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Student Leadership on Diversity: Forging Powerful Alliances
Jennifer Walper and Noel Barrion, Class of 98, University of Maryland

In the new world of globalization and interdependence, the campus has become an important testing ground for new strategies to build bridges across our differences. Just like in communities and nations, student groups on campus face the question: How can we protect our own interests and support our own communities and build a strong world community at the same time?

One strategy that we have tried at the University of Maryland is an organization formed by student leaders called the Advocacy Board which meets regularly to work around the principle that the campus community as a whole, united in a collective voice, can create more change together than as student leaders working in isolation.

Board members believe that if we are to build a campus community that will be a model for society, the members of different ethnic, cultural, religious, and community groups need to come together and actively fight for each other’s well-being. To realize this vision, the Advocacy Board was developed with a simple structure. It is chaired by the Vice President of Human Relations of the Student Government Association (SGA), a position that is rare in most student governments nationwide. The Vice President is charged with advocating for the needs of underrepresented populations, improving relations between various campus communities, and addressing areas of discrimination or inequity. During Jennifer Walper’s first term as Vice President of Human Relations, she felt limited in her abilities to speak for the needs of communities when there was no regular means to hear from them. She also noticed that certain groups fought for their causes without much help from other campus communities. Thus, she created the Advocacy Board to help the SGA be better informed about issues facing different campus communities and to create a regular space for the leaders of campus communities to learn about and work with each other.

After building grassroots support over a year, the Advocacy Board began meeting in September, 1997. The first year was filled with challenges. The Board began by promoting each individual group’s own programs and co-sponsoring programs as a Board. However, this proved overwhelming to most of the board members because each program represented another task for the already busy leaders. After two months, board members were still unsure of its purpose beyond acting as an intercom system between student groups. It was at this point that a meeting with an administrator from student affairs, Warren Kelly, compelled us to see our collective power to create effective change.

Despite the challenge to clarify its mission and overcome constraints, the Board has been enterprising and its results impressive. It has focused on three main issues: 1) supporting the implementation of the Asian American Studies Program and streamlining the process of implementing other interdisciplinary studies programs; 2) working toward the creation of a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender resource center; and 3) working towards reform of the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Education to make it more inclusive and user-friendly.

In working toward these goals, the Board met with a variety of academic and student affairs administrators and presented various concerns and goals. While sometimes preliminary, the Board left several of these meetings with concrete agreements and commitments to action from the attending administrator.

As founding members of the Advocacy Board, we see the following positive outcomes--some intended and some unintended--of the Board’s work. First, the members of the Board trust and know each other as friends and colleagues. In past years, presidents of student groups would have walked by each other’s offices every day without even knowing each other’s names. Another sign of success is that several campus offices have become familiar with the Board and have begun looking to it for student opinion. Also, it has begun to gain credibility with other student organization leaders who are eager to join. Finally, the idea for the Advocacy Board provided a model for the President’s Initiative on Race which encouraged other campuses across the country to bring together student leaders during the Campus Week of Dialogue on Race in April.

The Board will set next year’s agenda at the end of the summer. In addition, members of the Board will take an Advocacy Board class next year to learn leadership skills and study such issues as conflict resolution, cross-cultural communication, and negotiation theory.

We believe that mutually beneficial and lasting relationships are formed through systems that afford communities the opportunity to learn from one another and achieve more effective and lasting changes in campus life through their collective efforts. The Advocacy Board is the beginning of such a structure and it is our hope that it will flourish and grow and that its philosophy of collaborative leadership, learning, and change will be heard and implemented across the campus.

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