Before coronavirus closed College of the Canyons, board member Edel Alonso wrote a letter to board President Michele Jenkins requesting the board discuss what to do in the face of COVID-19. Jenkins refused, so Alonso addressed the board directly, pointing out that there is no policy for how to place an item on the agenda and recommending that any one board member could make such requests.
The board did nothing about it, but sitting in the room that night was Associated Student Government President Sebastian Cazares. He had been thinking about how the students had health concerns that the board – elected trustees charged with acting in the best interests of everyone connected to the school – was not addressing.
Although just 19, he had toyed with the idea of running for the board. This settled it.
Saying there needs to be a student voice on the board, Cazares – who recently graduated from the school – announced he’s running for the seat currently occupied by Steve Zimmer.
Cazares, who turns 20 on June 28, often attended meetings and sometimes filled in when student representative Basil Aranda couldn’t attend. He said the board needs to do a better job of fighting for students, ask more questions and be more transparent, comments that echo those of Jerry Danielsen, who is running against Jenkins.
“I would do more talking and asking more questions than the elected members,” he said. “I don’t think that people understand the potential the Board of Trustees can do.”
He saw the potential when he attended a Sacramento conference in January and saw other community college districts’ trustees advocate for such things as affordable housing and student-relief funds. Some even said they favored more student representation.
Then he looked at the COC board and didn’t see anything like that.
“Multiple times, I felt I was the only one talking about the issues,” he said.
Two issues that are close to him are student homelessness and student hunger. On his campaign website, he mentions Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s 2019 report that said 19% of California community college students have endured homelessness in the past year, 60% have faced housing insecurity and half have experienced hunger in the last year.
He also mentions the 2018 Basic Needs Survey from the state Chancellor’s Office that reported almost 57% of students have had direct contact with students experiencing basic-needs insecurity daily or multiple times a week. “Addressing basic needs issues should continue to be a priority, and we need to unequivocally support the Basic Needs Center on both campuses and efforts to provide emergency fund access to students,” he wrote. “I believe that trustees should also be advocates for affordable housing in the community and for collaborative solutions to this multifaceted problem.”
Cazares has been endorsed by board members Edel Alonso and Joan MacGregor as well as the Faculty Association, which has launched a “Flip the Board” campaign in an attempt to change the board leadership.
“The faculty were impressed that Sebastian has a keen awareness of the problems on campus,” Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, COCFA political action committee chair, said on the COCFA website. “He noted the top-down approach of the administration, who often tries to placate the faculty, staff, and students rather than allow them to truly participate in the decision making on campus. This resonated with the faculty.”
Alonso said Cazares is “an intelligent, thoughtful leader. He did a good job representing students when he attended board meetings. He was not afraid to go to the podium and address board members in a respectful way, which I appreciated. It’ll be interesting to have someone on the board so close to the students.”
That’s if he can win. Zimmer was appointed in 2013 and ran unopposed in 2016. Cazares, who will attend UCLA in the fall, is excited at the prospects.
“The student government president running sends a message,” he said. “Now, more than ever, we need a voice for students. It’s not a radical demand. All we want is a balanced voice on our school board. It’s time to listen to us. All of us are better if we all have a seat at the table.”