On Transcending the Letterhead

Last spring, when I first learned I would be leading Model United Nations (UN) for the upcoming year, I should have been elated. I should have squealed and jumped up with glee, running to my best friends’ rooms to celebrate. Instead, however, I sat silently on my bed — bewildered, sad and confused. Because several of the people that I had been doing Model UN with — some since the very first day of Junior year — failed to make that prized “letterhead.” Because despite their time, their dedication and their contributions to the club, they no longer had a place in the club itself. After all, board members had the sole rights to club planning and administration — my other friends were cast aside.

Rather than marking the start of an exciting and collaborative year for Model UN, the Senior Board letterhead instead represented to me the pain and injustice of unwarranted downsizing.

The toxic effects of an exclusive board, however, begin from the moment a student joins a club. Senior Board members are the first people new students see, standing oh-so-valiantly at the front of the room. Upper Associates stand dutifully to the side. Lowers vie for the board’s attention. And new Juniors buzz, excited and maybe a little anxious, wondering who to look up to. In general, Uppers and Seniors who are not part of the board are nowhere to be seen.

In years past, Model UN epitomized a vicious turnover cycle. Midway through the year, board members of the club would far outnumber actual members, most of whom were Lowers hoping for a spot on the Associate Board. Board applications were released mid-spring. The Lowers who did not make the cut, even after tremendous dedication to the club for two years, were rarely seen again. The kids who did make the cut, now Associates in title, stayed involved for the remainder of the year — knowing full well that their position on the Senior Board was contingent on their involvement throughout the year. The Senior Board is revealed, some Associates become Senior Board members, and the cycle begins again.

Not all clubs have a problem this severe, but a majority of clubs on campus resemble this pattern to some degree. Put simply, clubs at Andover are mostly comprised of board members and people who want to be on the board.

The harmful nature of this system seems obvious, yet no one blinks an eye. The more I began to think about it, the more my sadness began to turn into anger. Who are we to decide who gets to participate in a club, or at what level they can get involved? Who are we to dismiss others’ passions? Who are we to decide whose efforts have been the most valuable? We’re breeding competition in yet another sphere of life, causing ridiculous stress and anxiety, souring students’ experiences for the sake of a board comprised of over-eager, overly-confident 16 year-olds. Why?

Perhaps it’s because we want another thing to slap on our college resumés, or perhaps it’s because we all desperately seek the validation and respect that we believe comes with leadership positions. Some people argue that boards are necessary to the functioning of a club. But in the large majority of cases, this isn’t true. Club members who are not on the board are perfectly able to take on responsibility. The only difference between an Associate and a typical club member is a title on paper, so why need the title at all? We need to remember why we initially joined the clubs we did: because we loved the activity. Why can’t we make clubs about passion again?

With this in mind, I, along with other members of Model UN, decided to eliminate our club’s Associate Board. It was no easy task: applications had already been sent out, interviews had already been conducted, the language of “boards” and “associates” had been ingrained into every step along the way. My goal was — and is — to allow any member of the club to step up and take on leadership if they are motivated to, without creating unnecessary hierarchies or barriers to participation.

Putting such a theory into action is much more difficult. It is difficult to persuade people to support an idea with benefits so abstract and seemingly impossible to achieve.

I wish I could say my endeavors have been a total success story, that Model UN has been revolutionized, and that the cut-throat culture has transformed into a tight-knit community where all are welcomed and where everyone’s input is valued. But I would be lying because change takes time and more than one turnover to take hold.

But with every stumble and dispute, I remain firmly behind my decisions. Incorporating others into the administrative aspects of our clubs and organization does not reduce our own power. On the contrary, it proves we have the power to feel secure enough to open our arms to others, their passion and their ideas. Being a leader is not about having some title bestowed by the class above you, attending board meetings or about bossing younger students around, just as a club is not about exclusivity and ladder-climbing.

We cannot just passively stand by and endorse a club system that equates titles and board positions with value and power. We talk about “inclusion,” “empathy” and “equity” and throw around words that we know others like to hear. But how can we say “inclusion” if the concept of a board is exclusive by nature? How can we say “empathy” if not everyone’s opinions are being considered? How can we say “equity” if not everyone has an equal voice? Until our actions reflect these values, our words prove to be little more than hollow.