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  • Saphire Ruiz

Strings of a Presidency: Respectability With People Who Never Respected Me to Begin With

Note: Mentions of “Eric” throughout this piece refer to former Vice President and current President of Student Assembly, Eric Santomauro-Stenzel ‘24.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to lie to yourself and others. Not about factual information, of course, and not out of malice; but about what you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing and what you’re thinking.

I’ve lied a lot about those things in the last nine months as President of Student Assembly. Sometimes it was attempts at blind ignorance—convincing myself that everything was okay to the point that I mostly believed it. But there was always, always something deep inside of me, screaming to be let out, screaming out the truth that I didn’t want to believe.

During the times I was aware that I was lying by omission, by not telling others how I truly felt about something, my only confidant for most of the year was Eric, who of course was Vice President-Elect last semester, and then Vice President earlier this semester, and following my resignation is now President. Even then, there were some things that I kept to myself for months; like how I wanted both of us, maybe even all of us, to resign. It wasn’t until he mentioned that someone else suggested to him that we all leave that I brought up that I had been imagining it for months.

What would it look like? If everyone who actually cared on the Assembly left? If we all decided enough was enough, that if certain members of Senior Staff and the Board of Trustees wouldn’t listen to us as elected student representatives trying to collaborate, then we’d leave and we'd cause them hell without the strings of our positions attached?

I knew going into the presidency that it would be difficult. That we’d have to play the games of politics. That I’d have to pretend like I didn’t have a deep hatred for those who are in charge of making the top decisions at this College, and the ways they have always and will always harm marginalized students.

That I’d have to pretend like at my core I didn’t believe that the abolition of our system of [higher] education is the only way to achieve educational liberation, and that anything less will only bring temporary reprieve (and most of the time not even that).

I started seriously considering resigning over the summer. We had started to prepare for the semester, and while I had moments of passion and drive, for the most part I just felt dread. I kept thinking about all of the meetings with administrators, the arguing with members of the Assembly who weren’t there to see liberation through but instead build their own resumes, the fights with some Senior Staff and the Board to have even basic recognition of the legitimacy of Student Assembly and the power of students and student voice.

I was terrified of letting people down. I’ve been a people-pleaser for as long as I can remember (mostly as a defense mechanism), and while I’ve gotten better at choosing my health over the desires of others, resigning seemed like dropping an enormous ball that I would never recover from. Never again would people see me as someone who was dependable or responsible.

Most important, and most terrifying, was the prospect of all of the work we had done on the Assembly (and some parts of it off the Assembly) going down the drain.

What was the point of everything I had suffered through if I was just gonna walk away, and in doing so possibly risk losing everything we had gained?

Because let’s be clear: no matter what anyone says, or thinks, or feels about me, or Eric, or Kavya (the Vice President in Spring 2021 and my other running mate), we were a badass team. And we gained a lot. And for the sake of future students like myself, I didn’t wanna see all of that be lost.

Of course, in some ways this is a bit egoistic of me, to think that my leaving would end everything. But we were having so much trouble with getting everyone to finish their projects, and there were so many things we had to do on our own because no one offered to help, and I knew that with my leaving, Eric would have the entire weight of the Assembly on his back (just as our predecessor did).

I first told Eric that I wanted to resign a few days before the semester started (I think, my memory is quite fuzzy at this point). We knew that no matter what we were both screwed, because me being President meant that I felt horrible, and him being President meant that he felt horrible, but if I chose my health over his then I’d feel guilty, and if he chose his health over mine then he’d feel guilty (maybe the lesson here is that being President is horrible). Already we were in a constant cycle of yelling at each other to take better care of ourselves, and here we were, in a place where it seemed the only option was to hurt ourselves and/or each other. He made me promise to resign if I felt the job became too much for me, and leaving was the best choice for my own health.

In the weeks leading up to my resignation, every Monday night became harder and harder to sit through. I had lost all of my passion. Eric, myself, and other members of the Assembly who took strong stances against the College were being vilified and lied about left and right by students and administrators alike, and there was hurt and frustration all around. Every week I gave more and more of myself, and I saw Eric give more and more of himself, and I saw others give more and more of themselves, and with absolutely nothing in return. And I don’t mean that I expected or needed thanks in order to continue the work, but that in order to do this work, you need solidarity and commitment to each other and commitment to the cause(s), and I didn’t have that on the Assembly, and I no longer had it in the ways I used to outside of the Assembly.

I found that as it became harder to do the work, the worst part was the lying.

From the moment we started campaigning, I had to be more careful with what I said and did. I had a reputation by that point of being “aggressive” with administration, and there were concerns that I would be unable to work with them (worsened by the fact that the Assembly has historically been seen as the “bridge” between administration and the student body, a vision I do not believe should have ever been the case).

So I had to play nice.

And I lost myself.

Because the reality is, the absolute last thing I want to do is play nice.

To be quite frank, I am enraged.

