Sparking a dialogue
Student activism is nothing new at the University of Michigan.
The Ann Arbor campus has long been a hub of political organizing, debate, dissent, and progress on many fronts. The potent combination of youth, intelligence, and idealism gives voice to any number of causes: equal rights, voting rights, civil rights, workers’ rights, animal rights, and more. U-M students have advocated for religious freedom, peace, divestment, environmentalism, tuition equality, campus safety, and diversity. Each movement is of its time and comes with its own unique mix of speak-ins, sit-ins, teach-ins, posters, and press.
In November 2013 African American students on campus added a new element to student activism: social media. Members of the Black Student Union (BSU) launched a campus-wide Twitter campaign, #BBUM or Being Black at Michigan. The goal was to connect an otherwise decentralized community of students whose numbers had declined since passage of Proposal 2 in 2006, which effectively banned affirmative action at public institutions in Michigan. At that time, black students comprised 7 percent of the undergraduate student population; in fall 2013, that number was 4.65 percent.1
“The black community is very fractured here, and we wanted to open the conversation to find some mutually agreeable new purpose for the BSU,” says the organization’s treasurer, Robert Greenfield. He is a junior in industrial and operations engineering. “It was about dealing with relationships and competing agendas between student groups. We wanted to unite under an outlet.”
What has happened since speaks to the nature of modern youth and the impact of social media. Though virtually connected to thousands of their peers online, many students posting to the #BBUM forum bemoaned a lack of actual connection to one other and the wider University community. The lack of critical mass had created a sense of isolation.
“The issue is the innovative way the students have used technology, specifically Twitter, to convey their day-to-day experience,” says Matthew Countryman, associate professor of history and American culture and an expert on African American social movements. “An argument against affirmative action is that it stigmatizes the beneficiaries. Therefore, if you get rid of it, minority students will be less stigmatized. The Twitter campaign shows the opposite is true: With declining numbers, stigmatization and racial tension increase.”
Within weeks of the first #BBUM tweet, the critical mass the students had been lacking began to materialize – at least in cyber space (#BBUW, #ITooAmHarvard, #ITooAmOxford, among others). It was a revelation few anticipated and sparked a dialogue about diversity on university campuses everywhere. The buzzword “micro-aggression” emerged to characterize a host of offenses and injustices, from a racially themed fraternity party at U-M that parodied black culture to more subtle incidents that were difficult to articulate, but were disempowering just the same.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, leaders of the BSU seized the momentum. They staged an event outside the MLK Day keynote speech by activist Harry Belafonte, issuing a list of seven demands designed to increase minority enrollment and foster diversity on campus. Some of the demands were inspired by the seminal Black Action Movement (BAM 1) in 1970, in which the administration agreed to work toward a goal of 10 percent African American enrollment by 1973-74. That number has yet to be achieved, in part sparking BAM 2 (1975) and BAM 3 (1987).
The administration agreed to meet with black student leaders and promised short-term plans, as well as longer-term engagement and thinking around three areas they deemed required immediate attention: “improving campus climate, increasing enrollment of underrepresented minorities to the fullest extent permitted by law, and addressing issues surrounding the Trotter Multicultural Center.” While negotiations are ongoing, the University to date has committed $300,000 toward renovating Trotter.
Social media once again played a critical role as reader comments reflected a deep schism among observers: those who applauded the students’ rights to advocate for increased diversity on campus and those who decried their methods, demands, and perceived threats.
In some cases productive dialogue addressed the meaning of a “post-racial” society, deficits in urban education, and the role of the administration in response to student protest. In others, online arguments devolved into hostile discourse. Ironically, much of the negative commentary helped the students illustrate the insidious micro-aggressions that had motivated their campaign in the first place.
Nearly two months into the movement, BSU member Shayla Scales, a senior in the BBA Program at the Ross School of Business, says she is learning from the feedback and the backlash. But she wouldn’t change anything.
“We may have deterred some [potential admits] from wanting to come to U-M right now because we exposed some ‘dirty laundry,'” she says. “But that doesn’t mean every experience we’ve had here is negative. Not at all. And I think when negotiations are done and the University can stand up and say, ‘We heard what our students wanted and we are committed to our students,’ that will attract so many more people.”
Timing is everything
The strategic timing of the BSU’s demands segued directly into Black History Month where students with varying degrees of political awareness and campus engagement were suddenly thrust together, often meeting for the first time. Dialogues and panel discussions forced them to confront a wider definition of diversity. Scales says she is now keenly aware of the “intersectionality” of multiple issues, including gender, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, and more.
“It started off as one thing and has transcended past racial lines so much since MLK Day,” she says. “What we want to see is a diverse set of thinking, and to challenge the preconceived notions of what already exists before we set foot on this campus. I believe innovation lies in the crevices of diversity. I am always trying to re-innovate myself and how I process things. I think, as people, we all should. That’s only possible when you have a diverse set of races, thinkings, religions, genders, everything.”
And while members of the BSU initially advocated for changes that would benefit black students – emergency scholarships, more affordable housing – their actions could result in programs and policies that will benefit any student who qualifies, says Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones.
“The legal context and framework from which we work requires that,” she says. “So while the students are coming at this from their specific needs, there’s no pushback when we say we would want to provide this to any student in need. The work they’ve done will benefit the entire campus community. It’s clear they are committed, they love the institution, and they want to work to improve the campus climate for all students now and in the future.”
As for increasing minority enrollment and promoting diversity? A commitment to creativity in recruiting and retaining qualified candidates is required, post Prop-2, Countryman says.
