USG presidential candidate forum: Joseph Sotile

Courtesy of Joseph Sotile

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Editor’s Note: The following questions were posed by the PVC, a group of progressive student organization leaders that hold a forum and endorse USG Executive Board candidates. The organization was formerly known as The Progressive Voter Coalition and was deferred for a name change due to a USG bylaw that states coalitions whose name or mission statement includes political language will not be recognized. The coalition now is known as the PVC.

1. What actions plans do you have to create a more inclusive, engaged, and sustainable student government? (Students Organizing Against Racism)

As president, I’ll give students the opportunity to make change. To do this, I plan to equitably collaborate more with students and campus organizations. The first step in this process is to provide venues for students to communicate with their government. By creating regular public forums in which the leaders of student government are available to discuss issues on campus, the undergraduate student government can be more accessible to all students. Additionally, by restructuring the role of council chairs to ensure that they are working closely with the organizations in their council, USG will be able to address the concerns of every recognized student organization on this campus. Online, I will create a petitions page where students can hold the university responsible and demand direct change. With this resource available directly to the students, their ideas will carry more weight to administration and student leaders will be responsible for pursuing these initiatives. I also intend to further advertise the programs that I put in place this year, namely the suggestions box in the Student Organizations Center and the suggestions portal on the USG website, so students know that they can come to us for solutions. USG’s culture must be more approachable, and I believe this shift must start with the freshman classes. That is why this year I started three events that introduced freshmen to campus programs and resources upon their arrival to Tulane. I am intent expanding this program into a series that will help first-year students find their niches on campus and learn where they can make an impact.

2. What resources need to be expanded to improve the lives of students of color at Tulane in order to make this campus safe and welcoming for all students? What can be done to improve relationships between the Tulane University Police Department and people of color? Slightly longer answer acceptable. (Intersections – 2018; Finding Intersectionality Together)

In almost every aspect, Tulane fails to province the proper recourses to cater to students of color at Tulane. From admissions officers and administrators to professors and TUPD officers, there is a clear lack of representation. Tulane constantly shows that creating spaces and providing for the students of color is an afterthought, from Tulane programing to the size of the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Tulane has to start to be cognizant of the needs of these students in the services that they offer. In terms of TUPD, much more intentional work needs to be done in their relationship with all students, especially with students of color. The previous scandals display that there are obvious faults in the hiring and training of TUPD officers. A first step USG should take in helping to improve TUPD’s standing is to partner with administration to ensure that the human resources practices of TUPD are created with the student interest first. They must hire and train a police force that can and will keep all students safe.

3. Some students feel that there is an unequal distribution of labor put onto marginalized students to address their own issues. If elected, how do you plan to address this precedent of tokenization? What have you done to reduce the tokenization of students of color on your campaign, and what will you do to reduce the tokenization of students of color in the senate? (Finding Intersectionality Together; Amnesty International)

Tulane often capitalizes on the labor that marginalized students and administrators do to better for the university. It has consistently shown that it is not an institution that prioritizes the needs of these marginalized students. The administration, faculty, and staff are not representative of the student body, and the student body is not representative of our country. Similarly, the makeup of USG typically does not adequately represent the students. As president, I plan to yield my power in the hopes of creating an environment where change can be made directly by the students. By supporting the work of marginalized groups on campus, truly listening to them about what changes they want to see made on campus, and aiding them in their initiatives with the resources available, USG can better include and represent these groups who should not have to carry the weight of creating a more inclusive campus alone.

4. Have you attended an Undoing Racism workshop in the past – if yes, when? How did it change the way you act as a leader on campus? If you have not attended, will you commit to attending the Spring 2019 workshop? (Students Organizing Against Racism – 2018; Finding Intersectionality Together)

Yes, I attended the Spring 2018 and Fall 2018 workshops. To summarize the impact that Undoing Racism had on my perception of race and power is impossible, but I took away a deeper understanding about how systematic oppression works every day in the country, at Tulane, and on a personal level. The workshop continues to challenge me to think about the ways that USG and Tulane uphold barriers and act as gatekeepers to students. I look forward to attending the Spring 2019 workshop.

5. Do you support the USG initiative to remove the racist namesake of F. Edward Hebert? Do you support a push for Tulane to recognize legacies of oppression and to reclaim its racist history? What would this process look like to you? (Intersections – 2018)

Yes. I think that it is vital to acknowledge, process and rectify the racist history of Tulane, which continues to be a predominately white institution. This process will take a long time: change takes effort and persistence. Students have taken the lead to create change on our campus in this regard and students are already pushing for and facilitating change. In a university whose history is steeped in disenfranchising students because of their various identities, it is imperative to get student representation on the president’s commission on race and Tulane values, as well as on the subcommittee for campus recognition. Students started the call to rename buildings on campus, and they should be recognized for their effort and be able to continue to be a part of the initiative.

