Former Humboldt State ASI president presents to CSULA ASI on the co-option of student government and generating student power

Video and written version of speech.

Hi my name is Jacob Bloom, former A.S. President from Humboldt State University.

In what follows, I am going to go over with you:

  • Why I got involved with student government,
  • My experience in student government,
  • How this led me to work with the California Student Union (CASU),
  • And some resources CASU can offer you.

A quick disclaimer, the terms A.S. and A.S.I. are interchangeable, and they refer to the primary student government organizations, known as Associated Students, or Associated Students Incorporated. I also make a lot of reference to the A.S. position Executive Director (E.D.) which can also be interchanged with the position title General Manager, as the titles vary university to university, organization to organization.

Ok, so, I’d like to begin by asking:

“Do you want to help me save the world?”

If you had asked me what my major was six and a half years ago, when I was a freshmen at Humboldt State University, I would tell you, “I don’t know, but I want to help save the world.”

Eventually, this turned into me trying to make own major, which was to be a mixture of political science, ethnic studies, and communication, and would be through our schools interdisciplinary major program.

I started school in 2008, when the budget cuts happened. In 2009 the effects of the budget cuts hit. Classes were canceled, professors were furloughed and their pay’s cut, my class sizes doubled, and along with several other majors, the interdisciplinary major program got cancelled! My major was cancelled!

I was reasonably upset about all of this.

Then, somebody from A.S. came into my class and asked me to vote. I asked them what A.S. does. They said organize events, and represent students. I asked how they had been representing me with all this stuff that was going down. How were they organizing students to have our needs met in this time of crisis? They couldn’t answer.

Then my girlfriends major got cancelled and she had to move out of town to pursue it. This freed up a bunch of my time and made me even more upset, my tuition sky rocketing and education quality spiraling down the drain all the while.

I took a political science class where we had a political action project. I decided I wanted to replace A.S. Our professor said that there was a huge niche for that, they were not serving students and everybody was upset, but that wasn’t to happen directly through that class. Our class went on a field trip to tour grass roots organizations in Santa Rosa. On the van ride, the people and I in the van really bonded. We decided to start the NORML Club for our project, being the National Organization Reform of Marijuana Law club.

NORML quickly became a power house on our campus. With not much Greek life (fraternities and sororities) at HSU at that time, we were the dominant community organization. In our group we had: a writer on our school newspaper who was also publishing an underground news letter, and then became the editor of our school paper, an A.S. at large council member, the President of one of our dorms/residents hall housing associations, and a person in a high ranking position in an A.S. program, who then became the director of that program.

Through my affiliation with NORML, I was propagated to a seat on our Student Union’s Board of Directors, and then got a spot as a newsletter editor for one of our A.S. programs, and then became A.S. President. On a funny note, when I was A.S. President, it seemed most of the presidents belonged to Fraternities and Sororities. I belonged to NORML… Humboldt! Represent!

Through my work starting the NORML Club, and then another club, I got to know the head of our clubs office well. They helped me tons with organizing the clubs and events, the most help I have ever found on a campus. They frequently closed the door so nobody could eavesdrop. They broke down the corruption plaguing our university to me. They showed me pictures of amazing campus wide community events, the likes of what I could not imagine, and had never seen before. Then they explained how the administration had systematically dismantled these community functions and made the school a barren, privatized place, and in my opinion, a huge force of gentrification in the local community, and they could not disagree. Then they got pressured into leaving by the administration through a variety of mechanisms. They virtually got fired.

I still wanted to replace A.S.

I recognized severe needs on our campus. I saw people and clubs and organizations all working for the same cause, but not working together.

I went to the clubs fair, met with all the clubs that seemed like they would be interested in my politics, and talked with everybody tabling. I got email addresses and meeting times of the clubs, and arranged to go into the club meetings to discuss a coming general assembly. In the club meetings, I found the person who had access to their email list, and got clubs to vote to forward my emails to their contact lists.  Then we called a giant general assembly in the same room where the A.S. met, right after the A.S. met.

I had no permission for any of this, and the administration contacted me and tried to have me cancel the meeting. I said it was going to happen whether they liked it or not. Even though I helped start it, there were no leaders at this point, and it could not be stopped.

About 70 student leaders showed up to the general assembly. It more or less turned into a giant complain fest over the state of our higher education. We got the perspective of A.S. members we had “trapped” in the room. They told us that in order to get stuff done we needed to hold the hands of the administration and not burn bridges. We had an amazing dialogue with the A.S. members on how the administration had already burnt the bridges. We were able to highlight the problems we were facing. We started to create shared vision. The general assembly decided to keep meeting.

