CSG Candidate Profile: MomentUM
By Hannah Harshe
I am convinced that momentUM executive candidates A.J. Ashman and Charlie Bingham know everybody at the University of Michigan.
I am sitting at a table at the Starbucks in the Michigan Union when I see them approaching for our interview, only to have them disappear out of my line of sight for a moment, chatting with someone who is studying around the corner. During our interview, we are interrupted by a student who high-fives Bingham and says something about catching up soon. And as soon as we finish up, Ashman is in line at Starbucks, having a conversation with the barista.
Despite this, Ashman, momentUM’s presidential candidate, is hopeful that this year’s Central Student Government election will not be a popularity contest. “We can either have a student government that is committed to service and works on the issues that influence students and is committed to building momentum for large heavy lifts on policy issues,” he says, “or we can have the student government we’ve had in years past that is a lot more popularity contest based and is the one that frustrates students, I think, the most.”
This attitude is characteristic of momentUM’s campaign. Ashman and Bingham are focused on the issues. They’re eager to talk about their policy goals. They’re not here to beat around the bush or to use CSG as a chance for them to “embrace the Michigan experience.” They’re passionate about this university, and they want to make real, sustainable change on campus.
“I think there’s a person for every moment,” Ashman explains. “And I think, right now, our party is right for this moment on our campus.”
When Ashman speaks, it’s easy to forget you’re talking to a fellow student at this university. His voice is deep and self-assured, and each word thuds out of his mouth and onto the table at Starbucks. I’m struck by how much he knows about the issues we discuss, and I feel as though I’m interviewing a candidate for the presidency of the United States, not a candidate for the presidency of our student government. Perhaps someday Ashman will run for our country’s president, and based solely on work ethic and dedication to service, I can imagine it.
Two years ago, Ashman served as senior policy advisor for then CSG President David Schafer, and this past year he was Chief of Staff for CSG Vice President Nadine Jawad. This year, he’s ready to impact campus by serving as President himself.
“I was thinking, ‘What issues are important to me that you need to be the CSG President to work on?’ Because there are a lot of issues on this campus that a representative who really is passionate could work on,” he says. “What are the issues that are big enough that the president needs to work on them, and how do I tell a story about that? I believe deeply in service and commitment, and I wanted to serve the student body. That’s why I’ve done student government all these years. And so I thought, what gives me the best chance to serve and work on issues that I think are important, that could make students lives better, and that I think I’m uniquely equipped to work on?”
Bingham, momentUM’s vice presidential candidate, serves as a perfect complement to Ashman. He’s equally passionate, but his demeanor is a bit quieter and more casual. This past year, he started out in CSG with the Campus Climate Commission, and served as racial equity subchair. During midterm elections, he gained a seat as an LSA representative.
“We’re very service-oriented people. I think it’s just an intrinsic part of who we are,” Bingham explains. “When AJ asked me to run, it was a call to action for the community and for CSG, shifting that paradigm towards how we can be of the community and of the student body. I think that’s what we aim for as a campaign, as a party, and as a message.”
When Ashman arrived on campus as a freshman, like many students, he didn’t immediately feel accepted. “I came in the son of a single mom from Columbia, Maryland. It’s a pretty affluent city, but we didn’t have a whole lot growing up. My mom gave us everything we had, but we were poor. My sister and I knew we were poor. So it was different adjusting here to a school that is noticeably not a lot of those things...There were times that I questioned: Do I belong here? Is this the right major for me? What am I doing here? What’s my purpose?”
This experience is what motivates Ashman in his roles on CSG. “I was lucky because I ended up falling in love with the University of Michigan because of CSG and the work I do on campus, but for some people, that’s all four years here,” he says. “I know people who leave this campus and go, ‘I hated it here, I can’t wait to get out of this place.’ I don’t want anyone to leave here feeling that way. We tell kids about the Michigan difference and we sell them on that. When they come here, we’ve got to deliver on that. We’ve got to make sure kids leave here and go out, as I always say, preaching the gospel of Michigan. We’re the leaders and best, and we’ve got to make sure we go out there and lead.”
Bingham has an equally strong desire to create change on campus: “Our mindset as a campaign is that it’s about culture shift and shifting paradigms...It’s the connection that you make, the communities that you build, the stories that you tell. And I think that’s what our campaign and our party is trying to capture, that our stories should translate into policy. Policies that help the overall student body.”
When it comes to policy, momentUM is certainly not lacking in tangible ideas. One major issue that Ashman is eager to tackle is housing accessibility and affordability.
“It’s troubling when I see statistics that say that Ann Arbor is the eighth most segregated mid-sized city in America. That’s not acceptable. We’ve got to be willing to say to students, ‘No, we won’t stand for that. We’re gonna do things differently around here to make sure that’s not the case,’” he explains. “It’s a problem when you can draw four or five-sided shape around a geographic area on campus and it would only have one race living it. That’s a problem. That’s something we can do in Ann Arbor with populations here.”
Ashman has no trouble listing the concrete policy ideas he has in mind to change this statistic. He mentions the height limit in downtown Ann Arbor, getting more high-rises built, and bringing back the Ann Arbor Tenants Union.
