Juniors Allan Njomo and Matthew Bisner, candidates for 2021 Student Body President and Vice President, joined The Irish Worker Editors Ashton Bieri and Thanh Nguyen over Zoom on Friday to discuss their campaign and platform. Their words have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Jump to a specific part of the interview:
- Experiences, qualifications
- Be bold, be kind
- COVID-19 on campus; Campus Compact
- Liaison between student body & administration
- Vice-president as chair of the senate
- Gender relations; LGBTQ+ community
- Physical disabilities; learning disabilities; student mental health
- First priority in office
- Native students, initiatives
Ashton Bieri: To start, could you briefly introduce yourselves?
Allan Njomo: My name is Allan Njomo. I’m a junior living in Stanford Hall, majoring in business analytics and political science. I’m originally from Kenya, but I moved to the United States in 2009, I use the pronouns he/him, and I’m from Arlington, Texas.
Matthew Bisner: And I am Matthew (or Matty) Bisner, I use he/they pronouns, I’m a junior living in Baumer Hall, but I used to live in both Keenan and Sorin. I study political science, peace studies and gender studies. I’m from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi — a small town called Ocean Springs, on campus I serve as vice president of PrismND; and I know Allan serves as Stanford Hall president, I figured I should mention that.
AB: Why did you both decide to run for student body president and vice president?
AN: Yeah, so for me, this is not something that, I never thought I’d ever do, but Matty approached me with the question would I ever consider running for student body president?, and my first answer was no, but through speaking to my mentors and friends, I resonated with the idea of being in service to students, and I love this community, I love Notre Dame. But there’s so many students here who haven’t found their community and the kind of place where they feel like they belong. That was an emphasis: of being in service to students to make sure that they can find a better home and make this life a better home.
MB: My story is much the same; my most fulfilling experiences on campus have been in service of the student body. This year would be my third year in the Judicial Council; it’s been a wild ride but deeply fulfilling. In the spring, one of my independent service projects was making and coordinating a mutual aid project/network to get students home and to make sure they were fed and housed during the online transition; that was challenging but deeply fulfilling in that it allowed me really to tap into creative problem solving and networking with students — and parents, I was in Facebook groups trying to drum up support for the students. The vice presidency is just another part of that, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to serve the student body in that way.
AB: You both touched on this idea, talking about experience being in service to the Notre Dame student body. What experiences and qualifications make you the best people to lead the student body?
AN: I served my sophomore year as a senator, and that gave me the ability to see the policymaking background that goes into the student body government, so I had an opportunity to be in service to my community, but even more so using our Stanford Hall voice to make our Notre Dame community more inclusive. But from there, I had the opportunity to serve as president of Stanford Hall, and a big part of that has been making sure that everyone feels as if they belong in our community. We have about two hundred residents and it’s a lot of work to do to make sure and check in with every one of them, but it’s so worth it, right? Whenever you have a student saying, hey, because we did this event, because he said this thing, because he made sure to reach out to these people, I feel a little bit more at home. And so that background, of this idea that we talk about a lot: making sure that everyone has a seat at the table. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. The people who are usually marginalized — make sure they have a seat; but even more so, that their ideas and passions and needs are heard. And then the most important part of that: that action is taken, action is taken so that we can see tangible results. And that’s the deep one, coming into the job; I’ve had that opportunity to do that, as the Stanford Hall president. But Matty has a different experience, so I’ll let him share that.
MB: Yeah, I think the primary function of a student vice president is to chair the Student Senate. Many folks coming into this role don’t have experience in the Senate and are coming into the role watching how their predecessors have done it and doing so, repeating that uncritically. And I have a different story: for most of this term, I served as a non-voting member in the Student Senate, and then last year I watched very closely and was present at a lot of the Student Senate meetings under Patrick McGuire’s vice presidency. That gives me a unique perspective of how things have been run and how things really should be improved upon, and that ties into my own benchmarking work: so my first action as Judicial Council president was coming in and benchmarking our Senate, compared to other student governments. So WashU specifically: I spent a lot of time with them talking to the Speaker of the Senate, talking to senators, and understanding their legislative process. Notre Dame has a lot to learn from our peer institutions in that respect. Largely, our legislative process has been…haphazard at best. So, coming in and making sure that we have robust sort of committee and legislative processes that will give students more input and allow for more robust, developed, and research policy to be made in the student Senate.
