Ky Freeman, Indiana University's first openly gay Black student body president, said he leads with compassion because he understands what it feels like to be misunderstood. He emphasized the importance of self-discovery and creating positive change in today's world.
A senior studying law and public policy in the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Freeman was president of the Black Student Union in 2020 before running for student body president in 2021. He said his intersectional identity has been a strength in his leadership role. During a time when students' college experience is affected by a global pandemic and the growing pains of social reform, Freeman and his friends in IU Student Government are talking with their peers about the issues that matter to them.
"We've set up a space where we're approachable," Freeman said. "We're talking about mental health, we're talking about financial well-being, we're talking about campus safety, and all of these different things that are affecting the college experience. We're not just hearing from one demographic; we're (getting input) from an intersectional perspective, and I think my intersectional identity is helping with that."
Student wages and campus safety have been a large portion of the conversation at IU Bloomington this year. At the beginning of the 2022 spring semester, IU Dining workers' wages were increased. Starting pay is now $12 per hour for part-time workers and $15 for full-time workers. Freeman said the IU Student Government will continue to advocate for part-time workers to have the same starting pay as those working full time.
"There's still a little bit more room for us to go," Freeman said. "We're trying to make wages uniform across the board because a student's financial well-being connects to their sense of belonging here at this campus, and we're trying to figure out a way to make sure that they feel like they belong. There are a lot of other factors that go into wages."
Freeman also emphasized the importance of conversations about campus safety and sexual assault, an issue that is being discussed on college campuses across the country. He said some progress is being made, pointing to policy changes that provide more specific location information to students about where assaults take place. Numerous resources, including confidential victim advocates for students who report sexual assault, are provided through the Office for Sexual Violence Prevention and Victim Advocacy.
Freeman and other student government leaders are rolling out a new campaign called "3-4-5," in conjunction with university leaders. Its purpose is to communicate to students that campus safety is a priority and that the leadership at IU cares.
"The campaign is 3-4-5 because 3 is 'I love you,' 4 is 'I care about you,' and 5 is 'how can we help you?'" Freeman said. "We want our community to know, when you see this 3-4-5 number, it's because we're being as safe as we possibly can because we love each other and because we care about each other. Sexual assaults happen on every college campus, so the more you can do to address it, the better for the students."
Freeman said advocating for students is his mission, but it can be challenging with more than 34,000 undergraduate students. Freeman said he takes a holistic approach to finding solutions to the issues that are brought to his attention.
"One thing that I always harp on is if we come up with a solution that is going to fit the majority, essentially what we're going to end up doing is leaving out the little guy," Freeman said. "If we come up with an intersectional solution, we're going to come up with a solution that's holistically helping everyone."
Freeman said his' intersectional identity shows other people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community that they, too, can hold leadership positions and enact change. Being a leader and a trailblazer comes with difficulties as well, he said, especially in a world where anonymity on social media provides a pathway for "trolls" to communicate hateful messages. While much progress has been made, Freeman acknowledged that some people still do not accept him.
"The cool thing about being a pioneer is you break barriers, and that's beautiful because now people behind you could see that there is a way through," he said. "But the sad part is that breaking barriers comes with scars, and you're the one that's stuck having to attend to those and having to get up that next day and talk about these things and keep it moving. I've found a way to survive by loving. My survival is connected to my ability to love and my ability to be vulnerable. That's where I find that strength."
He said the support he receives from peers and university leaders is overwhelmingly louder than any negative messages he receives. He is also bolstered by the mental strength he has built for himself. He is open about his journey to self-discovery and finding the confidence to proudly be himself. He said he is thankful for the mentors at IU who have helped him along the way.
"A lot of my influences are Black women because they're just amazing queens," Freeman said. "I've had all of these amazing Black mentors that have really put me on game, essentially, with how to navigate this landscape. They assured me that I was enough and helped me during the moments where I had imposter syndrome. One of my mentors really encouraged me to figure out what it was that I had to say, and she helped me discover what that voice was."
The struggles that some students face as they discover their own identity, and the confusion they may feel along the way, is something Freeman struggled with himself.
"I came out in 2017," he said. "That period of acceptance is something that takes years sometimes, and (my mentor) really started that journey of saying that 'you don't just have to be one or the other.' I don't just have to be Black, or I don't just have to be gay. I can be both together because that is my existence. That is my presence. Your existence in all of these spaces is fundamentally enough."
He said his understanding of the difficult road to discovery is what connects him to the students he represents. He encourages those who are experiencing similar struggles to slow down, discover what is important to them and then go from there.
"I started off as an education major," Freeman said. "After the first semester of my junior year, I changed to law and public policy because, you know, that was in the year 2020. (I had been) organizing protests and various things, working with the Black Student Union. It clicked for me once I switched to law and public policy because it was like, this is the work that is giving me some sense of purpose. Not to say that teaching and education didn't either, but I think that's at the heart of everything that I would like to do. I think, by nature, I'm an educator."
Freeman's advice to those students who are feeling lost in their journey of self-discovery is to get involved.
"College is all about taking risks," he said. "I locked into this whole notion of you take the risk or you're going to lose the chance. Also, understanding that you have to commit yourself to being an active learner. Some of the things that are going to be the most impactful to your development as a person are going to happen outside of the classroom. Most of my development has happened because I've been in student organizations. I've engaged with people."
Freeman said he has no plans to enter politics in the future, but he is open to possibilities. He does know he will be attending law school. He offered a lighthearted answer to how he would like others to perceive his legacy as the IU Student Government president.
"If they remember me for anything, I just want them to know that I fought social justice in style."
As for the next generation of students who will walk the pathways on Bloomington's campus, Freeman said he hopes they will see more people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community in leadership roles. When he was elected in 2021, it had been 10 years since another Black student body president held the position.
"One thing I always say is that I don't want to be regarded as the first for things, but more as the start of this ongoing trend that we see of more representation in high-achieving positions," Freeman said. "One day, I would love to look up and see that the IU Student Government has its first Black woman president. We still haven't had that yet."