“Students are very much a viable part of the community here and we should be proud of that in Ann Arbor,” he says. “We are a Midwest college town. We should proud of that heritage. So for me, it’s very important that we make sure students can live in Ann Arbor and get the experience of the #1 rated city of America to live in. That’s important, and we need to make sure that happens for students.”
The passion that Ashman has for increasing housing accessibility stems from his deeper-rooted passion for justice, which is a passion that drives most of his campaign.
“I view most things through the lens of ‘is this just or not,’ and the town as segregated as this, with the economic segregation that ends up becoming racial segregation, there’s no justice there,” he says. “We’ve got to bring back a sense of justice.”
On a similar note, Ashman is particularly passionate about textbook affordability. In fact, his biggest dream as CSG President would be to implement an electronic textbook program, like IU eTexts at Indiana University, that allows students to pay just a lab fee in order to receive a heavily discounted textbook.
“I’ve worked on textbook affordability for two years now,” he says. “We know there are students on this campus who have to forego buying a book because of the cost, knowing full well that it’s going to affect their academic performance. For me, again, that gets back to the issue of justice. Where is the justice in accepting a student here and saying, ‘okay, you get to go to Michigan and take great classes’ and then not supporting them in buying the books to do well in that class?”
As he delves further into this topic, Ashman demonstrates an acute knowledge on the subject. “Textbook prices have risen faster than the price of housing, than inflation, than just about everything, except I wanna say healthcare services. Not healthcare devices, just healthcare services. Faster than anything else. Faster than college tuition. And we don’t account for that a lot of times,” he says. “The university just wants to say ‘Go Blue Guarantee.’ A lot of schools across the country are coming up with plans to get students below a certain income level free tuition. That’s great, but that doesn’t account for the cost of housing and doesn’t account for the cost of books.”
He notes that it took Indiana University several years to implement its eText program and that it’s not realistic for U of M to expect one in the coming year or so. However, if I can imagine anyone understanding the program enough to make it happen in Michigan within the year, it’s A.J. Ashman.
If Ashman is focused on concrete policy initiatives, Bingham is more passionate about campus culture. When he arrived on campus as a freshman, he found it difficult to find his place.
“I was just floating around freshman year,” he says. “I think I went to a couple BSU meetings, but mostly I was just focused on studies. It was hard because I was a lower-income student coming from Flint, and all the resources weren’t there for me. I was just trying to buckle down on academics.”
In order to ensure that incoming freshmen don’t feel similarly lost, he wants to expand programs that focus on first year experience, such as cohort-based programs and residential learning communities. He also wants to improve campus culture as a whole, which, to him, means representation first and foremost.
“That’s cross-cutting, too,” he explains. “With faculty and students. So, like, for the Ethnic Studies Program, getting more research facilities, incorporating more faculty, attracting more students from those backgrounds to see that it’s their niche interest. Being Michigan and being the leaders and best, we deserve more options.”
This desire is personal for Bingham, who says he has experienced being the only black student in a large lecture hall, and wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else.
In order to make campus truly representative, student involvement needs to be accessible to students of every racial and socioeconomic identity. To increase this accessibility, Ashman has plans to streamline the Student Organization Funding Commission (SOFC) so that it resembles “a common app, but for student org funding.”
“I have the pleasure of overseeing SOFC this year,” he says. “A lot of students here don’t know how to get SOFC. Some of the application is kind of lengthy, and they mostly only do reimbursement funding. We just launched advanced funding last year, and that’s still kind of a new process, so it’s hard to figure out how to navigate that. [I hope to] make it a more streamlined process that works with other schools. Students are all paying the $9.19 student fee, and they should be getting something back out of that.”
A big part of Ashman’s plan involves structural redesign of SOFC and outreach to different areas of campus. “I’d like to have us budget out a certain portion of SOFC’s money into some kind of a joint funding account where we work with the small school student governments,” he says. “We want to make sure the money is getting spent, so we should centralize funding. Honestly, I would say we need more student org funding in general, and we should make sure we’re making that process as easy as possible from an application standpoint, but also making sure we’re looking at we want —- to be funding quality organizations that are doing quality work on campus. The university gets a big benefit from the student org work that happens, so we’ve got to make sure it’s supporting our student orgs, but in that smart sustainable way that is looking at the growth of the university in the long term as well.”
Before ending the interview, I give Ashman and Bingham the opportunity to say one last thing that they want voters to know about them.
In the same confident, thoughtful voice that has carried him through the interview, Ashman answers, “Charlie and I, we’ve been doing this campaign because we can be honest...We’ve got a very concrete idea of why we’re doing things, why we’re doing what we’re doing, why the issue that we’re talking about is important, and it’s not just to say we’re just rehashing what we’ve seen in our two, three years on campus. This is what we believe, and we believe it deeply, and are willing to talk to anyone and everyone about it.”
Bingham adds, “Our campaign is all about balance. Policy-oriented, but, at the same time, a good level of compassion and heart space. We’re really authentic about this, and we want our voices heard and that comes along with the inherent policy. Like AJ has said, it’s all about using your heart, but also using your heart to make the right policies.”
After I thank Ashman and Bingham, pack up my backpack, and walk out the front door of the Union into the brisk March air, I remind myself one last time that I just interviewed two candidates for the executive positions on student government, and not two candidates for the executive positions on the United States government.