Isaiah Chavous: Leading in the Time of Pandemic

02 Apr 2021

With his term as CU Boulder student body president coming to an end, Isaiah Chavous takes time to think about the future and reflect on what got him this far.

by Dell Bleekman

As a young man growing up in Colorado Springs, Isaiah Chavous was always on the move. He engaged in typical middle and high school activities like basketball, track, soccer and band; he relished having a full plate, but wanted more. “I was always a bit different from my peers in that I constantly tried new things,” he recalls.

So, he branched out, playing in a band, performing at shows, tinkering with video and music production, starting a music company with a high school friend, and engaging in public speaking. “Even back then, I was interested in building these event platforms to bring creative people together,” he says. Chavous might not have known it at the time, but the wide set of skills he was forging would come in handy when he attended CU Boulder and eventually ran for student government’s highest office.


Stepping Up to Serve

In February 2020, Chavous was a junior and ran for president of the CU Student Government (CUSG). Little did he know, a pandemic would soon turn the campus—and the world—upside down. “We started campaigning before COVID hit,” Chavous recalls, “but by March, we had to transition so quickly to engaging students remotely.” Despite the difficult circumstances, Chavous earned the support of his classmates. In May 2020, during lockdown, he and his team were sworn in for their one-year term.

“We envisioned in-person gatherings, amazing student events, big-name artists,” Chavous says, “but COVID changed all of that.” Events were canceled. Gone were outreach plans built on one-to-one interactions. Music performances evaporated. “Our challenge was also the national and global challenge in that interaction was distanced,” he says.


The COVID-19 Impact

The virus began disrupting students’ lives, bringing up serious issues that shifted the focus of student government. CUSG stepped up to help. “Our director of diversity and inclusion launched a clothing sale where proceeds were donated to campus organizations,” Chavous states. With the financial repercussions of COVID-19 leaving many students food-insecure, the Volunteer Resource Center (one of the student-run centers on campus) organized a recurring food drive so CU students and others in the community could get what they needed.

The pandemic also highlighted the value of mental health resources and access to counselors. “We pushed for more counselors of color to be hired in order to accommodate the mental health needs of our diverse population,” Chavous says. This pressing issue, first brought forth by the Black Student Alliance, gained traction with support from the student government, and the administration committed to hiring counselors from diverse backgrounds.


The Other Epidemic

Against the backdrop of stay-at-home orders, waves of protests against systemic racism played out across the country. “The racial injustice seen nationwide left the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] community looking for answers,” says Chavous. He dedicated himself to tackling the thorny issue of retention rates among students of color at CU, and hopes that projects launched during his tenure continue to fund and support these students.

Chavous was also at the forefront of the discussion on police conduct in the Boulder community. He served on the first police oversight task force in CU history, working to implement an oversight board that will ensure police accountability and community safety. “The student body can move the needle on equity issues—that’s one hundred percent possible,” Chavous insists. “At the end of the day, the student body is the mouthpiece and the drivers of the school.”


Still Having Fun

Faced with physical distancing limitations, Chavous embraced the notion of working with what you have, and what the CUSG had was Zoom. He and others in student government were determined to provide experiences for CU students that reminded them what college life was about. So, through the work of CUSG, “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah joined CU via Zoom to discuss timely issues and field student questions. Founders of the Black Lives Matter movement also logged on to answer questions from students, and performing artist Lil Yachty popped in to engage students through an interactive painting session.


Looking Ahead

When he graduates this May, Chavous’ term will come to an end. As always, he’s looking to act rather than react. Law school is on the horizon—possibly Georgetown or NYU—but he’s going to build more professional experience before tackling that chapter. “I’m deciding between New York City, Washington, D.C. or San Francisco,” Chavous confides, which suggests his move could be a private-sector position, politically based internship or tech opportunity.

As he prepares to leave student government, the campus and the city of Boulder, Chavous reflects on the year of learning and sacrifice for many students, faculty and staff. And he knows there’s more work to be done. This work will require conversations at the local, state and national level. It will demand communal participation. And it will depend on young people, like Isaiah Chavous, who envision a better tomorrow.

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