UMOJA Fest encourages campus cultural awareness

(Amanda Allen/ Daily)
School of Education Senior Jon Nafso waits for LSA fifth year Arhum Shabab to take his place to battle at the UMOJA festival hosted by the Black Student Union on Monday, September 1, 2014 on the Diag. Buy this photo

By Neala Berkowski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 1, 2014

University students were given a taste — and sight and sound — of other cultures Monday at UMOJA Fest, a day-long event dedicated to promoting cultural awareness through traditional food, music, and dance.

Several student organizations dedicated to cultural awareness, including the Black Student Union, the South Asian Awareness Network, the Native American Students Association, the Michigan Latin Assembly and the Persian Students Association, collaborated to provide an opportunity for students to see cultural diversity on campus firsthand. The event featured free food, drinks, dance performances and carnival games, and was open to all students and members of the Ann Arbor community.

The Swahili word “umoja” translates to “unity,” reflecting the partnership of these groups in putting this event together. BSU Vice Speaker Geralyn Gaines, an LSA senior, said the UMOJA Fest is a way for students to become more culturally aware.

“It’s really easy to get lost in your own sheltered community,” Gaines said. “Just to open up your eyes and to see maybe I should try this food, or this dance looks really cool, maybe I should talk to somebody about it, or just to give people an opportunity that they may not have had otherwise during Welcome Week.”

LSA senior Parisa Soraya, president of the Persian Students Association, said the collaborative effort provided a way for the cultural groups on campus to get to know each other.

One of the day’s many performances featured a traditional Native American drum performance by the Miskwaasining Nagamojig, meaning “Swamp Singers” in Ojibwe. This nonprofit group aims to preserve and revitalize Ojibwe, a Native American language.

“I think a lot of the audience enjoyed it; they were very interactive,” said University alum Jasmine Pawlicki, a former member of the Native American Student Association. “Maybe if we had been louder or had speakers we may have drawn more people, but I don’t know how often people get to hear pan-tribal music at the Diag.”

LSA junior Kidada Malloy said she came to the festival to support the Black Student Union and to meet new students.

“It’s important because it brings together students from different backgrounds and communities,” Malloy said.

Although many student groups put on cultural events, Gaines and other members of the BSU said there should be more initiative from the University to promote these events.

“The BSU has been doing this for a long time but that’s just something we decided to do,” Gaines said. “I think if the University put forth more effort of having events like this it would not be up to the students to do it.”

In the past year, a host of student organizations have demonstrated a desire for increased discussion about race on campus. The BSU launched the #BBUM movement through Twitter in November to share experiences of being Black at the University and raise awareness on issues of race and diversity on campus. The campaign expanded to a nation-wide conversation, extending to other universities.

The administration considered the concerns raised by the movement and facilitated a dialogue that resulted in a plan to renovate the existing Trotter Multicultural Center and search for a building space closer to Central Campus in the future.

Though future events have not been set in stone, the groups involved in UMOJA Fest plan to have more collaborative events throughout the year.