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Monday, January 24, 2022

Q&A: Juliana Bennett speaks on affordable housing, Chamberlain rock backlash and student engagement

Madison has long had a unique political relationship with the student body of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with students making up roughly 17% of the Madison population as well as a considerable majority of the eight aldermanic district.

Over the past several decades, the District 8 alder has worked to represent the often progressive and relatively radical viewpoints of students, encouraging other local representatives to take more drastic positions along the way.

The current District eight alder chair is occupied by 21-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison student and community activist Juliana Bennett, who has continued the tradition of advocating for progressive change in local policy. Alder Bennett spoke with the Daily Cardinal to discuss her role as a student serving in public office.

How would you describe your position as an Alder, and what role do you play in connecting campus to the larger Madison community?

There are 20 districts in Madison that make up that city council. The council is split up among 20 districts to meet the specific needs of Madison residents. In my case, I represent district eight which is mainly made up of undergraduate students and young people, and has been over past about 40 years. District eight has traditionally had a student representative, which is unique from the other alders who, normally, are older residents. 

We, as students, are a vital piece to Madison. When people think about Madison, they think about the Capitol and they think about the university. One out of every six Madison residents are students, and we live here for nine months out the year where we are contributing to Madison's economy and general culture. So it is really vital to have a student representative on Common Council to voice the concerns of students. 

That's what I'm there for... I generally serve as a liaison between the city and Madison and UW Madison students. 

It is extremely important for students to engage with their local alder because when the general population thinks of politics, they think about national policies, the president and the House and Senate, maybe some even consider their state representatives. People are really focused on that. But it's really on a local level that effects how the policies or laws and regulations enacted by the federal and state government are carried out. Also, people have greater access to local representatives... it's important to engage with your representative because if you have any problems, for example, with your apartment, like your sink is broken, and the landlord hasn't fixed it, you can call me and I will get it fixed — simple issues like that. 

During this past year, there was an especially low turnout among students for the election of the District 8 aldermanic chair. What do you think are the main causes for the low rate of student participation in local elections? 

I think part of it is, like, a lot of students are either registered in their home city or they feel as though they aren't a part of the greater Madison community, when in reality, we should be thinking about it like “we live here nine months out of the year, we should have a say about what the city offers on a local level.” 

I think part of it is also students just not knowing when local elections are going on. Obviously, there could be more campaign outreach getting students to know that there's a local election going on and for helping students to get their Voter IDs and registration, because that's a big issue as well. It's really frustrating…There's also issues with polling places and, especially in my election, COVID played a big role. All of the polling places were in one concentrated area which was a long walk to do after a long day of school for anyone not in the area, like anyone that lives in the Lakeshore Campus dorms. It's just things like that which compound one after the other after the other, and make it difficult for students to vote.

During the past year, some local activists seem to have become disillusioned with the idea that government is able to implement institutional change that meaningfully policy in a way that benefits the community. How would you respond to these frustrations?

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To people who feel this way, I would just like to say that your frustrations are completely valid. I've been pretty loud with my observations with some of our local leaders who are advocating for change. It can be frustrating working with 20 other people, some of whom don't want any change and some of whom want to go backwards. I will say, if you're a Madison resident who wants change, your frustration is completely valid.

What do you feel is the biggest issue facing residents of District eight today?

Affordable housing, hands down. It's absolutely ridiculous that students are paying upwards 70% AMI to live in Madison. It's absolutely ridiculous that we have to face increasing rent on top of the burden of student loans; it just adds on more debt. How is there any upward mobility? Nothing quite affects students like housing because when you don't have housing, it becomes extremely difficult for you and others to operate just as a person. So I would say that the top issue is affordable housing. 

You advocated for the removal of the Chamberlain rock due to its' association with a racist nickname. Following the removal of the rock you faced public outcry, including death threats, as a result of your advocacy. Would you care to walk us through your experience handling this volatile situation as a public official? 

I mean, honestly, I've avoided speaking about it publicly, because it was so it was traumatizing. The whole thing put me in a really dark place … It was horrible. I was quoted in the papers — my quote got spread around to ABC, CNN, Fox News and sites like Breitbart, etc. 

So I had people calling me, texting me on my personal phone number and emailing me on my city account. All of my social media received messages, some of which, I had to call the authorities about because they were physical threats and acts of violence. Most of them were just people saying, “f*** you,” and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But some were like, “you n-word, you deserve to be raped,” that fucking stuff… Yeah. 

I guess I don't want to give too much air to it. Because I know a lot of those comments are just made to elicit a reaction, and it just shows how necessary it was to remove that rock. It just goes to show the psychology of racism is alive and well, and how it affects people. So if you're not a Black person, and you don't know what it's like to be called the n-word, you have no right to saying anything about that rock.

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