6. How do you feel about the current dialogue on campus regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Should any steps be taken to make this dialogue more inclusive? If so, what specific measures can you commit to enacting while in office? (Finding Intersectionality Together)

This is a complex issue about which many people have robust and differing opinions. Tulane has a large Jewish population with many students who have a deep and meaningful connection with Israel. These students are incredible in their dedication to their heritage and culture, and many of them are pro-Israel. However, since much of the time this stance feels like the majority, some students who support Palestine feel targeted. I encourage all students to speak freely about what they believe and to have educated conversations and debates. For this topic, USG has to provide a space for all students to feel heard and represented. USG has to advertise educational opportunities and support organizations with differing viewpoints.

7. Did you attend Shifting the Paradigm this year? What do you think are the most crucial steps to reducing sexual violence on Tulane’s campus? What do you think are the shortcomings of the post-climate survey initiatives? Please evaluate the effectiveness of Tulane administration’s campaigns around sexual violence. (Progressive Voter Coalition)

I was unable to attend due to class conflict; however, I am constantly engaged in sexual violence prevention efforts on Tulane’s campus. It has been shown that the most effective way to reduce sexual violence on campus right now is education. Bystander intervention training is a clear and proven way to combat sexual violence. I passed a mandate that requires all of USG to attend a OneWave facilitation training to ensure that the leaders in student government have the knowledge that they need to begin to shift the culture, and I also advocated for every organization on campus to be rewarded if their leadership took similar steps and went through a SAPHE, OneWave, or One Love facilitation. I plan to further expand these initiatives. Conversations and education about sexual violence prevention, including bystander intervention and the definition of consent, should start freshman year and must continue until graduation. This will ensure that all Tulane alum have the skills that they need to be effective bystanders even outside of the institution. In the student life survey that I conducted, the most frequent responses we received about barriers to being involved in sexual violence prevention efforts were “I don’t know how” and “I don’t have time.” This answer indicates an administrative failure. I want to work with the Title IX office to create a comprehensive list that details every way you can get involved in prevention efforts on campus organized by the expected time commitment. In order to change our culture, all students must be involved. This resource would disseminate the necessary knowledge to do so. Finally, I plan to appoint a USG director of sexual violence prevention to expand and spearhead all of USG’s efforts in the realm. I will work with this director to ensure that their committee is representative of all groups on campus, recognizing that while this issue affects all of us, it impacts everyone differently.

8. What additional mental health services do we need on campus to supplement CAPS? What needs to change about the mental health culture on campus? (National Alliance on Mental Illness – 2017)

CAPS needs to have greater accessibility on campus. Even when just trying to make an appointment, students run into barriers. Once inside, there is a lack of representation among CAPS professionals; Tulane must hire mental health staff that is reflective of all the different communities that attend Tulane. Further, when the 12-session limit is reached, students have difficulty working with CAPS to find a provider in the city. The stigma against mental health is prevalent not only on Tulane’s campus but across the country. USG has to work with interested organizations to de-stigmatize mental health on campus and USG should help to advertise CAPS’s programs, such as group therapy, to ensure that students are aware of different available resources on campus.

9. How do you plan to support the expansion of reproductive health resources for students on and off campus? (College Democrats)

Reproductive health should be a right, but on Tulane’s campus it is inadequate in its accessibility, both in terms of operating time and appointment availability. When students need reproductive health resources on campus, it is a pressing need that needs to be addressed immediately. USG needs to work with the health center to extend their hours, increase their appointment times for sexual health related issues, ensure that emergency health contraception is available past the closure of the pharmacy, and make sure that reproductive health resources off campus are more accessible for all students. Further, the needs of the LGBTQ+ community are not close to being met by our current health resources on campus. USG has to advocate for more reproductive resources for all students.

10. Do you feel that Tulane is accessible for students with disabilities? If not, what will you do to make our campus more accessible? (College Democrats)

No, Tulane is one of the worst universities in the country in terms of accessibility. Tulane administration needs to recognize that the fact that students with different needs do not feel comfortable on campus is an issue large enough to warrant the infrastructural overhaul that would be necessary to rectify it. I will advocate for these changes in my conversations with upper-level administration for housing and facilities. It is also important to acknowledge that this does not always have to be as complex as building an elevator, in some cases it can be as simple as rearranging a classroom.