I stopped attending those meetings; I was too busy, as a president of one club, treasurer of another, with my work on the Student Union Board of Directors, and a variety of other extra-curricular activities.  The general assembly meeting eventually reduced to about a group of 20 core members, started referring to itself as the Humboldt Students’ Union, and began affiliating with the California Student Union.

I used the networks created by the Humboldt Students’ Union general assembly and my clubs as resources. I was working to stop negative administrative influences that had taken over our Student Union Board of Directors. Our Student Union had twice the income in fee money than of our A.S., and used to be student run by democratically elected positions. By the time I got on its Board of Directors, the leadership was only half students, and only several of the students were democratically elected. The rest were appointed through administrative channels.

Among other things, the administratively high jacked Board of Directors had sold our student owned bookstore to the Follet Corporation, and used money from selling bookstore to renovate our third gymnasium into a recreation and wellness center. They did this in the face of much student opposition. These actions are what led me to run and win a seat on their board of directors.

After trying repeatedly to work with people on the board, and respect the administrations agendas, it became obvious the Board was not going to operate in a competent or ethical fashion, and were not much more than a rubberstamping process for the administration. The administration abused loopholes in open meetings law to keep students in the dark about the Board of Directors existence and meetings, and to ignore their input.

The administration was not about to relinquish any of their high jacked power, so near the end of my year long term, I got mob of angry students to show up to our Board Meeting to tell the administration to listen to us and respect our wishes, it was originally our Student Union after all. We were then partially successful in modifying the bylaws of our Student Union Board of Directors, getting several open meetings updates incorporated, and I imagine this is an extension of the same thing to what you are voting on in one of the next agenda items.

I saw an endless amount of corruption and incompetence on the Student Union Board of Directors, but I also saw a lot of messed up stuff as the editor of the newsletter for our A.S. program. The Follet Corporation (that the Student Union had sold the student owned bookstore to) was attempting to take over our programs fundraising mechanism, which was a cap and gown rental program for graduation. I was writing an article on it but got censored.

Then our program was designated by the A.S. to run a community garden project. This was a student led community gardening project that was abducted by A.S. They were trying to represent students, which made sense. They took a grass roots initiative, and instead of just doing it, or empowering the students who wanted to do it, they tried to go through administrative channels. Four and a half years later, there is still no community garden at HSU. The investigative journalism I did on this also got censored. I was censored by my higher up, a student, and one of the program directors, who was tricked into thinking they had to answer to the A.S. Executive Director.
My journalism was censored not because of hostile reporting; I was reporting the truth as far as I could tell. Rather it got censored because the administration, particularly the A.S. Executive Director, had hijacked power from the A.S., and used it to create a culture of fear amongst our A.S. programs. This culture actively ignored and censored the truth, and denied the A.S. programs their radical and inspiring foundations and mission statements.

Through all of this I saw A.S. members repeatedly get their souls crushed: on our Student Union Board of Directors, through the NORML club, and through my work with the A.S. program. People joined A.S. to help students. They ended up doing nothing for students but making things worse; co-opting authentic sentiments, and letting them get bogged down in red tape until they eventually died or got turned on their head.

Through all my work, people kept suggesting to me that I run for A.S. president, and the pressure increased when I was about to be a senior and graduate.

As I was working with members of the Humboldt Students’ Union general assembly on other projects, I mentioned to them that I was being told to run for A.S. President, but also that I was hesitant and had turned down the idea several times before. They told me they were putting together a slate for our student government elections, and that they needed a president. With their support and team work, I was convinced that we could fix some of the core problems, so I ran as their president.

That election cycle broke records. We normally had 12 to 14 people run for 17 A.S. positions, with only at most one contested position, the rest running unopposed or with nobody running for the positions at all, and then the empty positions were appointed and filled undemocratically. This time we had 38 people run for 17 seats. I ran against 6 other people for president. Only one position was not contested.

Our issue based campaign was more powerful than anything we did directly through A.S. We got students aware, we got them engaged, we got feedback on the problems they faced, and even solved some of the problems.

Once in A.S., the administrations’ corrupting influence and culture was too penetrating. It dominated our ability to generate any authentic student power. We got strapped down by red tape, too many meetings, and the loudest voices in the room.

