For most of my college career my involvement with Student Government had been nonexistent at best. During the past semester I slowly found myself slipping into this isolated and endearing little mess of politics through my involvement with its Public Relations committee and my position as a manager of the campus Television station. From my understanding the Purchase Student Government is in a much better state than it was in the early 2000’s but its easy to tell that its still in need of a lot of growing, which seems to be happening currently. There’s a lot of voices chiming into a discussion that might lead to gradual reforms of this non-for-profit cooperation masquerading as a government.
My slight antagonism toward the PSGA isn’t completely secret. I ‘m frustrated by the lack of transparency, the half-assed attempts to expand political activity beyond a small though flexible friend group, its idleness in the face of a campus administration that refuses student input, and the petty political squabbles and ego-trips that seem to happen on a weekly basis. I will not discuss these aspects in full here but offer them to shed light on where I stand. All that considered, I think that both the PSGA and those that currently hold office have a lot of potential. I have hope for the ongoing discussions and would like to publicly enter my voice into them.
A month ago a dear friend of mine, who is one of the more fiery and controversial senators in these discussions, and I were discussing matters involving the PSGA, the Purchase General Assembly (a non-PSGA affiliated group allied with the Occupy movement of which I am proudly an active member), and the idea of Student Unions. When my friend mentioned his idea to make senators hold mandatory town hall meetings my imagination began to race.
I had moments before introduced him to the idea of a Spoke Council. Spokes Councils sparked a bit of controversy at OWS before the November eviction due to the way they had be implemented. While this attempt hadn’t been the best, Spoke Councils have proved throughout history to be useful tools in the implementation of direct democracy. “A spokes council is a directly democratic structure that was inspired by the Quakers and numerous indigenous cultures and used widely in the Women’s Movement, the Anti-Nuclear Movement, and the Global Justice Movement,” as explained on occupywallst.org.
Using its implementation at Zucotti park as an example I’ll try my best to explain the nature of a Spoke Council. At Zucotti there are more Working Groups and Caucuses than I believe anyone has kept track of and thus a lot of members there in. In order to bring some form of organization to meetings that had been held as General Assemblies the spokes system was implemented. In this system each working group chooses one representative called a Spoke that will speak on behalf of the group. The Spoke only holds their position for a single meeting before being rotated.
At the Spokes Council, a Spoke relays the will of their group to the rest of the meeting. The group that a Spoke is representing must reach consensus on what the Spoke can say. For instance, if their is a proposal seeking consensus on the floor then a Spoke’s working group would internally reach consensus on whether or not they agree with the proposal. The Spoke would then relay this message.
The Spoke is thus only a medium through which a larger ensemble of individuals relay their wishes. The Spoke cannot have their own agenda and may not go against the wishes of the group.
Now in representational democracy the closest equivalent is a senator. A senator is elected and then supposedly speaks for the will of their constituents. That’s it. There’s no more true accountability beyond this point. A senator is free to follow whatever agenda they wish with their only constraint being a fear of not being reelected. This rings true from the U.S. government to Student Governments.
You’d think that liberal college students might try to push slightly away from the norm rather than upholding it. A Student Government would in fact be a perfect testing group for utopian ideas of governance like a spokes council.
In my correspondence with my senator friend I proposed a system that would overlay the Spokes Council system over the preexisting Senator system. At Purchase each Senator represents either a place of residence, a board of study, or, recently, athletics. In this hybrid system a Senator would take on the role of Spoke for the group they represent.
Each Senator would be required to hold at least a single Town Hall meeting each month. At the meeting they would be completely transparent to their constituents about their own recent actions in Senate and other recent developments within the Student Government. Further, whenever a highly important legislation is to be voted upon Senators must have an emergency town hall meeting; important legislation may include changes to the constitution or anything that would have a noticeable effect on the campus community.
At the meeting, community members may have the ability to, based on consensus, hold a the Senator to or prevent the Senator from certain actions; a quorum could be instated to maintain that its not just a few individuals holding a Senator hostage. The Senator may also take any idea discussed at the meeting and bring it forward as long as they aren’t barred from doing so by the community members.
One possible barrier to this may be a lack of attendance at Town Hall meetings. A once a month meeting seems doable for any college student but getting interest in the meetings may be another thing entirely. This would require the the PR committee and the Senators do their fair share of outreach. For Senators that speak on behalf of places of residence, they may enlist RAs and CAs to help increase attendance at Town Hall meetings.
This concept is rough. I’m not offering a finished product but rather a new path for which the current discussions may turn toward. If you have an interest to do so, please challenge some of these ideas or lend alternatives with the goal of strengthening this concept.
As I said before, Student Government should be a site of radical political experimentation. And please don’t be afraid of failure PSGA. We are students. Failure is something that we must do to learn and grow. Take risks and make change.