11. Do you have any plans to make Tulane’s campus more environmentally-friendly? If so, what are they? (College Democrats; Amnesty International)

Our first priority when it comes to sustainability is to hold the administration accountable to the pledge they made in the 2015 Climate Action Plan to reduce Tulane’s overall environmental impact. Secondly, so many students do not know where, how, or what to recycle. To ensure that we are minimizing our environmental impact, we need to disseminate information about our current recycling practices in order to increase awareness and move to expand recycling capabilities on campus. Thirdly, water bottle refill stations have to be made the standard in every new building on campus and we should expand them in buildings with the proper infrastructure. Fourthly, the OZZI containers have greatly reduced styrofoam and single-use packaging on campus. However, in the food court, waste is produced daily. Tulane should develop usage of OZZI containers in all to-go options on campus. Finally, the OZZI tokens should be consolidated to a virtual token on our Splash Cards.

12. What role do you see Tulane playing in combating climate change, especially given our ties to the oil and gas industry? How would you influence administration to take a more proactive role? (College Democrats)

As stated above, Tulane has to honor the pledges that it made in the 2015 Climate Action Plan to reduce its environmental impact. Tulane has problematic ties to the oil and gas industry, but it can take other measures to reduce its footprint. The plan detailed some specific strategies to reduce Tulane’s impact, but the university has not implemented all of these measures. USG legislation was passed this senate calling upon the administration to continue these efforts—I stand behind this legislation and pledge to continue to pressure administration to do our part in making these changes.

13. There have been many complaints about the problematic nature of student engagement in local New Orleans communities through service learning programs. What are some ideas of yours to improve service learning programs, and how do you intend to improve city-student relations more generally? (Finding Intersectionality Together)

Through my work with the Public Service Advisory Board, we are currently working on restructuring the way that service learning works at Tulane to address the white saviorism that is often associated with the program. Tulane has to be more intentional about preparing students to enter the communities that they are working in and shifting the focus from the students to the community. Growing up in Louisiana, I did not have the best perception of Tulane before attending the university. I think a large part of the problem stems from the “Tulane Bubble,” and one of my solutions to this problem is connecting Tulane students with the genuine New Orleans through programming opportunities, not just second lines and poboys.

14. Do you support the USG-backed campus initiative to include All-Gender Restrooms in all buildings on campus? If so, how would you use your position to advocate for this? (Gender and Sexuality Affairs Council)

Yes, I strongly believe that every person on this campus needs to have easy access to a restroom no matter where they are on campus. Legislation was passed the 19th Senate that supports this plan, yet the execution of the project has been slow. I plan to help move this initiative forward by working with the students who have continued to tirelessly pursue this initiative, supplying them with the access to any information and administration that they need to succeed.

15. Have you been to a Trans 101 or LGBT 101 training? What interactions with the LGBTQ+ community and LGBTQ+ activism have you had at Tulane? (Gender Exploration Society; Gender and Sexuality Affairs Council)

Yes, I have been to both. Tulane is a hard campus to be LGBTQ on due to the toxic hetero and cis climate. As VPSL, I worked on numerous initiatives to make students feel more included and welcome on campus, including ensuring that future graduation ceremonies have the systems in place to correctly gender all of the participants. College is a time where people should feel free to explore their identities and should be able to do so at Tulane without feeling shamed or uncomfortable.

16. How would you implement more inclusive spaces for trans individuals at Tulane, including gender-inclusive housing?

Tulane has not made a great effort to make trans individuals comfortable on our campus. Between a lack of adequate physical facilities and health services, this community has not been a priority of the Tulane administration. We as a student government must do a better job of reaching out to, listening to, and working with the trans community, offering them every recourse we have to show them that they are valued members of the Tulane student body.

17. What role do you see USG playing in increasing voter turnout among students in federal, state, and local elections? Will you commit to funding voter registration initiates such as TurboVote through USG’s budget? (College Democrats)

I am passionate about connecting students on this campus with resources to exercise their right to vote. Senators in the 21st Senate have proposed legislation regarding housing this type of service in USG and I am meeting with the coordinators to work with them through the process. USG has a lot of reach and funding opportunities available and will continue to support actions that better the student body in the most effective way possible.

18. What initiatives or changes not addressed in the previous questions will you advocate for to better serve our changing student body, especially the increasing numbers of students of color, queer students, and trans students? (Progressive Voter Coalition)

My platform is intended to reorient the structure of USG to better serve the needs of all students, especially the underrepresented. USG must take a more external approach to problems. We have to reach out to topical organizations and interested students to make progress on campus. There are many pressing issues on our campus, such as sexual violence, inequity, and inaccessible infrastructure. I know that I have the knowledge, drive, and experience to address these issues as president.