Latine, Black student orgs receive disproportionately low JFC funding

During Family Weekend in October, the Spanish and Latin Student Association (SALSA) hosted its annual Noche Latina. Local Latin fusion band Gavas Beat played live music as over 400 community members danced, celebrating their heritage and culture. It was SALSA’s biggest event of the year, and the Joint Funding Committee (JFC) awarded them $5,800 to pay for the band, space, food, decor, and advertisement. But without emergency funds from the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion (CSDI), SALSA president Melina Castillo said there is no way they could have pulled it off.

Requesting emergency funding for Noche Latina has almost become as much of a tradition as the event itself. Castillo, a third-year electrical and computer engineering student, said that SALSA relies heavily on CSDI support and funding for many of its events.

After Noche Latina, SALSA — Carnegie Mellon’s biggest Latine student organization with over 170 active members — had $1,000 budgeted for the rest of the year. To make up for JFC cuts, SALSA occasionally charges for event admission. Castillo said many of the students SALSA serves are those who most need access to free events and resources.

SALSA marketing director Nicole Lopez, a second-year majoring in Hispanic studies and global studies, told The Tartan that SALSA only charges because it needs to. “Sometimes people can’t show up because we’re forced to charge them,” she said, referring to a recent survey SALSA sent. Some members reported that they couldn’t afford admission prices. “I really want to make it more open,” Lopez explained, but added that SALSA can’t “make up the funds out of nowhere.”

SALSA offers Latine students a slice of home where they might not otherwise find it on campus. Executive board members told The Tartan that being part of the org has improved their mental and physical health. When Castillo noticed not just that SALSA’s budget had been cut, but that it was disproportionately lower than other multicultural orgs, she drafted an open letter and petition.

“Only 5 out of 13 [budget] sections were funded to a point that could be considered ‘achievable’ all of which had a primary motive of what we would call ‘diversity promotion’ for CMU,” the letter states. SALSA published it on their Instagram on April 8, and the petition has garnered over 230 signatures.

Undergraduate Senate President and electrical and computer engineering fourth-year Prithu Pareek said that disproportionately low funding for Latine and Black student groups is a systemic problem that will hopefully be solved by November, when budgets are finalized. Pareek invited SALSA to meet with him and other community leaders on Sunday, April 16.

Student Body President Natalie Salazar helped SALSA prepare for the meeting. “As a first-generation, Latina, equitable funding is something that I am deeply passionate about,” Salazar said, adding that she believed student government leaders are willing to come to the table and find solutions.

“Students from SALSA, the Joint Funding Committee and Student Government are meeting together with support from university advisors to explore the concerns raised by SALSA,” dean of students Gina Casalegno wrote to The Tartan. “I appreciate their efforts to do the sometimes difficult but important and constructive work of self-governance.”

Student Body Vice President of Finance (VPF) Clarissa Liang, a fourth-year business administration student who attended Sunday’s meeting, agreed that SALSA is underfunded. But Liang said JFC budget metrics and organizational structure make the situation more nuanced than she feels JFC has been given credit for.

Systemic shortcomings

All 28 JFC advisors are Carnegie Mellon students who are each responsible for nine student orgs. None are Black or Latine. This is the discrepancy that most stands out to student leaders of the Colombian Student Organization.

Colombian Student Organization co-president and treasurer Tatiana Behar Russy, a master’s student in arts and entertainment management, said that a more representative roll call among JFC advisors could help with funding disparities. She doesn’t think anyone is actively trying to underfund certain orgs; she just thinks there may be less appreciation for cultures with which JFC advisors don’t identify. “The most important message here is that it would be great to feel more represented in the JFC committee,” she told The Tartan.

In her two-term tenure as VPF, Liang proposed and created an honorarium for students serving on the JFC. New advisors receive a $500 stipend and returning advisors receive $750. Liang sees this as a gift rather than representative compensation, but hopes it helps make serving on JFC more accessible. “I implemented this because I realized that [serving on JFC] is very skewed towards people who have financial stability, who can afford to put this much time into it,” she told The Tartan.

Once Liang introduced the honorarium, being a JFC advisor became a competitive position. In years prior JFC often took whoever they could get, but this year Liang interviewed 30 applicants vying for 15 available spots. Liang said this increased the caliber of JFC advisors, but not their diversity. She doesn’t believe any students who applied to the position were Black or Latine. As in past years, most applicants hailed from Tepper.

Liang acknowledged that messages between student orgs and their JFC advisor can sometimes get lost in translation. With the high time commitment the position requires, Liang said she felt that students sometimes forget that their JFC advisor is their peer. She explained that when advisors justify cutting a line item with standardized or vague language, they do this because they don’t have time to go through each cut on each org’s budget list and provide a detailed analysis. That’s why Liang encourages organizations to come to appeals, a space where students can advocate for more funding and explain line items’ significance.

“We’re not trying to make this anything personal. We’re just trying to correct a system that is clearly not equitable,” SALSA president Castillo said. “We’ve been asking for this for a long time.”

How JFC decides

A common cause behind budget disparities is limited or slow communication between orgs and their advisors, whose “first job is to be students,” Liang said. She explained that there have been many conversations about changing the structure of JFC so it flows more smoothly. The organization’s bylaws set a 30-person ceiling for JFC advisors, so Liang said she can’t increase the number of advisors and spread out their workload. Liang hopes the honorarium will help to offset this limitation, and sees the standard process as one that is as fair and impartial as possible.

This year the JFC had about $2 million to allocate to 250 student organizations, which collectively requested $4.2 million. When it comes to budget cuts, Liang said JFC factors in many data points. Liang believes the process is as fair as possible, but very complicated.

