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Sunday, October 01, 2023
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Q&A: Meet Ndemazea Fonkem, new ASM Chair

Rising junior Ndemazea Fonkem was elected as the new chair of Associated Students of Madison (ASM) for the 2022-23 academic year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Majoring in landscape and urban studies, Fonkem worked as ASM's Diversity Engagement Coordinator and as an Equity and Inclusion Committee member. By moving up in the ranks of student government, Fonkem wants to continue the hard work put in by past ASM leadership and build off of what they have already accomplished.

Fonkem spoke with The Daily Cardinal and discussed her plans to focus on accessible transportation as a means to combat a lack of affordable housing, and continue to create an experience at the university that is equitable for all students. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What compelled you to run for ASM Chair in the past spring election?

I’d say general excitement. I think a lot of the projects I was working on with other folks, ranging anywhere from student workers rights to student representation issues, felt more expansive than what I was doing with the Diversity Engagement Coordinator role. There were things I wanted to see continued, and there are things I wanted to change.

What issues are you most excited to make a difference in, or that are closest to your heart?

Transportation or food justice. They’re both on equal playing fields for me. As a landscape and urban studies major, I want to focus on transportation and community development. Specifically, thinking about accessible transportation on campus and accessible sites for students with mobility issues. When the 80 is packed, but you have a mobility aid like a walker, how is that supposed to fit? Also, just the convenience of having the 81 run more than Friday and Saturday nights.

In your school-wide candidacy email in late March, you listed out several student centered objectives like continuing to push for a $15 student employee minimum wage, advocating for affordable student housing and increasing funding toward mental health and survivor services. What are some loose outlines of goals and visions that you have as ASM Chair?

I’ll take this time to highlight a lot of the work that other people have done in ASM that's been really impactful. The last ASM Chair, Adrian Lampron, did a lot of work in expanding the mental health co-responder model for UWPD. They made sure that if the police department is getting a mental health related call, it's not just police who show up at the door. Emmett Lockwood, the newly elected Diverse Engagement Coordinator, is doing a lot of work with disability advocacy on campus. He plans to work on the creation of a Disabled Students Cultural Center. Anjali Subramanian, the Equity and Inclusion Chair, has been doing a lot of work with faculty bias training.

I also have to give credence to one of my opponents for chair, Maxwell Laubenstein. He was one of the most ardent supporters for a $15 an hour minimum wage and one of the founders of the Student Workers Rights Committee. If we're thinking about broad things, those are some campaigns from last year that I know are going to be continued as we go forward.

Taking all the amazing work that the people before you have done, why is addressing these goals important to you and the greater student body?

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First and foremost, I would like to have the nicest life on campus that I can. I want to be able to enjoy myself and have access to the things I need. The other thing though, is that there are students on campus who already have that life. We, as a university body, have a wide range of privileges, access, identities and histories. And what I work towards is that I can't have that life if I know that there are people struggling without it.

Access to quality mental health services isn’t a standard for all students on campus, even if some students get it. The 80 is not equal for all students, even if some students have access. It's more so about universalizing the benefits of the student experience so that it's not a privilege — it's a right to any UW-Madison student. 

Speaking of accessibility, do you have any more plans or ideas to advocate for more affordable student housing? As it is a pressing topic on campus, especially considering the planned relocation of the Zoe Bayliss Co-op.

I think when we talk about Zoe Bayliss, we also need to acknowledge the destruction of the Wunk Sheek and the Mecha House, two historic cultural houses that have stood and represent a greater picture of students of color on campus being pushed aside and ignored in the pursuit of these broad based ideas like the Wisconsin Idea. I think it's really representative of a way that students of color in general are seen on this campus. When you destroy cultural centers, that's an issue.

When I think about affordable housing, I think about this: the places to live that are closest to campus buildings are really expensive. Which means that the radius of where students can afford to live is getting bigger. More students are living in Greenbush, Vilas, Mifflin or near the Capitol, and getting further away from campus. If you can't afford to live near campus and if your public transportation isn't reliable, it isn't accessible. If you can, you're walking 20 to 30 minutes to class every morning, if you can bike, you're biking in all kinds of Wisconsin weather. Or you just don't go. If we're not making it easy to get to class by means of living near class, then we're discouraging lower income students from accessing their education in the first place.

What kind of impact has being in ASM had on your time at UW-Madison?

The impact that it’s had on me is it gives me space to feel like my experience, specifically as a Black woman and as a disabled student on campus. With these different identities that I hold, I feel like I am operating through my experience alone and the miracle of ASM is not that I've met anyone with the exact same experiences as I, but it's that people are willing to listen to all of it.

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