Every time someone mentions to 19-year-old Kahlil Greene that he’s the first African American to be elected student body president at prestigious Yale University, he deflects.
Greene points to the “super-cool” philanthropy of Robert F. Smith, the billionaire tech mogul who two weeks ago promised to pay off the loans of every student in Morehouse College’s class of 2019.
He points to other African-Americans “who blazed a trail and were elected to offices at HBCUs who aren’t getting the same level of attention. There are people in the Black community who are doing great things.”
But when he finally does begin to address his accomplishment — an African American had not been elected Yale College Council (YCC) president, or student body president, since it was established in 1972 — it’s clear that the significance is not lost on the Maryland native.
Yale College Council is the official undergraduate student government body of Yale University.
“As the first Black president,” Greene said in a recent phone interview, “it is important that I’m a symbol of the progress that this university has made over the years, and the journey we still have ahead of us. Yale should continue working to become a more diverse and representative place. I’m grateful for the role that I will have in making that happen.”
A little more than three years ago, when Greene was still a high school student in Germantown, Maryland, racial tensions bubbled to the surface at Yale. Names and symbols that seemed to reference slavery cropped up around the campus. It got worse later when it came to light that Jonathan Holloway, the first Black dean of Yale College, had not communicated with the college community about allegations that a university fraternity chapter had turned away Black women from a party.
And last spring, Yale again drew unwanted attention when a white student called campus police on Black graduate student Lolade Siyonbola when she fell asleep on campus in a common area.
Add to that the demographics of Yale’s undergraduates — 47% white, 17% Asian, 11% Hispanic, 11% international and 7% Black — and the eventual election of a Black student union president seemed unlikely.
Greene, an economics major who expects to graduate in 2021, ran unopposed the election in April, winning 1,100 votes, or 89.72% of the total votes to secure the election.
The turnout was low, with just 1,226 students (22% of Yale’s undergraduate population) casting votes. Last year, 43% of Yale undergraduates voted.
Greene’s campaign focused on four points: fostering a safer, healthier and more equitable campus culture; facilitating meaningful interactions between Yale and the surrounding community of New Haven, Connecticut; enhancing the quality of the university’s academics and facilities; and improving the Yale College Council.
However, Greene also has an agenda for the African-American student body at Yale. This includes working to make sure the the faculty “is as diverse as possible” and students of color “have complete access to the university’s abundant resources.”
“We are going to work to continue to make it better at Yale,” Greene said. “We are looking forward. A lot of students have been in the role where they brought attention to incidents. I’m in an important position because it is my job and duty to bring a voice to issues and implement solutions.”