Advisors decide what to cut based on six specific — and many other — merit criteria. First on the list is campus impact, including items that promote “strengthening CMU’s reputation, diversity and Inclusion [sic], sustainability, etc.” Other factors include historical precedent and fiscal responsibility.

SALSA said that it’s trying to play catch up. The org plans to spend all of its $6,600 budget this year, in addition to receiving emergency funding, and requested $20,480 for FY24. SALSA said this may seem like a leap from one year to the next, but they are starting from a place where they are heavily reliant on CSDI support.

According to the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, their FY24 budget cuts are “consistent with our club’s history with JFC.” While JFC meets its criteria for historical precedence and consistency, this may help perpetuate underfunding.

“While the system is imperfect, we do our best to be fair and impartial,” Liang said. She said JFC is open to hear out org’s requests, pointing to a time when the women’s soccer team told the JFC they were significantly underfunded compared to the men’s team. Liang said the JFC was glad their attention had been brought to the discrepancy and increased the women’s soccer budget accordingly.

Other avenues for change

In addition to JFC advisors, SALSA has asked for more representation within Senate. At a town hall last semester, they proposed establishing a Tartan Scholar senator to be a voice for limited-resourced students. They’ve since expanded this vision to perhaps introduce a Senate advocacy position, like the ones that exist within the Graduate Student Association, that would fulfill the same mission.

Undergraduate Senate Chair Prithu Pareek told The Tartan that Senate has considered reserving positions for underrepresented student groups, but would need to decide which groups received this designation. He added that, “given that there’s so many vacancies on Senate seats, is it necessary to create more seats when the barrier to entry to Senate is very, very low currently?” Across all colleges, Pareek said there were five or six vacancies this year.

Competition isn’t the barrier Castillo is worried about. They were hoping the position could be a paid one, “especially given that Tartan Scholars are specifically socioeconomically disadvantaged.” While JFC advisors and student government executive committee members are compensated, senators are not. Castillo envisions a paid Tartan Scholar seat, making space for a representative that may have otherwise been working a part-time job.

Castillo also wants clearer communication between JFC and student orgs. At last semester’s town hall, Castillo told Liang that SALSA was being underfunded.

Castillo spoke to Liang about SALSA at last semester’s town hall and expected to hear about a follow-up discussion. When SALSA didn’t, Castillo thought JFC had forgotten about her concerns. Castillo had also noted that SALSA was underfunded in November, in this year’s declaration of intent, and discussed her concerns with her JFC advisor during budget proposals in the spring. As Castillo waited for someone to reach out to her, Liang expected SALSA to do the same.

With her oversight of 250 orgs, Liang said she doesn’t have time to investigate every matter she hears about. When Castillo told her about SALSA’s budget disparities, Liang said she told Castillo to send her an email with data and more context. When SALSA’s JFC advisor told her that SALSA said they were being underfunded, Liang told the advisor to tell SALSA to send her an email with data and context.

Neither Liang nor SALSA was satisfied with the game of telephone between them.

“When you are requesting funding and bringing an issue, I will do the work, but you need to provide me context, especially the time during appeals when I have so much going on,” Liang told The Tartan. “I don’t have the time and the bandwidth to really reach out.”

A critical space for students

During her first semester on campus last year, international politics and strategy student Destiny Ogando felt isolated. She wanted a place that celebrated the intersection of her Hispanic and Black identities, but her Tartan Scholar mentor didn’t know of an organization that met that description. Without knowing anyone who shared her background, Ogando found it hard to connect with her peers and professors. “There’s no Dominicans on campus, no Hispanics on campus, very few Afro-Latinos,” she said. “In my classes, no one looked like me, no one sounded like me.” SALSA offered Ogando a space to celebrate her identities and reflect them back to her.

In AY 2016-2017, nine percent of Carnegie Mellon students identified as Hispanic or Latino. According to the Common Data Set, that number has remained relatively steady, bumping to 10 percent in AY 2019-20, back down to nine in AY 2020-21, and currently resting at 11 percent. Five percent of students identify as Black or African-American, up from four percent in AY 2016-2017. In the U.S., 19 percent of people identify as Hispanic and 14 percent identify as Black.

Nicole Lopez felt a big cultural shift when she moved from her hometown in California — where Spanish was spoken and heard often — to Pittsburgh. She wants students to feel welcomed and safe in the city, and to know “it’s okay to speak Spanish and it’s okay to speak with an accent.” She said SALSA is a space that made that happen for her, especially when she started her Carnegie Mellon experience in the college of engineering, where she seldom had class with students who looked like her.

Melina Castillo was a first-year when Carnegie Mellon was virtual for pandemic safety, and she could count the number of friends she had on one hand. She struggled with classes and didn’t know where to find help. “I was just so lonely to the point where I just felt like I had no reason to leave my room anymore.” They missed meals. “I just couldn’t stand going out and feeling such an incredible loneliness,” Castillo said. She found community in SALSA during her second year, but as her social life improved her grades slid. Now that they’ve found more balance in their third-year, they see SALSA as a critical way to empower students and support their wellbeing. Castillo emphasized that this wouldn’t be possible without CSDI resources and funding.

Castillo thinks SALSA’s impact is bigger than what their budget suggests. “This is an experience that doesn’t just affect how much fun you have. It affects your motivation to get up and go to class in the morning.”

Third-year social and decision sciences major Laura Gallegos told The Tartan that students can’t thrive unless they feel included. “We’re all different,” Gallegos said. “That’s what diversity entails: being able to come from all these different identities but also be able to come to your home base and be able to relate to others and see yourself within your own.” For Gallegos, SALSA is that home base.

If the university doesn’t invest in Latine and Black student organizations the way it does for other affinity spaces, Gallegos said, “you can’t expect the students to feel like they belong on this campus. And if they don’t belong on this campus, then how do you expect them to succeed?”