Hamilton College, like every other higher educational institution in the United States, is a settler-colonial, white supremacist institution. It is deeply invested in and dependent on the sustainment of settler-colonial, patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacy.

It requires the stolen land of the Oneida people to survive. It requires that most of its student body be made up of rich and wealthy students to survive, and given the racial disparities between the wealthy and the working class/poor, it requires most of its student body be made up of white students to survive. It requires that its students graduate into workers and exploiters of the capitalist system, like CEOs of global banks that destabilize entire countries, to survive. It requires accepting just enough students of color that it can claim it’s increasing its “diversity” efforts, but never actually establishing institutional support systems for those students, to survive.

So I have no interest in playing nice. I have no interest in pretending that I am here to collaborate with the College.

Since the moment I stepped onto campus, I have felt the heavy weight of existing in a gendered, sexed, and racialized body. I’ve had to deal with members of the Board telling my community that they’re glad Hamilton won’t be accepting us anymore, with members of Senior Staff accusing me of lying and questioning the validity of my anger when they make harmful decisions, with the President of the College regularly telling me that my office is illegitimate and that I do not represent the student body. My first personal exposure to the true nature of the College happened three months before I even matriculated, when the College decided with no warning, with no explanation, with no apologies or remorse, to terminate Posse Boston. Just two weeks after I got my acceptance letter, there were sophomores and juniors warning me of the ways in which the College suppresses student activists.

I am here to liberate my people. Hamilton College’s Board of Trustees and many members of Senior Staff are against everything that means. To quote a sign at the sexual assault rally from spring 2019, Because Hamilton Doesn’t Care.

It shows in the gaslighting of Posse Boston Scholars when they asked for answers about the rumors that the program was terminated for poor academic performance. It shows in the moving around of Board of Trustee meetings to avoid student protestors and then lying about there being a location change at all. It shows in the treatment of admissions workers and union-busting attempts. It shows in the refusal to divest from South Africa in the 1980s. It shows in Elihu Root telling Black students who were being called the n-word in the 1920s that the College isn’t racist and these were just the acts of a few students so they shouldn’t be that upset. It shows in the fact that never before has an Oneida student actually graduated from Hamilton, or Hamilton-Oneida Academy for that matter.* It shows in the treatment of students with mental health crises, and the responses to suicides on campus, where the College does all it can to avoid liability with little care to long term outcomes for students. It shows in the intentional, misogynistic destruction of Kirkland College by Hamilton College President Martin Carovano, of “Martin’s Way” fame, and the Board.

Every single day since the moment Samuel Kirkland established his “interracial” school, Hamilton College has demonstrated over and over again that it did not care then, it still does not care now, and it will never care in the future.

This is the reality of Hamilton College. This is the reality of higher education.

And never again will I pretend that it isn’t. Never again will I mince my words for the sake of protecting a relationship with an institution and people that I don’t respect, a relationship that I never really wanted in the first place.

I joined the Assembly to mobilize people and make whatever changes I could to the institution to reduce the harm it causes, even if it’s just by a little bit. The current structure of the Assembly does not allow for that, and more importantly, the College has a tight grip on the power of the Assembly and has no intentions of letting go; some students, both current and former, helped give them that grip so they could advance their own careers and networks. Many students have successfully loosened it over the last few semesters, but there is so much more to go. And as I said in my resignation letter, I am not the one that should be doing that work.

Like every political office, being on the Assembly and doing the real work of being in student government (i.e. not being a “bridge”), requires playing nice at times, especially if you were in the office that I was in, always meeting with the President of the College, other members of Senior Staff, and sometimes members of the Board of Trustees. These are people who are directly responsible for decisions that have brought an immense amount of harm to students, especially marginalized ones.

I tried playing nice.

It didn’t work out.

So I’ll leave it to those who feel and are equipped to do so.

I’m gonna go back to causing Hamilton College hell without the strings of a political office.

PS: Asking oppressed peoples to be nice to (or as some might say, “respectful of”) their oppressors is violent. When have oppressors ever shown niceness or respect? As Audre Lorde said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And in my work to liberate myself and others, I will not use the tools and expectations of “respect” that were established to silence and shame the oppressed. They do nothing to actually further the cause.

*I do not agree with some of the language used in this article, specifically the line about the Oneida peoples’ ability to protect their rights, as to me it implies that a lack of education is why they have been unable to do so. However, the contextualization in this article of the fact that no Oneida student has graduated from Hamilton/Hamilton-Oneida was and is important.

Author's Note added 10/25/21: "After this piece was published, the person who wrote the 2019 article referencing Hamilton's relationship with the Oneida Nation reached out to me to apologize and talk about her article and her experiences writing it. We had a very pleasant conversation, and it is clear that she cares about these issues and others. I stand by my original comment that I felt uncomfortable with some of the language, but that article was written nearly 3 years ago, there has clearly been growth since then, and I most certainly don't think she was acting in bad faith. I was very happy to be able to connect with her :)"

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