Meeting on the first floor of the Michigan Union Wednesday night, speakers at the South Asian Awareness Network event discussed civic engagement, political issues and their personal experiences working in government.
Christine Stead, president of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board, and Bobby McKenzie, director of the Muslim Diaspora Initiative, answered questions from community engagement chairs Subhan Chaudry, a Business sophomore, and Srinidhi Subramanian, an LSA senior. Chaudry and Subramanian moderated the event for an hour and then entered an open, unmoderated discussion with attendees. Three state representatives were also scheduled to attend but were unable to attend last minute.
Stead discussed her years of experience working in the Ann Arbor Public Schools Board extensively. She said living in Ann Arbor has led her to become passionate about education in politics.
“It’s been a huge privilege for me to grow up in this town because education is important here, and that’s unique,” Stead said. “Education in general — it’s given me every opportunity that I have.”
Stead voiced her opposition to the work of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos when she worked in Michigan on the Detroit charter school system, saying her school-choice system works well in theory but has led to the disenfranchisement of a number of students in the city. Stead also encouraged attendees to become involved in the political process in any way that they could. She identified the use of technology by young people as a new way to vote and participate.
Stead was satisfied with the dialogue at the event and the role she and McKenzie played despite the absence of the other speakers.
“Between the two of us, we had some hopefully helpful tactical ideas around how to raise an issue and stay engaged and get to solutions,” Stead said. “These things unfortunately do take time, and they also take lots of people to kind of create momentum. But I’m hoping people heard something that is useful and constructive.”
McKenzie spoke on his experience as the head of the MDI and working with legislators on local, state and national scales. He recounted his experiences working with hard-right Republican congressmen and his ability to pesuade them to work with him. Despite being a Democrat, he said, using data and objective explanations of the problems the MDI faces helped to bridge the political gap.
He said a major problem with the American political environment is that politicians are forced to pander to their bases instead of working constructively across the aisle. He praised the skills and competence of elected officials, but he also expressed frustration with the political requirements of the system and what he views as the limits it places on progress.
Chaudry said this event is the first of its kind for SAAN. He said the organization is now able to help students effect change on campus and that that has become a goal for the leadership.
“All we’ve ever focused on is awareness and knowledge and getting that out, but we’ve never really gone into the activism area,” Chaudry said. “And that was a big thing for us: How do we get people energized? How do we help them in achieving these goals? Because yeah, we can teach them all about these issues and show them what’s wrong. But in the end, if we don’t do anything about it, there’s no solution.”
LSA senior Sahr Yazdani, a board member for SAAN and part of the marketing team, expressed a similar excitement about the evolving role of the organization and this event.
“Events like these are really important because they remind students of their ability to make change and to catalyze something that could actually be productive for people in the future,” Yazdani said.
Stead and McKenzie answered several questions about student activism on the University of Michigan campus specifically and said persistence is key for any kind of advocacy. After the event, Stead expressed her optimism in the face of ongoing challenges and her confidence in student activists.
“I loved how many people were here and how engaged they were,” Stead said. “And I think it’s a really important time for them, too, to take their own actions and stay persistent and engaged on these things. … Truly, everybody matters and your voice matters. And I would just encourage people to know that and have confidence in that.”
LSA junior Hiba Asad attended the event and said she enjoyed hearing from policymakers at the forefront of local and national change.
"In today's political climate, especially with tensions on our campus, it can be hard to navigate and stay engage with social justice issues," she said. "It's especially taxing after seeing so many initiatives not lead to tangible change. That's why I personally found SAAN's workshop so helpful; it taught rather than altered one's approach to foster community change."