Besides that, I mean, my experience in Prism really is foundational in my leadership experience in that I’ve been able to connect Prism to the other LGBTQ groups on campus; that includes Spectrum and Glass — those are the employee and grad (LGBTQ) student groups — to understand issues that might affect the community as a community, so things that might affect employees also affect undergraduate students because so many undergraduate students come back to the University as employees. It’s really given me a holistic view of the community and ways the policy can affect different parts of it.
AB: Your campaign slogan is Be Bold, Be Kind. How does that guide your policies and how will it help shape your leadership if you’re elected?
AN: So the idea of being bold, really rose up from the platform; a lot of the ideas and policies that we’re pushing forward are things that we don’t talk about enough, from sexual education to making sure our Native American community is included, to making sure that for the disabled community that a lot of places are accessible for them. We want to be bold about doing the very, very least. These are the basic things that build up the Notre Dame community and should be implemented. We want to be bold about doing these things and talking about these things, but even more so there’s an element of kindness that’s important; sometimes the idea of boldness can be considered abrasive, negligent of what others may think. But I think that’s very important to also view this boldness from the perspective of the community. Our platform was built through meetings and leaders from all corners of the University; we sat down and we said, hey, what are you passionate about? What do you see on campus that you want to change? And everyone got something different; through that, we were able to build an ongoing platform — we haven’t finished, we want to continue addressing issues that come up and people that feel that there’s more that can be done. We’re 100% open to that conversation. At the same time, a cohesive platform in the sense that we have connected with a lot of students to make sure those needs are addressed, and that’s where the boldness and the kindness comes in; I’m sure Matty has something to add to that.
MB: I’ll be brief and just say that being bold also in response to the time that we find ourselves in right now — there’s all this hope about like what things will look like post-COVID and when the vaccine finally gets here and — it’s great that we’re looking forward, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that changes need to happen, actual substantive changes and some part of being bold is also hopeful that we can create a new vision and really set the tone for what the campus community is going to be prioritizing in the coming years after we’re here.
AB: Going off of that — the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted campus life, student health, and the health of people in our community, with one in five undergraduate students infected since August. What changes should be made to promote student success and the health of our community?
AN: At the first level: taking care of the students. Last semester we saw the mental health impact of isolation, of not being able to deal with each other and at the same time the stress of the pandemic on students. Imagine going to class knowing that your family members are affected because it can be very hard. And so at the very core, we approach it holistically, taking care of students’ mental health, making sure that they know the resources are available. At the same time, encouraging the University to hire more people, at the UCC to make sure that students’ needs are addressed. Ever more so, COVID policy is very complicated: there’s an intricate balance that must be struck between being safe as a community and promoting the sense of community.
And so one of the things that we want to do is talk to, and have Hoffman Harding to look at the proceedings, the impacts, and punishments of the Campus Compact moving forward. She invited the Student Senate during a town hall over break: that she would be open to the idea of an audit. So let’s take her up on that a little bit more; we are looking to create a steering committee, an ad hoc committee to look at what other universities are doing in their practices and see how we can implement those here. We’re looking at similar institutions and how they have addressed the COVID pandemic, and that can give us a lot of data and leverage to bring to administrators to consider adapting the approach. One of the things that resonates with me is this idea that some scientists feel that the measures we’re taking do not necessarily meet the issues we’re facing. For example, right now we’re under this ban from having club events, and I’ll be very interested to know how that impacts the numbers. Encouraging university transparency behind us to look at what the impact of the shutdown will be and whether it was a good idea or not a good idea. It’s something we’ve certainly pushed for in our platform. Matty, would you have anything to add?
MB: I think you hit the nail on the head. Looking at how a campus of 8000 people accounts for 7% of the state of Indiana’s COVID cases should be a greater focus and prioritization among the student body and really grappling with the effects that our semesters have had on the South Bend community will take a long time, but we’re looking to start that difficult process.
AB: How will you, in your roles as president and vice president, serve to be a liaison between the student body and the Notre Dame administration?
