We had a great time speaking with Elliot Spillers, former student body president at the University of Alabama. Elliot was the first black student leader elected to the role since 1976, as well as the first student leader to win the title outside of the Machine coalition since 1986. Read on to learn about his leadership philosophy and what he’s up to now after his presidency!
How did your experience as student body president at Alabama shape you as a person and as a leader?
My time at Alabama as SGA President was an incredible experience that will forever define that part of my life. It taught me the importance of empathy as a leader as well as how to manage people, how to be an effective follower, as well as how to be an inspiring leader. For many SGA Presidents, they will forever and always be unraveling parts of their time as SGA Presidents throughout their lives — the same can be said for me. I just began to process the impact that the experience had on my life. For now, I would say it taught me empathy and how to be a servant leader.
When you ran you faced a tough race, what motivated to take on the Machine and to run for student body president?
Growing up, I’ve always valued cultures, I’ve always valued people and developing authentic relationships with people. When I went to the University of Alabama and discovered that the university’s student population was not an inclusive space and I began to feel uncomfortable as a person, as a leader and I wanted to change it and fix it. One thing a lot of people say about me is that I like to fix everything.
I think it was talking to students who felt that the university was not welcoming to them because of their gender, sexual orientation, religion. The university wasn’t a place that allowed them to be their true, authentic selves. Hearing those stories and having that same experience at one point in my university career, I had to ask myself, “If not now, then when? If not me, then who?” so that’s when I decided to start challenging The Machine and start challenging the university.
My race wasn’t solely about challenging The Machine, but rather challenging the institution and the 100+ year history of “tradition” masked as exclusive politics and old southern politics. There were people who were on my team because it took a village from all walks of life — be it Machine, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, or transgender, these were the people and the environment that I wanted to foster. It took three years, but we as a collective student body voted for change and I’m thankful, fortunate, humbled and blessed to have had that village at my time at University of Alabama. It’s definitely an experience that changed my life but also one that I’m still trying to process through and I’ll always be processing through.
You were the first black student body president elected in multiple decades. Why do you think representation matters in elected office?
Representation is so important because it’s important that around the table, you have different perspectives [...] your life experiences and everyone’s experience is not the same and as a leader, it’s important to recognize that fact, it’s important to recognize the narrative we all have in the larger context of our society. As a black man, it’s important to me that I have somebody who looks like me in elected office because what that does for not just my own protection, my own psyche, but it shows younger black boys that you, too, can fit in this position and that you can challenge status quo, that you can be anything and everything you choose to be in society same goes for the little black girls [it’s important] that we have black women in power and have black women represented fairly and equally in positions of power across the board. Traditionally, we have not seen fair representation across the board and our generation should be the one to want to fight to have representation of all walks of life around the table, making the decisions that ultimately impact and influence and affect thousands or millions of people.
What were your expectations going into office? What successes or challenges surprised you about serving as student body president?
I’m still processing, but reflecting back, I’m seeing that I went into running for office with the hope of unifying our student population, with the hope of enacting change, combatting sexual assault, eradicating the stigma around mental illness and really trying to effectively and intentionally promote adequate representation of people of color and all walks of life into SGA. Traditionally at the University of Alabama, there wasn’t a representation of men and women of color, women in general, people in the LGBTQ+ community. There wasn’t that representation and I went in there with a lot on my plate, but in getting in the role and seeing the strategy in how to get things done, there was the challenge of balancing priorities and how to manage all these projects and do it within the year. Another challenge was trying to inspire and unify a divided internal SGA Executive Team. Because of prejudices, we were divided from day one, so having the challenge as the leader to try and unify this group, keep in mind that the entirety of my executive cabinet was all Machine and it was just me. Eventually, I was able to include more people into the fold and get more representative of our campus population but in the beginning, it was not that.
There was another of working with the administration. Among all those challenges, I saw that the problem wasn’t necessarily the students, but rather the institution itself and the lack of intentionality on behalf of the university administration and board of trustees to actually be the ones to enact change and want to provide adequate representation across the university in terms of gender, sexual orientation, color, race and that being the reality that it’s really the people who were above me that were the ones that didn’t want change and didn’t want representation and seeing the systemic side of that and how it trickles and translates over the stage.
What are you most proud of from your term?
The thing that I’m most proud of is not anything that can be quantitative. Yeah we did things to combat sexual assault and to eradicate stigma around mental illness, but the fruit and the seeds that were planted by our team will be seen by the leaders that come after me. I’m optimistic that the SGA presidential leadership will be a better, more representative group of leaders to lead the campus effectively and hopefully advocate for the rights of all students and not just themselves.
How did serving in this role equip you for your postgraduate success? What are you up to now?
Right now I serve as an AmeriCorps member out of the YWCA’s Central Alabama Social Justice Office and I work with middle and high school students and facilitate conversations on race, privilege, power and eradicating discrimination within the community and it’s almost a full-circle moment for me because this was an organization I was part of when I was in high school and it changed my life then. I took those principles of social justice with me to Alabama and I think it was a lot of the tools that I had built in this program in used in my time at UA. In coming back, my role as SGA President helped to act out and implement the tools I had built with the same organization. Now being back and serving in the YWCA Social Justice Office as an AmeriCorps member, it’s reconfirming my passion for service and my heart for wanting to truly resist misogyny, resist bullying, resist racism, resist fascism.
What advice would you give to recently elected student body presidents based on your own experiences?
Always bring people into the folds who have typically not been represented in your SGA and in your community as a whole. For me what really helped my administration and educated me as a leader were the discussions with people who knew more than I did on the issues. Bringing in those groups and giving them a voice within the SGA and not assuming you know what they need but rather having them sitting at the table telling you what you need so that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Too often as leaders, we try to reinvent the wheel when it’s already turning but just needs more energy and more elbow grease behind the cart to actually push it.
Image courtesy of Elliot Spillers.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.