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How DSG presidential candidate Jamal Burns would handle sexually-explicit material in the first-year summer reading and more

Editor's note about the debate: Each candidate had 90 seconds to introduce themselves and give an opening statement. Then, we asked three candidate-specific questions for each candidate, with one minute to respond to each. Any candidate that is mentioned in another candidate’s answer had 30 seconds to respond. Each candidate had two scenario questions with 90 seconds to respond to each. We reserved the right to follow up on candidate’s responses. Candidates had 30 seconds to respond to the follow up question. Then, each candidate had 60 seconds to give a closing statement.

Want more? Read Sean Bissell's debate responses here, Yemi Kolawole's here, Sabriyya Pate's here and Kristina Smith's here.

Opening statement

"I’m Jamal Burns, I’m a first-year from St. Louis, Mo. Growing up, I had a big family, nine siblings, and my mother always said ‘Closed mouths don’t get fed.’ What she meant by this was actually something literal. I come from a low-income background where if you didn’t come to dinner—if you weren’t in the kitchen—you didn’t get anything to eat. But metaphorically, I took this phrase as something that really lit a fire under my soul. Closed mouths don’t get fed. If you see institutional inequities and you are not standing up and speaking your voice, you will not see those inequities fade away. And something I wish to do as a first-year as DSG president is create a tide needed to actually shift these inequities and something I have is time. With three years left in my Duke career, I cannot only see Duke change and metamorphosize but I can see the change that I hope to implement be promoted and flourish for years to come. And something I wish and hope is that eventually all of our mouths get fed."

Candidate-specific questions

The Chronicle: What is one action or decision made by the current DSG President or Senate that you disagree with?

Jamal Burns: With the current structure of DSG, there is nothing particularly I can say that I disagree with and that’s because of how opaque DSG structure is. So, something I wish to promote as DSG president is a more transparent structure and that’s something I think we can do by disrupting the hierarchies that are persistent and existing in DSG. So with my existence as DSG president, being the only person here as a first-year and representing voices that are not only my own, but commonly suppressed and oppressed on this campus, we can work together to create a more transparent and less opaque structure. 

By looking across the board and saying ‘I understand you and I understand our differences and respect those differences,’ that’s the only way we can promote this type of transparency. So, like many Duke students, it’s almost hard to say, ‘Oh, this particular thing is something I disagree with’ because often times, we don’t know. We’re negated, we’re thrown to the dust because it’s only what the hierarchy demands and what the hierarchy controls. That’s something I wish to disassemble. 

TC: In a recent University survey, 40 percent of Duke women reported having experienced sexual assault. How do you plan on address the issue of sexual assault as DSG President?

JB: I think that’s a very important question and safety is one of the biggest things that I want to advocate for. In terms of how we interact with fraternities on this campus, I want to at least create a system in which we have a point system—if a woman on this campus feels that that fraternity or that SLG is not as safe as it possibly can be, we can add points to that SLG or fraternity and then, just basically publicize that information. This [will destigmatize] fraternity life, so it works well for those involved in fraternities because as that destigmatization occurs, you could say, ‘Look, we actually are safe. So all the things that are happening that surround us in saying that we aren’t safe, we are.’ And for those fraternities that are listed as not safe particularly by women on this campus, they can clean up their acts and become a safe space for those women. That’s something that I think is really important and that’s how we can handle that issue. 

TC: Is that something you want DSG to administer?

JB: Yes.

TC: On your website, you say that you want to “promote a more transparent, flat structure of DSG—expelling ideas of existing hierarchies to make everyone’s voices feel heard.” Are you advocating for a large-scale overhaul of the current VP/committee system? What does this “flat structure” look like in practice?

JB: It is definitely an incremental overhaul, first. Because like I mentioned that I have the longevity that other candidates don’t have. Having three years left in my Duke experience, I can not only implement this policy change, but also see it flourish and develop, as I mentioned before. That looks like just opening up the ability to have my existence that as someone who has not been in DSG before, as someone who just doesn’t conform to the typical structure of a DSG candidate, my existence is one that wants to be respected and wants to have others’ voices feel respected as well. It’s the campus sentiment overall. 

As a low-income first generation student on this campus and a student of color on this campus, I know how it feels to have not only feel like your voices is erased, but simultaneously feel as if your voice is challenged every single day on this campus. So what that looks like is letting those student leaders speak with me to represent themselves and understanding we all have different perspectives within the institution, so it’s incremental and existence-worthy. We need to have existence within spaces.


TC: The Senate passes a piece of legislation you think is bad for the University. What actions do you take?

JB: I think the first thing is that my platform is based on the student voices, so if the Senate is passing things that they feel like are important, I have to listen to those voices as well and make sure that other students’ voices are represented. The thing about transparency is that it does not stop at what we know as the student body, but it is inclusive of student bodies that are not inside DSG. So the first thing I would do is just canvas the environment to see how other students feel about the platform and hopefully the Senate would adhere to what the students need to say, and if that is not in accordance, I would advocate for the Senate to either revisit the policy and understand and contextualize student input and transparency within that. Because again transparency is not just,  ‘Oh, I know this is going on,’ but how other students feel about it and how other students are included within it.

TC: Jamal, say this year’s first year reading book contains sexually-explicit material that some find offensive for religious reasons. They ask not ask to not have to participate in discussions about the book during O-week. How do you think you as DSG president should respond?

JB: Well, I think not only as DSG president, but as a citizen of this country, you have the right to freedom of speech. It’s just simply put that if you believe that the book was a religious infringement on you, then you should have the ability to withhold or abstain from conversations. I feel like on the same accord that [Kolawole] just mentioned, if there was an ability that students felt unsafe for any reason, or they felt infringed on their rights for any reason, then they should be allowed to act on their rights, whether or not that book merited in my opinion sexually explicit or religious infringement, is beside the point. What is the point is allowing students to understand their own points. 

Honestly, the first year book is a great way to meet people, but not the only way to meet people. So I know I barely had any conversations about our current first year book, but I enjoyed the reading. I know for a fact that students all across this institution, some of them don’t even read the book, and it’s completely okay. Because conversations are natural and conversations should be natural and not coerced. 

Closing statement

"Ultimately, I didn’t create or devise a nice closing speech. When I decided to run for DSG president, I was met with a lot of apprehension; I was met with a lot of 'You’re a freshman!' That proved the idea that our voices don’t matter as any student in Duke Student Government needs to be expelled! That is something that I hope to promote as I’ve already mentioned. Not only that, but my experiences as someone whose anomalistic characterization on this campus, whose identity is challenged on this campus, who based off every single day, asking 'Why?', that question needs to be eliminated from our vocabulary. We must not ask “Why?”, we must ask, 'How we can utilize our Duke education in order to make us be the most effective institution in the country?' We must ask ourselves, 'How can we create an inclusive environment?' and that is something that I hope to do. Now only do my experiences outside of this institution, as the first youth health ambassador from the city of St. Louis help me to actually making policies change, but listening to your voices will too. Thank you!"


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