AN: We have a whole part of the platform dedicated to that, to bridging the gap. Something that we perceived is this idea that students sometimes feel like the administration doesn’t hear them, countless times students come to the administration and it feels like action wasn’t taken; in other times administration takes actions, and students feel like their voice was not taken into consideration. And so one of the novel ideas that we’ve had is this idea of a student voice summit where we bring together students and administrators, to talk about what’s going on on campus. On the one hand, for administrators, to hear the voice of students, especially students who are not part of the Student Union / Student Government, but even more so for students to hear from administrators directly and give that visibility and transparency of how decisions are made within the administration. At the same time, a big part of making that work is this idea that we also, as Student Government, have to bridge the gap between us and the student body to make sure that the student body is aware of our different initiatives that are going on, how our conversations with administrators are going on; and that can be done through newsletters, through social media and bridging this information gap that exists between us and the student body — Matty, did I miss anything?
MB: Not terribly much, I will say that the president and vice president are typically invited to a lot of meetings with administrators and something that would be helpful — and I think, refreshing for students to see — is us reaching out to student leaders before those meetings and bringing student leaders along. Right there, there’s room enough at the table for all of us, and bringing in student leaders to talk about campus reopening or quarantine & isolation procedures will help us better address community needs.
AB: Matty, I want to return to something you talked about earlier, which is the role of the vice president as the chair of the Senate. How do you see yourself representing, or getting that body to represent the student body more effectively?
MB: One of the biggest concerns that has been consistently raised is the lack of representation among senators, and the first thing I think that should be done is that Student Government and the officials within Student Government should reach out to clubs who may have special interests on campus or who may represent populations on campus that aren’t being represented to remind them that hall elections are coming up, that they can endorse candidates in Senate elections.
So that’s something I think we’ll be doing right after this election, regardless of what comes out, reaching out to the cultural clubs to make sure that they put out, that they encourage their members to join hall elections, to become hall presidents and become hall senators.
At a different level, I worked this year on bylaw review and reform, and really looking at structural review and reform within the Student Government; Sarah Galbenski and I co-founded the Ad Hoc Committee on Governmental Reform this year and continuing that into next year, specifically around, I believe the Diversity Council is looking to join the Student Union. Right now it doesn’t exist as part of the Student Union, but it’s looking to join the Student Union, get a bigger voice in the Senate and get a bigger voice among Student Union officials as a whole. And so supporting that, continuing to support that effort, especially as they work with the Multicultural Student Insight Committee (MSIC) to restructure and address the communication concerns that their constituents are having with the administration. You know, continuing, as always, to support students where they are and remaining open to constructive criticism throughout the term, to maintain good representation, good policy coming out of the Senate.
AB: How do you both plan to improve the campus environment with regards to gender relations and LGBTQ students?
AN: A lot of that is building off of work that Matty has already done, so Matty – take it away.
MB: The Student Government has had a very close relationship with Prism since its establishment in 2014, but looking forward specifically around the queer community on campus, of reaching out to Spectrum and Glass and the LGBTQ Law Forum to co-sponsor events and to also advance policy that would be good for the whole community, instead of just listening to Prism while also maintaining our close connection with Prism.
I mean, I sit on the Prism board already, so I don’t imagine that much of a challenge.
Also there’s been this idea of a PrideFest on campus: so allowing students to really showcase their art and showcase their abilities in this celebration across the tri-campus community of the queer community. And that’s something that we’re looking — finally, to get established — maybe next spring if COVID lets us out.
Beyond that, I know gender relations is always a difficult concern on this campus, mostly because of continually sex-segregated dorms, but looking to support and expand Green Dot, one of our initiatives is to actually formalize Green Dot points into Hall of the Year measurements — it’s been like part of the discretionary points of Hall of the Year awards, but it’s not actually formalized in the student constitution. We’re looking to work with the Hall Presidents Council co-chairs to get that formalized. There’s been a number of ideas around Title IX rights, specifically developing peer-to-peer training on Title IX rights so that students don’t necessarily have to go to OCS and the Office of Institutional Equity to learn about rights when they can learn from their peers in a much more engaging, less formal and perhaps less scary way for students; more accessible.
Oh, and then I guess finally, the crown jewel is always the non-discrimination clause, and we’ll be pushing for that, as always. And there’s been a long history of petitions to the University to change that. That has really fallen out of vogue lately, but they used to get 2,000–3,000 signatures every single year, and we’re looking to bring that tradition back.
