DENVER (AP) — As a young boy, Isaiah Chavous hid under his mom’s desk during her college days at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, playing with green army men and chomping snacks while she completed her history degree above his head.
“He was born to a teen mom, so I think he had an interesting upbringing,” Michelle Johnson, Chavous’s mom, said about her eldest son. “He saw firsthand growing up what the importance of education does…That story has shaped him and made him resilient. To come from those kinds of beginnings where things were really hard and watch as education and courage and persistence gets you out of situations where people think you are stuck — I am so proud of him.”
Now at 21 years old, Chavous is a student leader of the university system he once toddled around in secret.
The Colorado native is CU Boulder student body president and the Intercampus Student Forum chair, representing the student voice on all CU campuses.
Chavous is the third Black president in more than a century of CU Boulder student government. The weight of that responsibility weighs heavy on him, but it’s a pressure he welcomes as preparation for a storied future.
“I have fallen in love with Boulder and CU,” Chavous said. “I am extremely dedicated to preserving the good quality it has and innovating in the areas it needs improvement. CU has left an impression on me, but I intend to leave a bigger impression on CU before I leave.”
When Chavous, a political science major with a minor in business, ran for the presidency last year, he didn’t know he would be tasked to bring student issues to the forefront during one of the most tumultuous years for higher education in modern history.
Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic only intensified existing inequities and problems within the higher education sphere, Chavous said. From food insecurity to a need for increased mental health resources to civil rights issues, Chavous found himself in charge during a time when students needed their concerns uplifted more than ever.
Chavous connected with campus student groups and hopped on Zoom calls to share his findings with the CU Board of Regents and system administrators. He brainstormed how to better advocate for state higher education funding. He met with the state’s legislative delegation.
On top of his coursework during a difficult pandemic year, Chavous estimated he spends 50 hours a week on student government business.
Chavous is used to the hustle.
In elementary school, Johnson said Chavous started a business making duct-tape products — wallets and ties — and selling them. In middle school, he started a side gig tie-dying socks, ruining every one of his mother’s pans along the way.
“He would look at me and say, ‘Mom, you’re investing in my future,‘” Johnson said. “He’d always say ‘Are you willing to invest?’ What kid says that? My entrepreneurial son.”
Now, Johnson begs Chavous to get some sleep and take care of himself.
Chavous burst out laughing when asked when he sleeps.
“I don’t,” he said. “It’ll be OK, though.”
Being a young, Black man in 2020 was trying for Chavous. Police brutality and civil rights protests played out before his eyes, and he knew racial justice needed to be dealt with on his own turf.
As a bi-racial man, Chavous said he understood even his own experience as a person of color was more privileged than others. He knew firsthand that CU needed to do better by its students of color, so he got to work.
“Being a student of color in an institution that is predominantly white can feel isolating at times,” Chavous said. “The BIPOC community at CU has been overlooked in a lot of areas throughout time. I’ve seen it firsthand. It’s up to representatives who eventually find themselves in positions of influence to be attentive to not only their own identity but sacrifice what may feel comfortable for the greater good.”
When national conversations around law enforcement and racially-motivated excessive force boiled over on the CU Boulder campus, Chavous said he spent hundreds of hours over the summer talking with the local Boulder and campus police departments negotiating a plan to restructure police training, hiring practices and protocols.
Those conversations, featuring other student leaders on campus, pushed for a campus police oversight board, which Chavous said would be the first-of-its-kind once implemented.
Chavous was also involved in moving forward the long-time conversation about the university’s relationship buying furniture made exclusively from prison inmate labor.
Chavous sat on a working group, chaired by CU’s chief financial officer Todd Saliman, which discussed the issue this summer. After listening to administrators, reviewing financial statements and hearing from the inmates, Chavous said the working group pushed the university to agree to consider other furniture vendors instead of having an exclusive relationship with Colorado Correctional Industries.
“He’s a pleasure to work with,” Saliman said. “It doesn’t mean we always agree, but we always exchange ideas and Isaiah absolutely helps move the conversation forward. He’s engaged. He shares the student perspective in a way that’s both clear in terms of what the students want but is also pragmatic, recognizing the realities that we have to deal with.”
The realities of pushing for change within the confines of a university bureaucracy can be challenging at times, but Chavous said overcoming those obstacles has only set him up for success.
“The bureaucratic system is an interesting space I have found,” Chavous said. “I want to ensure… I’ve done my best to gather information…and hear out the community that I’m tasked to represent so decisions that are made are not misinformed. There will always be disagreement and that’s OK with me as long as I know I have done my absolute duty in understanding the complexities and the depth and the emotional strain.”
Chavous has a few trailblazers to look to in the realm of CU student government stars who continued advocating for their constituents post-graduation.
United States Rep. Joe Neguse — the first African-American elected to Congress in Colorado — was once in Chavous’s shoes as CU Boulder’s student body president.
State Rep. Leslie Herod — the first LGBTQ African-American in Colorado’s General Assembly — was CU Boulder’s legislative council president in the early 2000’s. Herod said she, too, focused on policy changes that received backlash including around racial justice and LGBTQ issues.
“One thing I don’t think people realize is the exact weight of it all,” Herod said, noting that CU Boulder student government is the most autonomous in the nation, responsible for allocating tens of millions of dollars in student fees. “I can’t understate the impact that experience had on me and my now colleagues who are continuing their work for change through being elected officials, policy making and community leadership.”
She advised Chavous to keep fighting for what he believes in, to allow himself to grow and evolve and — of course — to graduate.
Chavous has the spring semester to continue his student government work, but he’s already thinking ahead.
Law school is on the horizon. Maybe a career in international business or politics.
“I want to be in a history book,” Chavous said. “Not for being self-indulgent but for being selfless. Setting a precedent has been, from day one, one of the biggest motivating factors. Every door that has been opened or I have forced open, there will be a doorstop there waiting for the next student like me to walk through hopefully a little bit more easily.”