Smile Politely

Leading the charge for change: an interview with Raneem Shamseldin

University of Illinois Student Body President Raneem Shamseldin has been part of a renewed firestorm surrounding the Chief, having taken a stand against his appearance in the U of I homecoming parade, and most recently leading the charge on the Illinois Student Goverment resolution to remove all Chief imagery from University buildings. While this has been a defining issue of her term, and one she’s committed to fighting for, there’s more to her as a student and as a president than just this one issue.

Shamseldin is a Sudanese immigrant, having arrived in the U.S. at the age of two. Her father, an engineer, worked as a cab driver in Chicago for ten years before obtaining a master’s degree from SIU as well as one from the University of Wisconsin after realizing it was harder to get ahead in his field with a foreign degree. Her father hoped she’d attend Wisconsin as well, but after numerous visits with friends at the University of Illinois, she decided this was the place for her.

Smile Politely: I saw somewhere that you knew on quad day of your freshman year that you wanted to be in student government. What was it that drew you in?

Raneem Shamseldin: My last two years in high school I went to a community college called Rock Valley, and I joined their student government association. My friend Spencer was the trustee, and we were both enrolled in the University of Illinois for that fall, so on that day (quad day) we planned everything out and he said “you have to bring your resume to this.” So I went to quad day, I brought my resume…

SP: Wait, so you really went to quad day with your resume?

Shamseldin: Yes I was probably the only one, and it’s kind of lame now that I think of it. But that’s how I got introduced to student government. Then I was the intern to the vice president external, and I served as a Champaign City Council liason my freshman year, and then eventually a (senate) vacancy opened up for the ACES college. I applied for that vacancy and I got it, then I ran for reelection and won.

SP: What do you feel is the most important thing that’s been accomplished in your term as president so far?

Shamseldin: You know, there are a lot of things that we’ve accomplished…or not necessarily accomplished because some things are out of our control…but things that we’ve stood up for that I think are important. Our part in supporting the GEO has been important. I think working on the Chief issue and the fact that the administration has cooperated in our last resolution and actually removed Chief stuff from university buildings, I think our support for Title IX after Betsy DeVos tried to crush it, and our support for undocumented students and making sure they had the legal services they needed. We’ve also formed a sexual assault prevention department. Right now they’re working on some events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month; they’re working on a promo video in attempting to collaborate with the bars to make them more friendly toward survivors.

SP: What do you still hope to accomplish during your time as president?

Shamseldin: There are a lot of things. Being reasonable I think not allowing the Chief portrayer to attend games anymore would be a very big win for me and the communities I represent. Improving resources for survivors is very important to me and having proper trainings for new students when they come to this campus. That includes not just sexual assault training but also cultural and diversity training.

SP: How do you feel the cultural climate is here at the university? Do you feel it’s welcoming to students of all backgrounds or do you feel there’s still work to be done?

Shamseldin: I think there’s always work to be done. I think we’ve come a long way from having the KKK as a club on campus and having blackface events going on at Foellinger. There’s a lot to be done, and I believe it’s possible. We have people of color in high ranked positions from your student trustee to your student body president to your chancellor to your vice chancellor. I think that it’s up to us to make those changes. Unfortunately, we always rely on people of color to make the changes needed that white people never did or never accomplished, but I have faith in our current administration that they will make those changes. In regards to the trainings that I think are necessary; we’re on stolen land, we’re not learning about the natives in our community, and we’ve just had the menorah vandalized for like the billionth time on our own campus. We see things right on the quad like “go home”, “build the wall”, “sharia law doesn’t belong here.” I think a lot of it just comes from ignorance and how people are raised. If you’re only surrounded by people who look like you and have the same beliefs as you then it can be very shocking to enter a different enviroment, though that’s not an excuse for any of these intolerant people, I think it’s a way that the University can work to create a more inclusive environment.

SP: What’s been the most challenging aspect of your position?

Shamseldin: I think there have been two things. One has been online harassment. There are a lot of alumni and even non-alumni who don’t have a lot of nice things to say. There are things that are said online that would never be said to someone’s face. Things ranging from “she deserves to be raped” to “she should be deported” to “why is she alive” or “why does she go here?” I think asking for my impeachment is one of the nicest things that’s been said. The other hard thing is working within the current system we have. We live with so much systematic racism and so much systematic everything. Everything has been built into our university in a way that’s very difficult to tear down. It takes much longer to change things.

SP: Which leads us back to the Chief. It’s obviously taken up a lot of your energy this term. What was the discussion like around the resolution that you put forward?

Shamseldin: I think the conversation varied but it was mostly in favor of the resolution. When it was on the floor not one person spoke up against it. The main issue was potential issues of freedom of speech and expression, but if you ask a lot of administrators or faculty they’ll tell you they never had freedom of speech to begin with. You may have freedom of speech as a private citizen outside of your role, but within your role you’re being paid to do a specific thing.

SP: So do you feel like your meeting with the chancellor was successful?

Shamseldin: I think we progressed a lot, and I think there’s a lot of progress to be made. We only had 40 minutes to speak and it took months to get this meeting. I know he has a busy schedule. As someone who has a similarly busy schedule I understand that sometimes it takes a long time to get to meet with someone. He has requested a follow up meeting, and he’s going to have a separate one with indigenous students which I think is very necessary. And then hopefully our next one will be about timeline and strategy moving forward.

SP: What do you think this looks like moving forward?

Shamseldin: We’ve had mini-wins and mini-wins, but the Chief still goes to all of the events. He was welcome at the homecoming parade and he’s still welcome at every game. And so that’s the largest issue that we are facing and that we hope to break down. We’ve got a game coming up on February 22nd with the “Paint the Hall Chief” advertisement and illegal trademark usage by the Honor the Chief Society, so I plan on doing some organizing for that event and getting people together because it’s disgusting. It’s disgusting that indigenous people are so dehumanized and people can just get away with it. I mean we’re living in 2018, we’ve had a black president, and yet we still have so much racism that’s just a part of our culture and so normalized.

SP: I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of people say “what’s the big deal?” or “why are we focusing so much on this when there are so many other more important things?” Why is this so important?

Shamseldin: There are so many other things to focus on, but we can focus on them too. Fighting about the Chief issue is not just about a logo. It’s about the indigenous people as a whole and how welcome they feel on our campus. I think the Chief is just a “poster child” for the other issues that they face.

SP: So what’s next for you?

Shamseldin: I hope to work for one or two years before applying to law school. We’ll see how it pans out! And then applying to places like the Obama Foundation, the ACLU, NAACP, but unfortunately business pays a little bit more than what my interests are!

SP: Okay, a few fun things. Favorite place to eat on campus.

Shamseldin: I do like Seoul Taco a lot and I love going to Espresso for matchas.

SP: Favorite campus building?

Shamseldin: I’m going to have to go with the Union just because I spend so much time in it. It feels like home and almost every room on the first floor from the Pine Lounge to the Courtyard Cafe, there are so many different environments.

SP: What do you think you’ll miss the most about the University of Illinois?

Shamseldin: I just have such close ties to every part of this campus. I think I’ll miss working with my advisor, Rhonda Kirts. She’s such an amazing woman, a strong woman, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to live my life without an advisor any more! It’s also the people on campus. It’s my friends within student government, it’s my roommates, so many member of my family go here now…after I graduate they’ll still be here and I’ll be so jealous of that. I think that within my time here we’ve come to a new level of allyship and intersectionality that I’m really proud to be a part of. You see so many different minority groups and majority groups working together on the same issues and so working with these people and seeing how much love they have for my people and my race and how much love I have for theirs is awesome.

And that about sums it up. 

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