AB: I think you touched on this earlier, but another part of the student body that can often be overlooked is students that have disabilities. What will you do to support students with physical disabilities, learning disabilities, and to promote overall mental health?
AN: One of the biggest meetings that we had was very exciting and I felt a lot of emotion, was with Access-ABLE; speaking with them and finding out just how difficult it’s been for them to function here as students, not necessarily feeling like they ever fully belong. From a blind student, or visually impaired student not being able to get the required materials she needs to succeed in her class- to dorms not being accessible to students on wheelchairs. And particularly the lack of progress on that end; we have so many buildings that are not accessible on campus, and that’s an issue, that means that there’s a part of our community that cannot enter those buildings and that’s just not right.
But even more so, with students with mental illnesses, making sure that we’re an advocate for them both on the end towards the UCC, but even on the other hand, making sure that the university allocates resources towards addressing those issues, whether that’s publicizing the resources that are available or creating new things that address those needs. As a University, we address anxiety, we address depression, but there’s a lot of other mental illnesses that are not necessarily put up front; to make sure we talk about those, to make sure that education is out there and information is out there.
Perhaps the most important thing is the representation. The campus reopening committee did not — for COVID at least — did not have student input from the disabled community, and as a result, if you look at the HERE signs, there’s no HERE signs with Braille on them. Imagine being a visually impaired student and not knowing necessarily where you’re supposed to be. The dining hall, for example, North Dining Hall — the exit that you’re supposed to use is not wheelchair accessible — things like that, that if you had a student or even administration that was working in that area of accessibility, these issues would not be a thing. But because the facility has disregarded the students in this manner, we end up having a lot of those issues. But that’s kind of the baseline of our advocacy continuing pushing for more accessibility resources to be allocated towards addressing the issues on campus. Matty, did I miss anything?
MB: …. No.
Thanh Nguyen: I agree with that; ableism is a big issue in the community and especially addressing the physical needs of students. Our next question is: what issue will be your first priority if you were elected?
AN: It’s very difficult to take solid one issue, and so I will talk about a part of our platform that really resonates with both of us: this idea of holistic health and wellbeing; viewing health as an interconnected network, how we approach COVID policy affects our health and well-being, how we approach mental health, spiritual health, special education, all of that affects our well-being. But on top of that, how we approach our environment, being more sustainable and encouraging student initiatives, those are all important. And I think that’s kind of one of our strongest platform pieces and that’s our priority: viewing these things as all interconnected and the need to be bold and all that. It’s really difficult to pick one thing, because in picking one thing, you lose a network of other issues that we must also address. That’s what I’ll say. Matty, what would you think?
MB: Yeah, from my part as vice president, I’m much more interested in student senate legislation and internal workings of the Student Government. One of the first things, and a really exciting opportunity I’m looking to get working on, is creating both a “green” programming guide for the Student Union, for use by clubs as well, to guide sourcing, as well as a whitelist of socially responsible options for procurement — so looking at companies that don’t invest in prison labor, as well as green companies. Those two guides should really guide programming and procurement for the Student Union, as well as any clubs that might be interested. In addition, I think — going back to what Allan was saying — sexual education is a really feasible goal, it’s a really necessary goal, to stem the ongoing crisis at this school, with a lack of sexual health and a lack of sexual education. Those are my top two priorities.
AB: Over the summer, we saw ongoing protests with the Black Lives Matter movement, following the death of George Floyd and too many others; this has a lot of people and institution reflecting on the role of racism in our society and how institutions perpetuate that racism. Could you speak on how your platform, and how your role in Student Government will facilitate that reflection and work to make structural changes in that regard?
AN: That is certainly something that we’ve thought through and so many students are discussing, kind of where the University stands on these issues, and probably the first thing that comes to mind is this idea that Fr. Jenkins created the Trustee Task Force, back in August; we would love to have access to that task force with students from various clubs and organizations that are already advocating for these things. But even more so, getting updates on what’s going on, what they’re considering. It’s very important that student input is taken into consideration, since these issues affect students. From there, we’ve talked over this platform point that we have on creating an official Community Review Board for NDPD in particular, with their policies on the use of force. Making sure that we have an input as students on how they carry out their policies, but even more so — working towards improving Speak Up ND for students to report discrimination; right now, the platform itself is very complicated and outdated. And making sure that on the one hand are aware, of the resource, but even more so that it’s a cohesive way to report incidences that happen on campus.