“There’s a tremendous amount that is being done right now by the University in terms of community service, involvement in public schools,” he says. “That can be further expanded, and also more effectively linked to questions of recruitment. It’s important that we see those programs not simply as outreach, but as opportunities to bring those communities into engagement with U-M. That’s how you make Michigan seem like a place that people want to invest their time and effort to get to.”
Pay it forward
Lester Spence, BA ’91/PhD ’01, associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, co-authored a Detroit Free Press editorial supporting the student movement as an opportunity to “build lasting institutional change.” He also launched an online petition at moveon.org. Nearly 2,000 U-M alumni have signed the petition, demonstrating solidarity with the activists.
“I’m where I am today because of people who fought for me that didn’t even know me,” he says. “As soon as I saw what was happening, I thought ‘OK, these kids are just coming to politics for the first time.’ And this is what the BAM people fought for when I was in school: That if something like this happened again, there’d be a critical mass of black alumni who’d be there to say, ‘You know what? We can help you.’ I don’t believe in Internet activism. But in this case, the Internet creates a force multiplier, creates the potential for rich communication networks.”
Those networks are growing and getting richer by the day. Johari Shuck, BGS ’08, a PhD student at Indiana University, was conducting research at U-M’s Bentley Historical Library in the wake of the MLK Day protest. She has since connected with Spence and other alumni and has been in regular contact with Scales. Shuck’s goal is to listen and advise the students, but not impose her own agenda on the current movement. History is being made, she says.
“This movement is bigger than the students,” says Shuck. “This is not the first time this has happened here; these kids are not just flying off the handle. It’s not fair they have to take on this fight and yet they are doing it with so much poise.”
Attorney Samuel McCargo, AB ’72/JD’75, of the Detroit-based firm Lewis & Munday, was a founder of the Michigan Black Law Alumni Society. He was an activist during his time on campus and says he feels “a personal sense of failure” that students in 2014 feel forced to organize and advocate for the same causes he and his peers targeted four decades ago.
“The movement starts and stops, starts and stops,” he says. “Any time I have an opportunity to participate, reconnect, and maybe help motivate a restart, I’m willing to do so.”
McCargo spoke at a campus event titled “Black Student Activism from 1970-2014” at the invitation of his friend and former classmate William (Nick) Collins, BS ’70/PhD ’75, executive director of the Center for Educational Outreach at U-M. He also is adjunct associate professor of psychology. Collins notes a marked change between the generations, which could explain why current students felt so disconnected at the onset of their campaign.
“Some of the major legislative victories that grew out of the Civil Rights movement took place when we were going through our own rites of passage as teens,” Collins says. “So by the time we got [to U-M] there were all sorts of things ingrained in us. For our kids, those things are Facebook, Twitter. Yeah, they’ve had similar experiences that bind them together but they’re not the kind we had. They’re not the kind that emphasize social justice.”
That may be true, but together students, faculty, and alumni can use those tools to advocate for social justice and create genuine bonds, says Elizabeth James, BA ’82/MA ’84. She is a program associate in U-M’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, itself a product of past student activism.
“BAM did succeed in so many ways,” she says. “As faculty of color it’s important for us to be here for the students as someone they can relate to. As alumni it’s important for us to talk about our challenges honestly and share the struggles we went through.”
Down to business
The BSU leaders hope to mobilize alumni, using the online petition to build a database toward actualizing their goals beyond what the administration can do.
“We want to identify what people’s skill sets are, what companies they work for, what resources are available so we can truly leverage someone’s human capital and capabilities,” says Scales.
From privately funded scholarships, to funds that support transportation for admit visits on campus, to internships and full-time recruiting, alumni have a significant role to play in making U-M an institution that qualified (not to mention top-tier) minority students aspire to, says the BSU’s Greenfield. The key is to make diversity a specific University priority.
“We have the greatest alumni base in the world, and whatever this University publicly prioritizes in that manner, it’s going to be attended to financially by alumni in such a way that it’s outside the bounds of what Prop 2 can govern,” he says.
“Corporate social responsibility is a big trend right now and companies are begging for opportunities,” adds Scales. “So it would be nice to have our alumni set up those connections in their companies for the students who need it – any student who needs it. I think people are seeing that diversity impacts and helps everyone.”
As campus events evolve, the students are increasingly focused on follow-through, in hopes to avoid the “start-stop” pattern of the past. Greenfield says the experience has opened his eyes to the complexities and constraints of effecting change at the highest level of the University.
Countryman, who has studied social movements at Michigan from a historic perspective, is encouraged by what the activists-in-training may accomplish after graduation.
“We have very real challenges as a society, given the changes in demography of the nation, economic development, and anxieties around the future that are very real in people’s lives,” he says. “Race is part of that challenge but that’s not the only piece. There’s a whole other set of questions. It’s going to take real vigilance to maintain our commitment to equal opportunity, to the very real challenge of building a multiracial, multi-ethnic society based on mutual respect and equity. And that’s going to be very difficult. But we also know that in the University’s past, and in the nation’s past, there have been moments of real success. We have to look to those and have faith that we can actually meet these challenges.
“We’re much better off as a society when people believe in the possibility of change,” he continues. “That is the most important takeaway for those of us watching what the students are doing. They deeply believe in the institution and they deeply believe it can be made better.”
(Top featured image by Adam Glanzman.)
1The entering class of 2013 is the fourth to be admitted under the new federal demographic classification system, which requires all institutions of higher education to collect and report data on race and ethnicity in a new way. This methodology is not directly comparable to years prior to 2010; so disaggregated figures for specific races and ethnicities are not reliably comparable to earlier years, although overall totals and grouped subtotals are fairly comparable.