Our unity got torn apart. Selective members of our council who had counterproductive agendas were empowered by the administration, with what I like to term, red tap machetes. The rest were villianized.

The agenda set by administration ignored our problems that we were initially prepared to solve, such as:

  • virtually nobody votes in A.S.,
  • just about nobody knows who we were or what we did,
  • student government appeared just for show, while administrators had the real power,
  • and A.S. representatives showed up because they were paid stipends, just high enough to keep them showing up, and not enough to get them to do any real serious work. They let our Executive Director do the work, who is technically employed by the administration through the student affairs vice president, not our A.S.

This last point was very problematic for a variety of reasons. One of the many, we were drawing unhealthy amounts from our reserves, and at that rate soon were to go into the negative. From what I can tell in hindsight, this budget deficit was due to miss managing by our Executive Director (E.D.) and the lack of engagement by prior A.S. representatives.

To solve the problem, in our finance committee, I was leading an audit of our programs and budget, and working to implement participatory budgeting as well. Without me realizing what was happening, our Executive Director arranged a finance committee meeting so that it conflicted with my schedule. Our E.D. then sold the finance committee on raising fees on students to compensate for the E.D.’s own mistakes, and to stop the audit that would show the E.D.’s mistakes. Then the E.D. tricked the A.S. council into raising fees on students using the California wide minimum wage increase as an excuse, even though that was not why we were raising it.

Basically, our slate had great ideas for helping students, and the skills to do so, but ultimately, our group resigned in mass. It became apparent to me that anything I did would only strengthen belief in a system set up for co-opting students. With our unity destroyed, the rest of our members dropped one by one, as their souls were crushed. We had become the heart of freedom fueling the machine from my drawing. We were giving people false hope in a system set up to do little positive, and lots of negative.

After resigning, my resignation was covered heavily by my school paper, but with no follow up after the fact. The resignations of the rest of our council members were buried from the news and university consciousness. Burnt out, I focused on grass roots work instead of trying to fight the A.S.’s raising of fees, and the administration sabotaging students, which as it turned out, in my opinion was a really good choice.

Did you know that the A.S. President of San Jose State, Gary Daniels, just resigned? In their resignation letter, they said, “Where I once found myself loudly condemning things I felt strongly about, I soon became part of the machine, whose my primary job was maintain the status quo and defend the respectability of our institution even when it was wrong.” Turns out at San Jose State, now their A.S. is working with the administration to help raise fees on students via the now well reported on and infamous student success fee, and are spear heading an effort to quell student resistance against these unethical fee increases.

Also San Jose’s A.S. fired their E.D. for embezzling funds. It did not sound like their hiring of a new E.D. was very productive, unfortunately. Hiring a new E.D. would have been my dream come true as A.S. President. If the right one was hired, it would have solved most of our problems. We needed a resource, not a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

So I ask:

What is the role of a student in society? Finding oneself? Increasing democracy? To get a job?

And what does student governance look like? Is it the classic corrupt union that pretends to help their constituents but instead side with the employer class? Or is it the organization of student community in a manner that empowers students, and helps the students’ communities?

After I resigned, I went on tour during winter vacation. I tried to meet with my friends from A.S. across the state. Out of the 23 campuses, nobody was available, aside from two people from CSU East Bay, and one from Fullerton. Everybody else appeared too exhausted from their work. Seemed to me they felt as though they had already paid their dues, and were going to enjoy their hard earned (paid) vacations, not put in more work.

People in the California Student Union (CASU), however, were eager to meet with me on my tour. Through CASU, I met people with serious governance skillsets. They had abundant knowledge, powerful connections, plugged me in happenings across all three school systems, nation, and world, and were always eager to help with my local and statewide projects. My work with CASU made me an asset to get hired after college, far more than A.S. ever could, which only offered me a line on the resume and letter of recommendation from the University President. CASU gave me something far more valuable, it made me more effective at what I do. In such regards, A.S. offered me nothing but becoming a part of the problem.

Through my work with CASU, I got sent to three conferences, ones that student governments should be attending. They were much better than Panetta institute and CSUnity, and I imagine much better than CHESS, though I did not get a chance to attend CHESS.

I went to the CASU statewide conference at CSU Dominguez Hills, a Participatory Budgeting conference in Oakland, and a Dialogue and Deliberation conference in Washington D.C., the last one being filled with all the biggest players in the non-profit industrial complex. They were all really quite impressive.

