season, so we’re thinking about what community engagement looks like whether that’s in the summer when people have more time or bringing those pieces together.

Geathers: Although it was also virtual last time, [last year] we were alone in our rooms all day. Now, Yu Jing and I are on campus, a lot of people in our community are on campus, and it’s nice to see people, talk to them, get the in person experience that we missed last time.This year we are president and vice president, so even if people don’t vote for us, it’s our responsibility to get people to vote in general. We do a lot of work with the election commission to make sure they understand they can use the UA Instagram, they can use UA Facebook, they can use undergrads@ emails to tell people that the election is happening. We encourage them to use that space, not necessarily campaigning for us, but getting voter turnout high in general. We’re planning to flyer dorms, probably get some emails up. We want to push voter turnout.

TT: You’re running uncontested, which is different from last year. How did you find that different? How do you make sure you’re still holding yourselves accountable, thinking from various perspectives, and still trying to improve your platform, even if there's no external party checking you?

Geathers: That’s a good question. Historically, before our election, the past three were unopposed, and that’s more traditional unfortunately. Part of it is understanding that we aren’t going to be satisfied with 15%, 20% turnout. We are naturally competitive people and we do want the validation of people believing in our platform, so we wouldn’t be okay not doing anything just because history tells us those numbers will be low. We want to get up to what it was last year, which will obviously be hard because people were choosing [between candidates] but ideally we would want to keep raising the voter turnout because these positions are important. There is the motivating factor of wanting people to know what we are doing, and we want them to feel like they have a voice in it and that they can shift back.

Chen: Election season shouldn’t be the only time we hold ourselves accountable or shape our platform. We have been and we will be investing a lot of time into thinking what this next year will look like. And a really important component of that is shaping the committees because they’re going to be the ones that implement a lot of the initiatives that we all collectively as a student body decide are important for us to take on. We shouldn’t be constrained to a week, and we’re thinking about how we want to do that most effectively so that people actually engage and give valuable feedback and input. I wanted to stress this idea of accountability and bettering ourselves because we are incumbents. It is something that needs to continue past campaign season and throughout the term, so we’re thinking about how to do best.

TT: What are some highlights of the campaign so far?

Chen: I really liked hammering out the platform. It was stressful getting everything into words, everything we want to convey, but it was really good for us to sit down and think about the big picture. With everything that’s happening in the world, like anti-Asian racism, or how mental health has been on campus with these long weekends, our role as student government is to engage with that. At the same time, we have to take a step back and think about the big picture like where the UA is going, and writing that platform helped us take a step back and think about how everything fits in.

TT: Which initiative or goal that you’ve met from last year’s platform are you most proud of?

Geathers: Personally for me, it was Diversity Council. Having been the officer on diversity last year, and seeing our current officer on Diversity put so much work in over IAP to make sure that groups understood the importance of diversity council was really exciting. Now we have meetings for 40 plus people, and we’re really getting that interaction. We’re turning a new page in terms of what the UA does. Understanding the importance of Diversity Council seeing it come to fruition this year has made me really proud and inspired me to make sure that that continues on.

Chen: The thing that I’ve been most involved in and really proud of is our response to COVID-19 and how we’ve embedded student voice into Institute decisions. The creation of pods is from the UA and the Committee on COVID-19, an ad hoc committee that we created, to be at the frontline in embedding student voice. The grading policy, the one PE/NE that was given to students, and the fact that third party proctoring needed approval from the chair of the faculty before anybody could use it were because of us. There were a lot of student life decisions that we were able to impact this year. I’m really proud that we were able to be proactive in our response and be very on the ground because our response really impacted student lives.

TT: On the flip side, is there anything that didn’t turn out as you’d hoped, or something you plan to improve this year?

Geathers: We had a platform point related to Institute committees and student demand. It was hard to wrangle in all the student reps virtually. We did more than has been done previously in terms of actually having times when Institute committee representatives are supposed to come together, but I don’t think we’re at the point of completely leveraging student powers, where most people know what Institute committees are, most people know how to apply, or the representatives on these committees are engaging communities on the topics they’re working on. Moving forward, Institute committees are big on our agenda, we want to make sure that all of our representatives are top notch, know what they're doing, excited for the work and willing to engage their communities. That was something we kind of touched on in the platform point, but now that we’re both on several Institute committees, we know how we can better leverage student power and get those handles.

Chen: One thing we could have improved on and will be improving on this coming year would be administrative transparency and the Institute committee process and embedding student voice in there. I’ve grown a lot in my understanding of the Institute, faculty, administration, and staff — how different players and stakeholders come together, how decisions are made at the Institute. That's better informed me about how we actually make change. It’s not just about getting people to listen, because there are a lot of administrators that are listening, but rather, how we actually come to a solution that is good for all stakeholders. There are a lot of stakeholders we’re not thinking about as students. That experience and nuance is definitely something we’ll be bringing in for this coming year, and especially in how we work with Institute committees.

TT: Is there anything else you’d like to add about your platform, or any other message you’d like to emphasize?

Geathers: [Before] last year, we were very focused on our two ideas and maybe the ideas of the five people around us, but our understanding of leadership has changed. Our goal is not that we have the best ideas and we’re always implementing those. Our idea of a dream UA, an ideal UA, is where a first year comes in and has an idea, and we have communication channels and enough support for them that their idea is elevated and comes to fruition.The idea isn’t that the officers or the president and vice president have all ideas. That’s not going to happen, and that will not give you the best government. We want everyone’s innovation to rise up and come to fruition. We want to hear the UA’s 150 plus, 200 plus people. We really need to engage them, figure out what they want to work on, they want to do, and that's what will get us the best UA and then even beyond that, getting 4,650 undergrads involved. COVID-19 has taught us a lot in terms of how powerful students are, and how many good ideas we have. We do’'t want to be the only ones in the room talking. We want to figure out a way to build a pipeline so that anyone’s ideas can come to fruition.

Chen: We really want students and people to engage in student government. MIT is not like any other school, and neither is the UA or the student government. We do have a lot of influence in decision making, and people do listen to us as students at MIT. That doesn’t mean everything we want will get done, but we are valued and it’s really important that students engage in these processes, especially in the context of the world we're living in today. We’re recovering from a pandemic, people are coming back to campus for the first time, 2024s have never had a normal experience at MIT, MIT itself is going through the diversity, equity, and inclusion strategic action plan, the values committee is defining MIT’s values, we have Task Force 2021 trying to radically change the way MIT is done. All of this is happening and changing, and we really need students engaged in that work and making sure that students are centered in that work. At the end of the day, it’s our experiences that are going to be impacted and our lives, our lived experiences, and campus experiences that are going to be impacted, day to day. So we really want students to be engaged.