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Friday, July 01, 2022 — Houston, TX

Meet your SA president: Anna Margaret Clyburn is here to listen

By Ella Feldman     8/25/20 6:56pm

Every time Anna Margaret Clyburn gets a Slack notification, her computer plays the monotone sound of a British woman saying “hummus.” It’s fitting — Clyburn, a senior at Martel College, is a vegan, and gets very excited about hummus, as well as sweet potatoes and peanut butter. She enjoys eating the latter two together after coating the sweet potatoes in ginger, cayenne pepper, curry powder, cinnamon and salt, then baking them for 30 to 40 minutes at 400 degrees F. 

“Now that the servery is not serving their very reliable sweet potatoes, I'm like, a little devastated,” Clyburn said. “If anyone wants to get together, bake a bunch of sweet potatoes, I’m down.”

As Student Association president, Clyburn said she’s always looking for opportunities to talk to more students — whether that means baking sweet potatoes with them, going on a run together, or just emailing back and forth.

“It truly makes my day if someone reaches out. Even if it's a piece of feedback, even negative feedback, if someone reaches out to me, I'm like, ‘Today is a winning day!’” she said. “When it comes down to it, truly what I derive the most joy from is just getting to connect with others.”

Being SA president also means Clyburn gets a lot of hummus notifications.

“I'll be in admin meetings with important people. And then all of a sudden, it will be like, ‘hummus.’” she laughed. “I’m like, that was not me.”

Clyburn’s diet drove her earliest involvement in the SA. As a freshman she was elected as one of Martel new student representatives, and began to work on sustainability projects and improving vegan and vegetarianism options in the serveries. She worked with Grace Wickerson on those projects and developed a strong friendship with them — a friendship that lasted through Wickerson’s term as SA president last academic year and continues today. Her sophomore year, Clyburn became Martel’s SA senator, and her junior year, she was elected Martel College president. Throughout her time in the SA, Clyburn has worked on projects related to financial accessibility, equity and inclusion and intimate partner violence.

Now, she’s preparing for her senior year and the bulk of her term as president, which lies ahead of her. Succeeding Wickerson, she said, is both exciting and intimidating.

“We have really similar values, and so in many ways I want to retain the focus that [Wickerson] placed on truly understanding and cultivating a stronger culture of care on campus,” Clyburn says. “In terms of where I'd like to depart [from their presidency], I’d really like to take more of a lead from students and allow students to let me know what they'd like from Senate.”

Due to this year’s events — namely, the COVID-19 pandemic and the national movement against anti-Blackness brought on by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s killing of George Floyd — the year Clyburn is preparing for is nothing like the one Wickerson led, or any other year in Rice’s history. Already, the SA Senate has weathered an untraditional summer, and was much more active than it normally is in summer months, according to Clyburn.

"You come together and you bond with each other when things are kind of going crazy — when shit hits the fan, for lack of a better word. And I think I found that as a team, our people have come together,” Clyburn said. “I have not seen a team work as long or as hard as this one has over the summer.”

Much of that work has been related to the pandemic, which led Rice to cancel classes just over one week after Clyburn was confirmed president. In April, the SA Senate passed a resolution asking the Office of Admissions to suspend standardized testing requirements for applicants for Fall 2021 matriculation. The ask was ultimately heeded by the administration. Clyburn and other SA Senate members also advocated for academic accommodations such as a Double A policy, which the Faculty Senate rejected. The Faculty Senate did, however, adopt an optional pass/fail policy for every class, which SA Internal Vice President Kendall Vining told the Thresher was in large part a result of the SA’s work.

According to Clyburn, the SA was also actively in conversation with the administration throughout the summer about what reopening Rice would look like. 

“We've had the opportunity to be in the room for a lot of the conversations about what plans Rice will take to ensure that people are safe,” she said. “Although I'm not in the room when those decisions are being made about whether we will or whether we won't [reopen], I am in the room for those decisions about, you know, if we are in person, or if we are remote, here's how we're going to do this.”

In those conversations, Clyburn said she has tried to be a voice for students who are concerned about what reopening could mean for the health of the Rice community.

“Being both someone who is more risk averse and representing people who are more risk averse, I am really intentional about bringing up the necessity of keeping people safe,” she said. “I'm also really intentional about bringing up, you know, we do have students who cannot return to their homes. We do have students who face really unsafe situations with their families … So whatever we do, we need to be sure that Rice is open to provide support for those students.”