We’ve heard of so many things that have happened to students, and nothing happened to the student/faculty member that was involved in it, and it shouldn’t be that way. Notre Dame should be a place where people feel at home, and feel like they belong and they’re a part of the community but that hasn’t been the case. So ensuring that events like that don’t happen on campus, and faculty that do racist things, that those incidences are addressed equitably and that students get justice. That’s the beginning of what we’re trying to move forward to; we’re also standing by and affirming the demands of the Black alumni petition that was sent out this summer, so supporting our Black students in that manner. If the alumni put out this petition, and look to the University to make a lot of changes, we’re standing by that as the Student Government. But Matty, what did I miss in that long spiel?
MB: I will just add that, ensuring we break down this divide between Notre Dame and South Bend is also part of that anti-racist platform, to make sure that we’re bringing in genuine community voices as we’re developing community engagement policy and programming. I think our biggest point around that is developing the Student Union Youth Committee, to bring in high school students across South Bend, making sure that we have a diverse cohort and allowing them to guide us and learn from residents as they learn from us on how we should engage with the city.
TN: How do you plan to support Native students and their initiatives on campus?
MB: Two of our first meetings in this process were with SCIA and NASAND to guide our policies around exactly what those two clubs wanted. So for the Native American community, bringing back the Powwow as a celebration of Pokagon Potowatomi culture, working with NASAND and MSPS through whatever means we can to bring that back again, COVID-willing, and supporting their initiatives to get a Native Studies program finally established. A really intuitive thing we can do is to acknowledge and to continually acknowledge the land that we live, work, and educate on, by flying a Pokagon Potowatomi flag over campus — that was an idea brought to us by NASAND members and it seems intuitive, so we’re hoping to get that established, if not actually put up in the next year at least.
AN: Another exciting thing that we’re looking forward to working on is establishing a scholarship — which is a very weird thing for Student Government to say — but through working with administrators at the Office of Financial Aid, and I’ve had prior experience working for University Relations, which is the department on campus that works towards fundraising. I think it’s important, we stand on the land so we might as well start giving back, in the very little ways we can – giving scholarships to students would be a huge step in this direction, and we’re looking forward to working on that and partnering with NASAND on their ongoing work towards establishing that.
AB: Is there any part of your platform that you’d like to bring up, that hasn’t come up during the interview or that you haven’t addressed as much as you’d like?
AN: I will say this — this has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my time here at Notre Dame. We have gotten a chance to really sit down and meet with everyone who’s already involved in making and building a better Notre Dame, and I’m excited for what lies ahead in the sense of, I’m looking forward to no matter who wins, the fact that we have, we’ve figured out what the issues on campus are. We haven’t hit all of them, but we have started moving them towards mainstream discussion, and hoping that we’re able to really push on all of these issues. Our platform addresses student activism, it addresses making ND more affordable, it addresses essentially this holistic platform on student life at Notre Dame. All the backgrounds, all the experiences — and the intersectionality of a lot of them. I just want to share that, and how I’m excited to lead in this position.
MB: As far as things that we haven’t been able to touch on: we’re really, in this moment now, of the success of the Socially Responsible Investing club, that success is fresh on everyone’s mind, and we’re looking to push forward more. I think we labelled them Fiscal Justice Initiatives around Student Union and student club spending. That’s the spirit that motivated the whitelist earlier, as well as we’ve heard that portions of the endowment may be continually invested in the fossil fuel industry, which last time we checked is about $500 million dollars is invested in that industry, and ways that we can strategically plan for divestment around that. As well as, there’s some possibility that we were invested in financial institutions which supported the manufacture of nuclear weapons; for reference, before last year, Aetna (the student health insurance service) had been involved in funding AECOM (a nuclear weapons manufacturer). So, trying to parse out those connections that may not be as clear to students, to build on the success of ND SRI and continue this movement.
You can view more about the Njomo/Bisner platform on their website or Instagram page. The Student Body Town Hall Q&A is Monday at 7pm in Duncan Student Center, and livestreamed. Primary election day is Wednesday, February 24.