Solidarity and space

Three weeks ago, students from the bridges Multicultural Resource Center and the Queer Alliance Resource Center, or QARC, attended our Student Union Board of Directors meeting to deliver demands for new space in the ASUC Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. These students raised valid concerns about the challenges they face in their current space in the basement of Eshleman Hall.

These students deserve to move out of the basement and into a better space as soon as possible. And yes, they deserve a space that is visible, accessible and appropriate for their community needs.

We, the undersigned student members of the ASUC Student Union Board of Directors, are committed to prioritizing the student experience over the maximization of profits. We believe that in all decisions, the students and their values must come first. We have fought, and will continue to fight, to ensure that the ASUC Student Union provides important student services including student organization advisers, subsidized art classes for low-income students, free student group event space booking and coordination, a resource center for environmental student organizations and so much more.

To put students first, we need money to afford these services. Rather than relying on the university administration for “strings-attached funding,” the Student Union is funded primarily through democratically passed student fees and revenue generated by our commercial partners. With this funding, we can ensure that students maintain a degree of autonomy in decision making so that student needs come first for spaces, resources and assistance.  

Our oldest funding source, the student bookstore, was founded in 1883 as a student cooperative. Since 1913, it has been under ASUC governance, generating revenue that has funded student organizations and services. This revenue is the reason why past ASUC leaders were able to plan for a LEAD Center capable of fully supporting more than 1,000 student organizations, including advising for cultural groups, co-operatives, ASUC SUPERB and other undergraduate and graduate student programs.

Throughout the Lower Sproul Redevelopment Project, student leaders elicited student input for every decision. This feedback led to the prioritization of student spaces in every building, including the student store’s footprint in the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union building being cut in half to make more room for the Multicultural Community Center and public community spaces.

Student consultation resulted in bridges and QARC relocating to the basement of Eshleman Hall. This is the space the leadership of these organizations requested in 2011 because of concerns about privacy. However, this space has failed to live up to the promises made to these groups.  

Since bridges asked that the current student store space be turned over to them at the last board meeting, the Student Union leadership and board have taken these demands seriously, exploring the viability of these options. After diligently studying the proposed demand, we have uncovered significant hurdles to actualizing it.

First, the Student Union is bound by strict legal constraints. The contract with the bookstore operator prevents us from terminating its lease without 120 days notice and also stipulates the conditions under which we can legally terminate the agreement. The agreement does not allow for immediate termination under these circumstances; terminating the contract now would open the Student Union, the ASUC and individuals to a potential lawsuit by the vendor.

Additionally, the cost of converting this space to accommodate student offices would cost the ASUC Student Union millions of dollars. The Student Union is not capable of absorbing these costs, and the university would likely need to step in financially. If the university had to bail out the Student Union — financially or legally — the university would likely use that as pretext to take over control of the space, putting at risk 103 years of student autonomy over our spaces, funding and resources.

We are already concerned about the future of student autonomy in our space. In its spring 2016 recommendation, the Academic Senate Committee on Academic Planning and Resource Allocation stated its desire for the university to take over the Student Union for further revenue generation.

This action would not be unprecedented. Only two weeks ago, the Associated Students of UC Riverside were informed by their chancellor that their executive director would no longer report to student leadership. As we reflect on the past seven years of the student-led revitalization of Lower Sproul, we wonder what this space would look like had students not directed the conversation. When students lead, student spaces and student values are prioritized over university profits.

We will find a space that celebrates and acknowledges the critical work bridges and QARC do for students of color and LGBTQIAAP+ students on this campus. We have been working to solicit input from bridges and QARC leadership, the ASUC, the Graduate Assembly and the university to offer alternative space that can both meet their needs and continue to protect student autonomy. We too are students. We affirm and support the fight for the university to prioritize the allocation of space and resources to students of color and queer and trans* students. We will not be satisfied until we find a space for bridges and QARC in which students of color and queer and trans* students have space not just to work but to thrive.

Joe Wilson, Clara Park, William Morrow, Alicia Lau, Kena Hazelwood-Carter and Aaron Smyth are student representatives on the ASUC Student Union Board of Directors

A previous version of this op-ed incorrectly stated that bridges and QARC asked that the Cal Student Store space be turned over to them. In fact, only bridges is asking for student store space. QARC is asking for space on the fifth floor of Eshleman Hall.

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