The SA Senate has also spent a good part of the summer in conversation with students, administrators and Students Transforming Rice Into a Violence-free Environment leaders about the Title IX changes that went into effect on August 14, according to Clyburn. Those conversations have largely been led by Izzie Karohl, Will Rice College junior and director of the SA’s Committee for Interpersonal Violence Policy, and Maddy Scannell, Martel College senior and executive director of STRIVE, Clyburn says. In collaboration with STRIVE, the SA Senate has pushed for policies such as a preponderance of evidence standard and amnesty for reporting sexual misconduct, even if the survivor was violating rules such as the Culture of Care agreement. Some of their goals, such as those two policies, were adopted in the new changes. Others were not.

“We're fully committed to continuing to advocate for more compassionate policies for survivors, because this conversation isn't over,” Clyburn says. “These policies aren't perfect, and they'll need to continue to be revised.”

Clyburn hopes the successes the SA Senate saw in their advocacy for Title IX policies and survivors of intimate partner violence can serve as a guide for advocacy on behalf of other students, populations who tend to be marginalized from campus conversations.

“I really do think there's a difference in the way that we advocate across campus between issues,” Clyburn said. “Up until recently, I haven't seen the same kind of advocacy for Black students, Latinx students, our LGBTQ+ students, as I've seen for survivors of intimate partner violence and the way that we have addressed assault on campus.”

This summer, an anonymous group of Black students published a list of demands titled “Tangible Ways to Improve the Black Experience, as Demanded by Black Students: Inaction is Not an Option,” which contained a variety of demands for Rice, including that they investment monetarily in Houston’s Third Ward and remove the Founder’s Memorial, known as Willy’s statue, from the Academic Quad. Clyburn said the list was incredibly beneficial for the SA Senate.

“A lot of times we operate on, ‘Oh, this seems like it’d be helpful!’ But that implies an assumption,” Clyburn said. “This really gave us a very clear list of things, where it's like, this is something that people are saying would be helpful. These are things that we really can work on.”

The list, Clyburn said, contained many demands the SA Senate was already working on, such as formally fighting hateful and discriminatory speech on campus and implementing more racial sensitivity trainings for staff and faculty. It also contained many demands that they hadn’t considered before, Clyburn said, and she is excited to see how they can organize around that work. However, it’s important to her that the anti-racism work the SA Senate engages in this fall prioritizes the voices of Black students.

“I don’t think it should be up to me to decide whether or not something does or doesn’t happen, be that the removal of Willy’s statue or otherwise,” Clyburn said. “Being someone who doesn’t believe in harming others, if Willy’s statue is inflicting harm on Black students — which we’re learning it is — then something must be done. And those being harmed should be the ones directing that change ... As a white person, much of Rice was created to be comfortable for me. At this point, we need to listen to and trust those for whom this campus is not comfortable.”

Concerns over the SA’s lack of active anti-racism have come up before. Back in February, former Rice student and then-Jones College SA Senator Drew Carter cited SA Senate’s lack of action against racism and xenophobia as one of the reasons he withdrew from the race for SA president against Clyburn, leaving her uncontested. That the race for president was uncontested was concerning to many across campus, including the Thresher’s editorial board and Clyburn herself. Just 27.2 percent of students cast a ballot in February, and Clyburn received 91.2 percent of those votes.

“I get the feeling that people are still thinking about the fact that I ran uncontested. I just want people to know that, like, I'm not happy that that happened either,” Clyburn said. “It’s kind of damning. Like people must just not, they’re not caring, or we're doing something wrong.”

However, Clyburn said that shortly after the election, as the SA Senate began to work with the administration to handle COVID-19’s impact on campus, she found surprisingly high engagement from students in the work of the SA.

“If anything comes out of [COVID-19], I hope it’s a reminder to us in this organization that we really do have a voice and that we need to be very intentional about the way that we use it,” Clyburn said. “And then hopefully it's a reminder to students that like, we really, we really need your engagement and we really need you to help guide us.”

Clyburn said she intends to let student voices continue to lead her work on coronavirus policies, Title IX, anti-racism, the November election and anything else that comes up as SA president this academic year. She’ll be balancing the demanding job with her personal endeavors as a history and French studies major with a minor in politics, law and social thought — which this year, include pursuing a history thesis on the intersection of First Amendment case law and revenge pornography.

“I definitely am not someone who feels the need to define every checkpoint, and be the person coming up with each idea, but rather the person that makes those spaces where those ideas can come up and people feel comfortable taking the lead,” Clyburn said. “I would love to just be a strong, excited supporter, and that's really where I feel most comfortable.”

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