- LEFT: Photo by Mike Frieseman, courtesy of Ciarra Ross RIGHT: Photo by Tracy Ko
By Akshay Seth, Managing Arts Editor
Published April 11, 2014
Most Michigan Women of Color Collective (M-WoCC) meetings look simple from the outside — a group of students seated in a circle, telling stories and listening to one another. The meetings, usually held in the Trotter Multicultural Center, aren’t even called meetings. Instead, members of the collective typically gather every other week for informal tea circles — with the group's administrators responsible for providing the tea and moderating discussion.
The heart of M-WoCC, what makes the student organization so significant and essential, are those discussions.
“We didn’t just want to be an (organization) that puts on events,” said LSA senior Zeinab Khalil, the co-founder M-WoCC. “We wanted to be a lifeline — a support group to bring women together and provide an affirming, safe space.”
Khalil formed the organization with the help of LSA senior Ciarra Ross and other students who thought the University lacked a space reserved for women of color to voice concerns and personal struggles. At its inception, the group was simply designed to give women an opportunity to be heard. It has since grown to offer those same women a place where they can deliberate and hear each other’s opinions about racial tensions at the University.
“I think we do respond to the recent debates about race relations, and we come to the space when things are coming to a head on campus,” Ross said. “This is kind of our space to just breathe, to say ‘OK, this is a lot right now — BBUM, UMDivest and a lot of other things that bring us together. It gives us room to breathe.’ ”
Ross stated how one of the biggest goals of M-WoCC is to be able to challenge women of color to look at themselves and their surroundings critically before formulating an opinion.
“We need to be challenged to be considered a ‘true sister friend,’ where it ceases to be about ally-hood and is really much, much more about sisterhood,” Ross said. “We need to be real with each other and honest because there can be so much vulnerability in the space.”
The guidelines M-WoCC has laid out to define the objectives of the meetings stress that the members seek to move beyond a safe space in order to provide a “brave space.”
Khalil and Ross took initial steps to organize these plans after being tapped last year by the Order of Angell, an elite campus leadership society. Though both chose not to remain a part of Order, the meeting, and later work over the summer for Youth Dialogues on Race and Ethnicity in Metropolitan Detroit inspired them to create M-WoCC.
“From the first time I met her, Ciarra inspired me in really, really profound ways,” Khalil said. “This woman is so unapologetic. Speaking truth to power, that defines Ciarra — regardless of who you are, she will hold you accountable, and that takes so much strength.”
Ross has also been an active member of NOiR since freshman year, an on-campus fashion organization that combines runway shows with community service. This year, she took over as the association’s president and played an integral role in organizing their latest runway show, called “Shameless.” She described how her experiences working with socially conscious campus groups helped her meet and be motivated by Khalil, something she called “the force of Zeinab.”
“So I fangirl Zeinab,” Ross said. “Zeinab has been one of those people who got me to really think critically about a lot of things I hadn’t before. When we met, I remember one of the first things I recall her saying is ‘are you sure about this?’ and just her presence and who she was made me realize ‘no … I’m not.’ That’s been the impetus of our friendship — she’s just pushed me to think, through her own thoroughbred activism.”
Khalil, an energetic participant in the UMDivest campaign, described what sets that particular movement and M-WoCC apart from many of the other organizations she has been a part of is a dedication to student empowerment.
“In the past few years, I have done organizing and have been involved in student orgs. but I’ve never felt this kind of empowerment,” Khalil explained. “For M-WoCC, it made me realize that there’s so much power in the collective. It’s not a sign of our weakness — it’s evidence of our humanity.”