The Responsibility of Power

The Institute of Politics must listen to the demands of marginalized students on campus, and provide better resources and platforms for groups like Leaders of Color.

By Afreen Ahmed

Leaders of Color (LoC) is a civic engagement initiative housed at the Institute of Politics (IOP). Since its conception in 2014, we have been a student-led, student-serving organization that provides yearlong workshops to a cohort of over 30 students of color on campus. While our initial goal was to increase the access that students of color have to leadership positions and public service initiatives, we’ve found ourselves exhausting more of our time countering the structures of power within the IOP than opening its doors to the students it claims to serve. This system of power has resulted in a series of actions and attitudes from IOP staff that create an environment that upholds white supremacy. It’s an environment that actively erases marginalized voices, effectively shutting students of color out of the conversations and opportunities accessible through the IOP.

The IOP’s interactions with LoC have demonstrated this exertion of power. Despite profiting significantly from the work of Leaders of Color, the IOP consistently under invests in its work. The IOP advertises LoC’s leadership development programming to its audiences and donors; it draws students of color from our cohort program to become IOP interns, Fellows Ambassadors, and advisory board members; and it applauds our diversity as an integral feature of the institution’s work. But this “tokenization” occurs with little actual investment in students of color. Despite being an IOP program, we received less than half our funding this year from the IOP to meet our needs. We’ve found enthusiastic financial and social support from other organizations, such as the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, while we continue to encounter resistance from the very institution we are housed under.

For the four years that I’ve spent inside the IOP, I’ve seen LoC uplift the voices of students of color in every way that has been asked of us. When we were told to make a list of influential people of color that the IOP could possibly invite, we hand-delivered a list of 200 names. When we were told time and again that controversial speakers would continue to be invited despite threatening the safety of students of color, we held a workshop to prepare our cohort to respond to structural power while protecting their own well-being. But in asking us to do this work, the IOP has ignored its responsibility to reduce harm and instead asked us to teach marginalized students how to respond to that harm. The relationship I’ve spent years building at the IOP has not changed the approach of the institution nor the decisions being made at our expense. Power does not negotiate.

So now, we bring it to our community. Creating space for marginalized voices in our political institutions and civic spheres is a public concern; we are collectively better off when we invest in equity and justice and openness in discourse. The openness in discourse we seek is one that is inclusive, that is informative, and that helps us grow; not one that protects and serves the interests of power. Offering private meetings and leadership positions to a few students of color is not a replacement for structural change. This letter is a call for accountability and for actual investment in students of color.

During my first year in the LoC cohort, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez spoke at an IOP event. Students and community members, many of whom were directly impacted by the violence Alvarez overlooked in her term as state’s attorney, attended the event and stood up to speak during the talk. They began by saying, “This kind of dialogue is not about growth. It is not about healing. It is about covering up conflict and avoiding accountability.” Without hearing what the protestors had to say, Alvarez walked out of the event and David Axelrod penned a letter condemning how the protestors spoke with no mention of what they spoke about. The way that the protestors exercised their speech, however, was a result of a power imbalance that doesn’t allow students of color to be heard in any other way. Despite the IOP’s insistence that the correct way to exercise free speech is for students to go to events that challenge their viewpoints and ask questions, the entire environment is set up to disadvantage students of color. Speakers are often political figures with state power behind their words and actions; thus, it is facetious to pretend that a Black or Brown student asking them a question would be an effective challenge of power. Even within the room, the speaker has the platform, the microphone, the right to ignore or refuse questions—and the student is often left with the effects of having had to listen to a person who advocates for institutional violence against them without being able to effectively challenge that rhetoric. If they ask a question, it requires them to assert the validity of their own existence in a way that is not demanded of white students; and whether their questions are ignored, denied, or answered, their situations after the speaker event remain the same. The power imbalance exhibited in the structure of these events prevents meaningful learning from taking place.

There have been a few times in my years at the IOP where I have been moved and inspired by the way events were conducted. This happened during the Fellow and speaker sessions of people like Wajeh Abuzarefah, Najla Ayoubi, Eboo Patel, Ai-jen Poo, and others. The speakers mentioned have this in common: they are voices that celebrate diversity and human life but aren’t often heard because they aren’t backed by institutional power. To be a journalist from Gaza living under military occupation, or a female human rights advocate from Afghanistan; or a brown Muslim man growing up in post–9/11 America, or a woman of color organizing domestic workers, is to exist without structural power because of one’s identity. Giving speakers like these a platform at the IOP to amplify the work they do and the experiences they’ve had is to take a step toward righting that power imbalance, and these are the events that have changed the way I think about the world.

The responsibility of any institution with wealth and power is to create the conditions for a more ideal world. Conducting the IOP responsibly doesn’t mean denying people platforms because others don’t like their ideas; it just means recognizing that extending a platform to a speaker is an offering of power and the opportunity to promote a specific narrative, and that this offering must be given to people who contribute positively to society. To abdicate this responsibility and pretend like free speech is neutral erases the fact that every racist narrative that a powerful institution chooses to elevate can contribute to violence against minorities. Politics do not exist in a vacuum. When a space like the IOP welcomes politicians in charge of deporting, surveilling, incarcerating, or fueling violence against people of color, it cannot expect that people of color engage with the institution. Who the institution extends a platform to is an indication of whose voice it deems worthy of listening to.

What we are advocating for are invitations to speakers that represent a broad range of opinions and ideologies, but with a common respect for diversity in their speech and their political actions. And if, to maintain the IOP’s service to power, it chooses to continue inviting speakers who uphold institutional violence, at the very least it must lessen its resistance to hearing the other side. If it invites the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), it should extend an invite to an organization like the Justice for Muslims Collective that has spent years organizing against DHS violations of minority rights. If it invites Alvarez, it should seek out voices from the Black Youth Project to talk about their work against her political actions. Only inviting the side of power makes it clear that there is no actual investment in education, dialogue, and challenging each other’s perspectives. Creating a higher standard for who is invited should be the expectation, but allowing those without structural power to provide alternative perspectives is the bare minimum.

The institution that houses Leaders of Color and benefits from its work is, ironically, the institution that we spend much of our time working against. Serving students of color while existing under an institution that elevates voices of violence against students of color means that we frequently find ourselves at a crossroads. We cannot continue to encourage our cohort’s involvement in the IOP while decrying the institution’s conduct. There must be a substantial restructuring of the IOP to work with students of color and not against them. There must be investment in Leaders of Color; along with a recognition that the labor that students of color are doing to make the IOP inclusive is labor that the IOP should be undertaking itself. And lastly, there must be organized channels for direct student input into programming. If the structures of power at the IOP continue to prioritize power at the expense of students of color, it may see its civic engagement programs shift away from the institution. Marginalized students deserve to pursue public service in an environment that embodies the ideals of open discourse, growth, and service in a way that values the identities we bring to the table.