ASM chair, vice chair usher in pivotal moment for diversity in student government
Associated Students of Madison Chair Carmen Goséy and Vice Chair Mariam Coker detailed challenges they have faced as the first women-of-color leadership team of the student governing body.Image By: Katie Scheidt
Inside a corner office in the Student Activity Center every Sunday night, Associated Students of Madison Chair Carmen Goséy and Vice Chair Mariam Coker meet to lay out plans of positive change for the campus.
They are trying to tackle the big issues—campus climate, sexual assault prevention and college affordability, to name a few—as well as constantly pushing for student voices in university and system decisions and holding administrative leaders accountable.
But Goséy and Coker’s roles do not just follow those of previous leadership.
Their pairing, which marks the first time both the body’s chair and vice chair identify as women of color, establishes a historic precedent for UW-Madison’s student government on a campus that has been characterized as predominantly white and criticized for not meeting the needs of historically marginalized communities.
In their few months as leaders, they have been asked to reconcile their own identities with their roles as the voice of students on campus in light of high proportions of sexual assaults among black women, a noose displayed at a football game and the election of Donald Trump, who used controversial rhetoric targeting those communities throughout his campaign.
“I realized the position was going to be hard,” Goséy said. “But I didn't realize how hard it was going to be because I'm a person of color and a woman of color, because it has an emotional effect on you.”
Both described frustrations they felt from being tokenized and trivialized in interactions with campus administration, including meetings about treatment of indigenous peoples and a recent discussion with UW Athletics personnel following the noose incident.
“A lot of it that I face is that I’m complaining too much, or I’m being too loud. Last year, [an administrator] referred to me as ‘little girl,’” Coker said. “They referred to us as girls, as children … I feel like we struggle for legitimacy.”
And it is not only in contact with administration where the pair faces challenges—representing a largely white campus with widely varying viewpoints presents its own set of difficulties, even inside ASM.
Coker and Goséy recalled struggling during the first few Student Council meetings to keep control of the floor, a duty assigned to the chair through Robert’s Rules. Coker said some men on the Council talked out of turn and over Goséy, although the pair agreed that problem has mostly been solved.
Leading ASM is challenging even in isolation from the current pressures Goséy and Coker face, a reality they prepared for by gathering advice from their predecessors, former Chair Madison Laning and former Vice Chairs Kyla Kaplan and Vanessa Studer.
Goséy said Laning taught her to take a step back and remember to appreciate the work that she is doing.
“I think I focus on the negatives so much that it starts to consume me, and I don't pay attention to the positive, which is an issue,” Goséy said. “When [Laning] was talking to me about it, I was able to take a step back and go, ‘Well, we have accomplished things, we've done things, like as a community and as an individual I've learned and been able to make change in small ways.’”
The two discussed the successes that ASM has already accomplished, including moving the corporate Amazon pickup point location from the Red Gym, pushing for a policy that would bar nooses from future football games and registering thousands of students to vote, as well as broaching the issue of sexual assault even within the governing body itself.
Both said in regard to sexual assault within their own communities, it is difficult to make people see the intersectionality to their identities and they are often attacked for “going after black males.”
“We see people playing the oppression Olympics when it comes to sexual assault and campus climate,” Coker said. “It's just really frustrating, because I shouldn't have to deny the issues that I face as a woman so I could stand in a march [for Black Lives Matter]. It doesn't make any sense.”
Goséy and Coker both held grassroots committee leadership last year—as Legislative Affairs chair and Equity and Inclusion chair, respectively—but said they face much more criticism now, as well as an exponentially increased responsibility to represent the entire student body and address every need.
“Black women have been called upon to take the emotional brunt of everyone else. We're told to take care of everyone else, make sure that everyone else is OK, but no one really cares for us,” Coker explained. “We're expected to respond to everything and to everyone, and everything that happens, but no one really asks us if we're OK, rather than each other.”
Though the chair and vice chair are only required to meet once a week, in actuality the pair talk almost every day, Coker said, crafting a solid working relationship, a balanced approach to leadership and a lasting friendship. They said they continually ask members of ASM, as well as the larger campus community, to challenge themselves in thinking about intersectionality and the identities of others.
Despite the critiques and setbacks they have faced, Coker and Goséy said they have already grown.
And in-between juggling ASM duties and attending class, they both emphasized the importance of self-care and meaningful relationships—not getting lost in the day-to-day and focusing on making changes that will move the university forward, especially for students who may not have felt at home at UW-Madison before.
“I feel like we're helping pave the way for other women of color, other marginalized people who feel like, ‘Maybe I'm not supposed to do it,’” Coker said. “But looking at us—no, they can do it.”Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter