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Horse of a Different Color (Trust and Student Government)

June 30, 2011
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'the way it should be' by tech no logic via Flickr.com

Every horse is different.  Even when they are the same color, the same age, the same breed, they are different.  They are like people, with their own little personality quirks and funny ideas.  The trick to riding a new horse is learning how to learn about each other as quickly as possible.  Adaptability and flexibility are important.  Even more important than knowing the horse, is knowing yourself.  The horse isn’t the only one who has been trained through years of experience to react in certain ways to certain stimuli.  It isn’t the only one with quirks, ideas, and predelictions.

When you do switch from one horse to another, you can’t always apply the same knowledge.  Some of it works, of course, because horses are trained in similar ways, but they are still completely different horses.  Over time, we also change, becoming different people, hopefully better people, but not always.  Noticing these changes between ourselves and the horses we ride requires paying attention, which is ever so much harder than it sounds.  That’s where the horse comes in, because when you’re not paying attention, not listening, watching, and communicating, that’s when you get thrown.

If you manage to stay on the horse, all of this mixes together into a path.  At times we choose it, at times the horse does, and at times it is dictated by the terrain.  Knowing where you’ve been is almost as important as knowing where you’re going because it tells you what you can handle, what the horse can handle, and how each of you will react.  The best of all circumstances is when you both react together, not as leader and follower, but as two intelligent individuals working together to combine all their strengths and mitigate all their weaknesses.  That’s when you make progress on the path. 

For an experienced horse and rider, this is common.  But in the rest of life, it is rare.  More often there will be mixed signals, missed cues, fits and starts, and sometimes straight up conflict.  These are things all riders are familiar with because it is where we all start out.  Sometimes we think we’ll never get passed the hard bits, the bruises and saddle sores and flattened ears.  Then we see another pair trot by, perfectly in tune and smooth as silk.  So we keep trying.

Student government is like this.  Hell, working with people is like this.  But student government in particular is a place where two organizations try to make it down one path together.  Indeed, we have to follow the one path, that of the institution to which we all belong.  The administration has its ideas about how to do so and the student government has theirs, but it’s only ever one path. 

As with horse and rider, there are power differentials involved, both real and perceived.  That doesn’t mean one is in charge.  When you really think about it, you can’t make a thousand-pound animal do anything.  The way to get it to move along the path is to create trust between you.  That trust cannot simply be asked for, it must be earned.  And it must be earned by both parties.  The rider must trust the horse just as much as the horse trusts the rider.  Without this, both are bound to get hurt.  Every time one rides a different horse, this trust must be earned again.  Some horses will trust easily because they have worked with good riders in the past (and some riders because they have worked with good horses), but others will hardly trust at all, which makes the rider nervous, an anxiety that only further exacerbates the horse.

'stubborn horse' by rakhal at trekearth.com

When you think about it, a few dozen (or a few hundred) faculty and staff can’t make a few hundred (or a few thousand) students do anything, as students have proven over and over again.  (Not to say that students are horses, of course.  All analogies are imperfect.)  The students are here because they trust the faculty and staff to help them down the path.  Yet that trust most also be earned.  And earned again with each and every student who walks through the door.  It cannot be expected as a matter of course.

This is where student government comes in.  It serves as a bridge between the administration and the student body.  Through the interaction and communication between the student government and the administration, trust can be built and rebuilt.  Beyond all the little things, the events, the ammenities, the opportunities that student governments provide, this is it, fundamentally what student government is about – trust.

The administration has to trust the student government to have wisdom and knowledge they lack.  After all, it’s our feet on the path.  We can feel and see things they simply cannot from their higher perch.  It is our legs that scratched by thorns and our feet bruised by stones.  The student government also has to trust the administration to be able to see farther ahead than we can, to know more about the path as the ones who have traveled it before.

Sometimes this trust gets broken, or it was never really built at all.  There is only one way to fix that – communication.  Riders talk to their horses, they touch them, and tell them where to go and what to do.  But they also listen, feel for a hitch in the gate, look for signs of distress.  With student government and the administration, it must always be two-way, with both parties paying attention to the other, speaking to the other, listening to the other.  Otherwise someone is going to get thrown.  But unlike in the metaphor, chances are it won’t be the guy up top.  Chances are the one who gets hurt will be the one at the bottom of the totem pole, the student.

Because students are the most vulnerable when the relationship with the faculty and staff suffers from distrust and poor communication, student government exists.  It levels the playing field and gives students mechanisms for redress.  It is powerful.

In order to be powerful we have to act powerful, sometimes like a thousand-pound animal, but since people are not horses, the only way we can do this is by acting together.  Student government brings people together.  Every individual has a different amount of power to act and affect the world around him or her, but we all also share another power – the power to resist, the power to say no. 

A rider will tell you that when a horse stops walking, there’s no way to get it going again unless it truly wants to.  That won’t happen without some form of trust.  A whole bushel of carrots and a bundle of sticks won’t do the trick if the horse doesn’t trust the person telling it that really is a path beneath its feet and not a bottomless chasm.  Self-protection is a powerful instict.  But if there is trust, communication, and a willingness to work together, even bottomless chasms can be crossed. 

Likewise, when students feel their livelihood (and sanity) threatened, they won’t keep going.  They’ll ditch, drop out, transfer.  A university without trust bleeds like an open wound.

As a student government we work to establish a level of communication on which trust can be built.  We work to close the wounds of distrust caused by the abuse of power.  We work to earn the trust of the administration so we can in turn trust them.  When we succeed, students come and stay and graduate and return as involved alumni.  The institution moves forward together.  This is the most fundamental role a student government can, should, and must play – fostering trust built on communication and a willingness to work together.

This is brought home to me now as our student government struggles with exactly these issues – a lack of trust due to poor or no communication and an unwillingness to truly work together.  Instead of genuine collaboration, we receive placating words and distressing actions.  Instead of trust being earned, trust is demanded.  Instead of dialogue, there is monologue and silence.  Worse even, we don’t know where we’ve been.  There is no history here.  The univeristy is young and the student government only taking its first steps.  Because we don’t know where we’ve been (we haven’t been there!), we don’t know how to handle where we’re going.  In a situation like this we need trust all the more and yet we have less!

This is a horse of a different color.  Having served in a student government before where trust and communication existed, I can tell you, we have here is not it.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be built, of course, or rebuilt.  Disagreement alone is not enough to prevent it.  Trust can exist (in fact, is all the more important) where there is disagreement.  It’s what keeps us all on the same path even when we inevitably disagree on where that path should or is going. 

What we need is communication, that key missing ingredient, genuine, two-way, deep, on-going communication.  We will keep working towards that and towards resetablishing a genuince sense of trust here at University of the West until the day we’re troting along together, smooth as silk.  (Then we’ll work harder.)

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