For the Participatory Budgeting conference, what is participatory budgeting?

CSU Chico’s A.S. already uses a watered down version of it. Every student gets to vote on how 15 dollars of their A.S.I. fee is allocated.  They can vote to allocate 5 dollars to their favorite sorority, 5 to their favorite club, and 5 to the A.S. general fund, or all 15 to their favorite A.S. organization, or any other combination, 10 to an A.S. organization, 5 to a club, and etc.

Also, CSU Chico’s A.S. consistently has the highest voter turnout amongst the 23 campuses, and average about 20% voter turnout. I believe this is achieved because every club and organization wants the funding, so they all work to engage students and rally them to vote. Though there is much left to be desired, this high voting turn out is achieved not by a top down A.S. only effort, but a bottom up school wide effort. This bottom up mobilization captures the essence of democracy.

At the participatory budgeting conference, I came upon several amazing tools that trump Chico’s.

One of my favorite tools I learned about, that is currently in development, there is only one other that I know of already developed, is Co-Budget. I contacted them and they agreed to let me show you a demo of their software. With it, you can vote on exactly how your money is allocated using this tool. Basically, I had used budget balancing simulators before, and was wondering “why can’t we vote like this!” Now we can, they created the tool to do it.

You have your sections where money is already allocated, and has to be allocated. Then you have your general fund, which every person is given a portion of to vote with and set up the budget with. You can craft proposals, for in your case, using an appropriately formalized process, and everybody is allocated an amount where they can choose what proposals to fund and how much of their fee to allocate to each proposal. You can use this just among your board of directors, or have every single student on campus vote to set up your budget.

This is true participatory democracy, it makes budgeting easy, fun, and effective, and the effects are exponential.

With the California State Student Association (CSSA), they just passed the Student Involvement and Representation Fee (SIRF), which means every student on your campus is likely going to pay $4 a year. The SIRF fee has been hugely controversial. There is no budget set up for this huge influx of money.

My connections with the employees union and CSSA say that it appears the purpose of this money from the new SIRF is so that CSSA members can give themselves scholarships, having the student fee money go directly into their pockets. Even if it is not all just for giving themselves scholarships, this influx of money will undoubtedly result in something negative and something other than organizing students or generating real student power. The whole thing reeks of puppeting from CSSA’s Executive Director, who is actually employed by the chancellor’s office, and not CSSA, much like many A.S.’s E.D.’s are employed by the administrations, and not the A.S. This executive director was literally crying in front of the CSSA board of directors begging them to pass the SIRF, literally crying, and I am sure has serious plans for it and a budget already drummed up, hence the emotional manipulation.

But imagine the student engagement and strategic ability from such grassroots brainstorming, if the SIRF were to use participatory budgeting!

If Participatory Budgeting works for Chico, what’s stopping other A.S.’s, or the CSSA, from following their example and then doing it better?

I am talking to you because CSULA A.S. is consistently the most radical and badass of all the CSU’s A.S.’s from what I have seen.

Your students, the CSU system, CASU, and I, desperately need you. We need you to become the agents of positive participatory democracy that you really can become, and realize the potential you already have within yourselves.

We need an A.S. to lead the way and set an example for the others. What happens here effects all the other 23 campuses, along with all the three school systems, CSU, JC, and UC, and across the state.

Students need your help; fees are getting higher, while the quality of education is going down.

Faculty and staff need your help, they are subject to Walmart styled employment techniques, adjunct professors are at an all-time high, everybody is understaffed and overworked, and they all operate in constant fear of the risk of losing their jobs.

Administrators even need your help; they are becoming increasingly detached from their universities, and absorbed by the powerful oligarchic capitalist elites that are ruining our society. They have become dependent on donors instead of working with students and being creative to raise funds for the universities. Imagine if they helped organize students, the funds we could get! If they helped CSSA and A.S.I’s organize students, we could do effective crowdsourcing donation drives, all the way to spear heading a drive to get a state ballot measure passed, and make sure our universities are funded indefinitely! Prop 30 showed us the power of these organizing collaborations, and with students leading the way, we could take it many steps further.

Finally, our society needs your help, students across the world and history are the agents of positive societal change, from Civil Rights to Anti War to Democracy movements.

And it all starts by empowering yourselves.

I want to know what problems you face, and would be happy to share the resources I have access to if desired. Please contact me, friend me on FB, get involved on our CASU facebook groups, and thank you for your time, I really appreciate it.


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