United we stand
As a student activist in the late ’60s, Judge Cynthia Stephens, BA ’71, learned a life-changing lesson.
“Unity of purpose,” she says, “doesn’t mean unison.”
Stephens arrived at U-M in 1968, right after what she terms the “red hot summer of ’67” during which 159 uprisings erupted in cities nationwide, including Detroit. Students for a Democratic Society had just been founded at U-M, and African American students were creating a group of their own. Stephens wanted in.
“After a vigorous and interesting debate, which was close to civil, the overwhelming majority agreed we would be the Black Student Union [BSU],” she says.
That was just the first of many vigorous debates Stephens would experience as VP and community outreach representative for the BSU, VP of her sorority, and a member of the student government. She also participated in the first Black Action Movement (BAM 1) in 1970.
“The organizational challenge that stands out is how to manage internal conflict and how to resolve disagreement,” Stephens says. “There has to be someone who is willing to stand up and say, ‘I don’t agree with anything you said, but I understand you honestly feel that way.’”
Stephens is a judge on the Michigan First District Court of Appeals and a past chair of the Association of Black Judges of Michigan. She returned to campus Nov. 16 to share her experience with members of the U-M community during “50 Years of Civil Rights Leadership,” a symposium presented by the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Jesse Jackson delivered the keynote lecture “What’s Next for Us? Hope and Reflection.”
Questioning social arrangements
Activism tends to be a natural byproduct of the college experience, especially at larger institutions, says Terrence McDonald, Arthur F. Thurnau professor of history and former dean of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. He is now director of the Bentley Historical Library and teaches the course “22 ways to think about the University of Michigan.”
“The very idea that you take students between the ages of 18-22 and put them together at a university for four years – and you encourage them to think big thoughts about things – leads, inevitably, to people questioning social arrangements,” he says.
Hindsight is 20/20
Each movement is of its time and has unique characteristics. But during the Ford School event’s “dialogue across decades of student activists at Michigan” a universal theme emerged: Student movements are fragile ecosystems, vulnerable to internal and external forces. Whether it’s BAM 1 in 1970 or Students Allied for Freedom and Equality in 2016, activists must cope with conflicting egos inside the group, the unintended consequences of the group’s actions, and the criticism those actions inspire.
Stephanie Rowley, BA ’92, associate VP for research, is a professor of psychology and education at U-M. She began college life and membership in the BSU in the wake of the successful BAM 3 movement (1987). Things were “relatively good” at the time, Rowley says.
“But in the absence of a ‘big external threat,’ we turned on each other,” she says of her time as speaker (or chief executive) in the BSU. “At the time [the BSU] had an all-women executive board, and a faction of men got together and impeached us.”
Even when a movement is robust it is plagued with obstacles, says Tyrell Collier, BA ’14. He was the speaker in the BSU from 2012-14 and helped launch the Twitter campaign #BBUM (or Being Black at Michigan), which evolved into a powerful movement that generated national coverage by The New York Times, CNN, and more.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Collier says. “There was no blueprint for a social media movement like this, and it took the campus by storm. There were questions about what we were doing, how we were doing it, and who was doing what. That bled into internal conflicts within the group, which is something I didn’t know how to navigate.”
Student activism in the age of social media adds another twist. While it may be easier to mobilize activists using new technology, it also is easier for the opposition to voice criticism, insults, and threats.
“I am glad I grew up in an era before tweet and snap,” says Stephens. “If you are going to respond, my suggestion is to say what is absolutely true. No more and no less.”
Brittney Williams, BA ’16, a master’s student in the School of Social Work, has logged several years advocating for minority students on campus, with a focus on increasing black student enrollment at Michigan. But the self-induced stress of managing her activism, coursework, and family life landed Williams in the hospital. She has since segued from the front lines to a supporting role in order to better take care of herself, and make space for new student activists.
Sometimes you are so invested, says Williams, that you don’t see you’re going to break. “It’s important to be surrounded by people who support and affirm you.”
Master’s candidate Bryon Maxey, BA ’09, sees activism through an administrator’s lens today, as coordinator in U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation. Institutional relationships with advisers, graduate students, faculty, and staff can keep a movement on course, he says.
An added benefit is that those relationships often evolve into longstanding bonds, says Rowley. “The graduate advisers who were here when I was in BSU were critical in my development as a scholar and an activist. Those folks are still in my life.”
Casting a wide net
Alumni have a role to play as well. When the Being Black at Michigan campaign escalated in early 2014, former student activist Lester Spence stepped in from afar. Spence, BA ’91/PhD ’01, associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, authored a Detroit Free Press editorial supporting U-M students. He also launched an online petition at moveon.org to demonstrate solidarity.
Collier recalls an encouraging email from Spence that came at exactly the right time.
“He said there’s going to come a time where you’ll go at each other. You’ll wonder if you should be doing the work. People will question the work you’re doing. There’s going to come a time when you feel the movement is going to crack. But know you are doing it for the right reasons. You’re doing it for younger black students who, because of you, will be able to attend the university.”
Sending a supportive email is the easiest thing an alumnus can do, Collier says.
“I still have it. And I just read it again this morning.”
Taking it to the next level
Activism rarely ends at graduation, says Williams. Before pursuing her master’s degree in social work, she found a way to translate her knowledge and skills into a community role with the Alzheimer’s Association. It is a cause close to Williams’ heart. She lost her mother to the disease in 2013 and served as her full-time caregiver in the final years of her life. Reading up on long-term care policy reignited Williams’ passion for advocacy.
“Being able to speak powerfully on that issue and get people involved is very rewarding,” she says.
Perhaps it’s that reward — and the promise of change — that continues to motivate student activists to strive for progress. As the “dialogue across decades of student activists” came to a close last month, U-M’s Students4Justice staged a campus walkout to “Fight for Racial Justice.” Hundreds of Wolverines gathered in response to what the group described on Facebook as “post-election hatred and violence” that erupted on the nation’s college campuses after the Nov. 8 presidential election.
In response to inflammatory political rhetoric about Muslims, women, and immigrants, students carried signs that read: “We belong,” “Spread love,” and “United against hate.” That same week, non-Muslim students created a human shield around their Muslim classmates who gathered on the Diag to pray. Nearby someone had written in chalk “You are not alone.”
(Lead image: Benji Bear Photography.)