ASWC must improve spaces for engagement

Blair Hanley Frank

ASWC faces a crisis of engagement. The Executive Council forum last week was attended by no more than 20 people (myself included). Given that members of the EC will sit on key college committees and can affect Whitman’s direction for years to come, it was appalling to me to see so few people show up.

Illustration: Binta Loos-Diallo
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It’s easy to fault those who aren’t engaging with ASWC’s goings-on for their lack of engagement, but I think to do so is to ignore the underlying problems behind that lack of engagement. If ASWC was a product I was designing, and the vast majority of the userbase failed to engage with core aspects of the product, I wouldn’t consider that a failure of the users, but a failure of the product.

To that end, I see three major issues with the way ASWC is currently set up that perpetuate a lack of engagement. First and foremost, while representative democracy is well suited to the United States’ needs (a vast geographic area with complicated political dealings that require the creation of a political elite), it tends to privilege a fire-and-forget approach to political engagement. You vote for a candidate, send them to the larger legislative body, and then let them do their thing for a term before deciding whether or not to vote for them again. In a national context, this works, but at Whitman, the system helps separate students from the operation of their student government. The ASWC offices in Reid are not magically removed from the rest of campus, but people act like they are. That has to change in order to drive greater engagement.

ASWC also does a really lousy job providing students with concrete, accessible feedback about proposals working their way through the ASWC system. ASWC’s messaging has been inconsistent, poorly designed and far too wordy for any sort of straightforward reading. While I understand that political issues can be deep and complicated, the current approach of writing an essay cataloguing ASWC’s work in a given period of time punishes people who feel they don’t have the time to engage deeply with ASWC’s content. Good newspaper articles front-load important information so that it’s easy to pick up what you need to know. ASWC should do the same: provide headlines for those people who just want a quick news flash, and then allow people to drill down to greater detail.

Third, ASWC must promote greater student engagement beyond superficial awareness-raising programs. Telling students how to engage with systems that don’t encourage that engagement is simply papering over the greater problem of the system being uninteresting. Instead of encouraging growth within an existing framework, ASWC ought to consider throwing out the framework. As I mentioned earlier, students have the most obvious impact when they vote for representation in ASWC. There’s a fairly clear one-to-one correlation between action and result. The more ASWC can do that allows for those same interactions, the better.

To address these problems, ASWC can start by taking a simple first step: Make Town Hall meetings mean something. They’re held every semester, and the question-and-answer environment is useful, to be sure, but no concrete action comes out of the meetings themselves. If Town Halls had the express purpose of creating actionable proposals for ASWC to work on, students could see exactly how their actions directly affected important outcomes in student government.

The next step is to move ASWC’s messaging and governing online in a meaningful manner. Ideally, I’d like to see students be able to bring proposals, whether for funding or legislation, to the attention of ASWC in a wholly digital manner, and then for the entire Whitman community to be able to track those proposals through the legislative cycle through the same online portal. Sure, some physical meetings will still be necessary, but the ability to have free and open access to up-to-the-minute feedback on a proposal’s progress will do wonders for students understanding what it is ASWC does.

Making effective changes to the way ASWC handles student engagement will be difficult and will take time. But they will do wonders for improving the health of student government, and the Whitman community, in the long run.