Representation Matters

An image of Mills Student Body President Dylyn Turner-Keener alongside an image of Vice President Ashlee Davis.Oakland, CA—February 12, 2021

When asked how she came to be elected president of the Associated Students of Mills College, Dylyn Turner-Keener ’20, MPP ’21 is quick to credit her vice president: “It all began with Ashlee.”

It was Ashlee Davis ’22, a new transfer student to Mills who delivered the pep talk that persuaded Turner-Keener to run top-of-ticket with her to become student government leaders at Mills.

New to campus, though wasting no time in setting her aspirations at Mills, Davis reached out to Turner-Keener after seeing a posting in the student forum inviting candidates for the upcoming Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) elections. 

“I called Dylyn, and I said ‘we are going to run for president and vice president; that’s what we’re going to do.’”

Though Davis was new to Mills, she and Turner-Keener had already established a rapport while serving as chapter presidents for their respective colleges at IGNITE National, an organization that builds political leadership among young women, where the two met in 2020. Reminded by Davis of all they had accomplished together at Ignite, chiefly to increase representation for people of color, Turner-Keener signed on: “I specifically wanted to run with Ashlee—I love her; she has the strongest work ethic of anyone I know, and I was not willing to do any of this work if she was not going to be with me.”

Their intentions set, the two launched their ASMC campaign during an unusual election cycle conducted against the backdrop of a global pandemic. Multiple meet-your-candidates Zoom sessions, classroom elevator pitches, and some social media campaigning later, their student colleagues voted them into office. 

Since taking the helm of student government last fall, Turner-Keener and Davis have stewarded a series of student-centered initiatives through ASMC.

“At other institutions, students would be focused on things like campus parking issues, but here at Mills, ASMC is asking how are we supporting our peers: our Black students, our students with children, our students with access needs,” says Devin Carr, director of the Center for Student Leadership, Equity, and Excellence and advisor to the ASMC. “They’re talking about some really relevant issues that other student governments don’t necessarily think about.”

One such initiative included dispensing direct emergency payments to student parents from ASMC funds to cover food and education expenses during the pandemic. The question that animated that initiative was one of access, according to ASMC Vice President Davis: How can we lessen the barrier to higher education? 

“Personally I commend any student that has children at this point in time because you are dedicating time to work, go to school, and to help your child go to school at the same time—that’s a lot. I commend you for that, and here’s an area where we can offer support.”

“I see a tremendous amount of care and thoughtfulness about what it is that student government should be talking about,” says Director Carr, who has not only advised student government bodies at other institutions but also served in student government during his time in college. “When I was in student government, I was a senator, and to be honest with you, the only other person of color there was the first Black president, and unfortunately the student body ensured that not too many people of color got into positions of leadership. At Mills, we have a lot of women who identify as people of color in leadership positions making decisions, and I think it really highlights for me what a difference in people’s identities make in the way they lead.” 

Representation is foremost in the minds of both President Turner-Keener and Vice President Davis. Both Black women, and both inspired by the leadership of the Black women in their lives, they are keenly attuned to the need for diverse representation in leadership and at the decision making table in every sphere of private and public life. Elected to student government on the heels of what Davis describes as “back-to-back-to-back brutality by the police,” the tenures of Turner-Keener and Davis have been deeply informed by the cultural moment in which they govern. 

“I don’t want to say that it [the Black Lives Matter movement] was the only motivation for running, but it was the kickstart,” adds Turner-Keener, who felt a sense of urgency in the wake of the protest-filled summer of 2020. “Our community is under attack. Someone needs to get in a position of power to fix these things.” 

“I’ve always looked at every opportunity I got as a matter of representation,” says Davis. “I was around Black women in power growing up, trying to uplift the community and serve the community and be a beacon of hope. I want to be that representation. I want people to see me as someone at the table to fight for everyone in this community.”

With Turner-Keener and Davis at the helm of ASMC at Mills, the mental and emotional health and academic needs of Black students on campus surged to the top of the student government agenda with a project the two spearheaded alongside fellow student Jessica Hiarston ’22, MFA ’23: The Black Wellness Project. Presented by ASMC to Mills President, Provost, and others in College leadership, the Black Wellness Project is a triple-tiered proposal outlining initiatives and measures to support the wellbeing and academic success of Black students at Mills. 

Increasing direct access to student government representatives as well as diversifying representation of the ASMC leadership itself continue to be chief priorities for Turner-Keener and Davis. During full board meetings of the ASMC, open forums are held to invite people from across campus to highlight events, present an issue, or pitch a collaborative approach to supporting more of the student body. It is a space that ASMC holds open to the student body to create a more direct connection for students to make their voices heard. This same principle is behind ASMC’s current plan to re-draft the governing body’s Constitution with an eye toward centering inclusivity as its guiding mission. 

“From the outside-in, we always focus on the progressive and social justice bonafides of Mills,” says Vice President Davis, “but if our documentation does not reflect that then we’re not reflecting what we’re attempting to be, and we can’t maneuver the way that we want to if we don’t have everyone included and everyone feels like they have a shot to run for ASMC, and that you can maneuver when you’re there.”

“Student government is showing students that leadership is possible and leadership is possible in ways they may not have realized were possible,” says Carr, ASMC advisor. “Leadership is more than overseeing people—it is certainly about how we are caring for people in community with us. We talk about leadership for social change, or servant leadership, I think ASMC is really the epitome of that. It is super inspiring to see them lead in the way that they lead.”

About Mills College
Located in Oakland, California, Mills is a nationally renowned independent liberal arts college for women and gender nonbinary students, with graduate programs for all genders. Ranked one of the top-tier regional universities in the West by U.S. News & World Report, Mills is also recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the Best 386 Colleges in the nation. As one of the most diverse liberal arts colleges in the country, Mills has a strong record of academic success with first-generation students, students of color, Latinx students, LGBTQ+ students, and other underrepresented students. The Mills experience is distinguished by small, interactive classes, one-on-one attention from exceptional faculty, a culture of creative experimentation, and cutting-edge interdisciplinary learning opportunities which empower students to make a statement in their careers and communities.