Sarah Beth Huntley
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the claims of anti-Semitic comments made by supporters of the Bruns/Prowell ticket were false, as accounted by Hannah Bruns.
The events of this past year have been unprecedented, so it is no surprise that Vanderbilt Student Government’s (VSG) 2021 Presidential election was unprecedented as well. Not only did this election present the opportunity for Vanderbilt’s student body to elect the first all-Black and all-female ticket featuring Hannah Bruns and Kayla Prowell, but it also dealt with many serious accusations and allegations, one of which was proven to be true in the end. I had the opportunity to meet with Hannah and Kayla, and later their co-campaign manager, Arianna Njonge, before their big win to unpack their emotions about the week leading up to the election and their hopes for the future.
Throughout their campaign, Hannah and Kayla’s primary focus has been to work towards uplifting the voices of all students, something they feel has not been adequately done by past VSG administrations. “I wanted to run because I felt like VSG kind of dropped the ball on some things this past year,” Hannah said. Kayla echoed these feelings, saying she wanted to do more; “I felt like a lot of tough conversations weren’t being had.” Some of the issues they are most passionate about and hoping to start on immediately once elected include providing free menstrual products in campus restrooms, providing bystander intervention training to all students, getting certain buildings on campus renamed, working to divest from fossil fuels, and more. One of their most emphasized campaign platforms is about community and wellness, two issues that are heavily addressed in some of their first action plans. Kayla also mentions her desire to address the issue of a lack of light on campus at night. “A lot of students have expressed that when they are walking back on campus at night, they don’t feel too safe, they don’t feel too comfortable, and I think that’s something that, at the very least, we should get started on right away to ensure that happens,” she said.
Despite working hard to connect with students and present their platform during campaign week, Hannah and Kayla found that many people were becoming increasingly distracted from both theirs as well as Jordan Gould and Amisha Mittal’s campaign points due to the surfacing of conversations alleging Jordan’s attendance at a “North v. South” themed party hosted by his fraternity. Kayla recalled feeling “blindsided” more than anything throughout the week as more accusations against Jordan continued to come out. Both Kayla and Hannah discussed how, despite these allegations, they tried to remain focused on their own campaign. “At the end of the day, we were focused on telling people our platform and telling people about how we were gonna make Vanderbilt a better place,” Hannah told me. “We didn’t engage with it [the allegations], and it still gave them ammunition.” The “ammunition” she refers to came in the form of false accusations of Anti-Semitism among Hannah and Kayla’s campaign team. These rumors were discovered to be unfounded and based on a proposed bill in the VSG Senate which focuses on reallocating housing on Greek Row, but that was mistakenly thought to be targeting Jewish safe houses as well. Additionally, there were rumors spread detailing false claims of Anti-Semitic comments made by some of their supporters towards Jordan. “I’m not sure how or why this rumor got started, but we want to make it extremely clear: we have never said, nor done, nor held beliefs that were Anti-Semitic - ever,” Hannah said. Kayla also worked to reassure voters, saying, “Hannah and I have run our campaign on uplifting every single voice on campus and we, nor would anyone on our team, would never make any comments like that, hold any sort of beliefs like that.”
After a hectic week of accusations being thrown at both campaigns, Jordan Gould posted an apology video to Instagram on Monday, March 22 in which he admitted to attending the North v. South party and promptly dropped out of the race. While the video garnered a variety of reactions among students, Hannah and Kayla seemed indifferent. Hannah, who did not watch the video, informed me that, “Jordan spoke to Kayla and I last night personally in an attempt to apologize and it didn’t go very well, so I didn’t think that the video would be any different.” Kayla did watch the video but was dismayed by the omission of closed captions and unconvinced of its genuineness. “There is a difference between genuinely learning, and just saying you are learning for the sake of just saying that you learned,” she said. “In order to be educated, there has to be a certain level of humility and willingness to learn, and I just think sometimes it’s really hard to get there.” She went on to say that whether she forgave Jordan or not did not matter and did not excuse his actions. As far as their ongoing relationship with Amisha, the running mate who was unaware of Jordan’s actions until he admitted his deception later on, Hannah and Kayla were unsure of the future holds. They told me their efforts to reach out to her had yielded no response, and that they were, “…not sure where her thoughts are.” Kayla did say, however, that, “Silence does speak very loudly.”
Considering the gaining momentum of the movement against Vanderbilt’s Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Greek Life this past year, as well as the resurfacing of the now-retired tradition of North v. South parties within Sigma Chi fraternity, one of the remaining questions is whether or not, upon election, Hannah and Kayla have plans to work towards legislation that could help dismantle Greek Life. Hannah said she has not considered it. “I know most of the senators are very passionate about that issue, and, you know, VSG as an organization has not taken a stance on Greek Life,” she said, going on to talk about how a conversation about Greek Life’s future would be “a conversation Kayla and I would be happy to facilitate.” Kayla added that a discussion about Greek Life was recently held in the Senate during which many people voiced negative opinions, but acknowledges that this was also a conversation for which many IFC and Panhellenic members were not present. “Not a lot of people want to have a conversation,” Kayla said. She continued, “I think the students are getting tired of a lot of performative activism going on.” The student body does not seem to be alone in this sentiment, however, as Hannah reveals that the issue is one of the many things that inspired her to run. She talks about how, “…a lot of statements [that] were released this summer stating solidarity for Black students on campus...there was no follow up.” She continued, “Sometimes it seems easy to say things, but it’s harder to follow that up with action and I think we saw that play out this week.”
Despite their struggles, Hannah and Kayla still have hope for the future. Kayla talked about how the past year has impacted her in more ways than one, one example being newfound confidence in her ability to achieve aspirations that once seemed impossible. “Just seeing people that look like me holding really, really powerful positions gave me a lot more confidence to try to do something like that here at Vandy.” She spoke about how her identification with queer Black students led to her being a part of a group she feels receives little to no respect on campus, leading her to question whether or not she should run. “I never in a million years could have imagined that I would have the confidence to do something like that and I think just this past year has shaped me so much to say like ‘you can at least try’...‘if you don’t try, then who else is gonna do it?’” She also felt that her own experiences on campus could help her connect to other students and groups on campus whose voices were not being heard, such as the Muslim Student Association with whom she met. “There are groups on campus that people genuinely never speak to,” she told me, emphasizing her and Hannah’s hope for a future more focused on giving voices to the voiceless on campus.
Arianna Njonge, their co-campaign manager, also remains inspired, mainly due to Hannah and Kayla’s resiliency. “I think good things come hard and this is one of them,” she said. “We knew there would be difficulties in breaking glass ceilings.” She went on to quote a powerful message she received from Kayla, who said, “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams,” and continued to praise Hannah and Kayla for, “…doing something larger than ourselves.”
Hannah, Kayla, and Arianna closed by providing some words of encouragement, hope, and promise to everyone. “The events of this past week have shown us more why we need to really discuss issues about equity and inclusion, why we need to have a conversation about safety and wellness on this campus, which are two points in our platform, and we just want to reassure the student body that these are still things we plan on changing at Vanderbilt,” Hannah said. “We need a cultural shift at Vanderbilt, and we look forward to facilitating those conversations.” Kayla once again emphasized how “absolutely deplorable and wholly false” the accusations against their team were. “We know what we stand for, and we know what we believe in, and we don’t have time for nonsense, and we know that’s all those accusations were,” Kayla said. Despite that serious digression, she also reiterated that she remains hopeful and ready for the future, reminding us, “If it was easy, we would have been there by now.” A final statement that I feel best sums up their thoughts, however, is Arianna’s: “It’s still our time. It’s our time. That’s it. I mean, what else could I add?”