The University of Michigan’s Office for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion held a panel Tuesday evening in collaboration with the Center for Campus Involvement, Student Life and the Islamophobia Working Group to discuss respecting religious identities. The University launched its five-year DEI Strategic Plan in 2016 to foster a more diverse and equitable campus for students, faculty and staff. 

According to the 2016 Student Campus Climate Survey on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, 38.4 percent of students are non-religious. 

Samer Ali, associate professor of Middle East studies and chair of the Islamophobia Working Group, introduced the event by admitting faith is often left out of DEI conversations, and emphasizing the importance of fostering open conversations about religion, especially at a secular university funded by public taxpayer dollars. Although the University is growing in diversity and working to make the campus more equitable, there are still broader, national issues affecting campus, Ali explained.

“Is it safe to visibly be religious on a campus like this, when nationally the country is facing white supremacy and gun violence?” Ali asked the audience.

Kelly Dunlop, associate director for campus involvement, led a panel of five students who came from various religions and backgrounds. The event began with a moderated discussion and then opened to questions and comments from the audience. 

In response to the national political climate, the panel discussed how religion can be used as a mechanism to bridge divides and facilitate healing. Social Work student Stephanie Morgan-Sterenberg was raised in a secular Jewish household and attended the Tree of Life temple in Pittsburgh, which fell victim to a domestic terrorist attack when a white supremacist killed 11 people in a shooting last year. 

“It was shattering in so many ways to think that we just keep experiencing this barrage of violence, and it’s condoned by this culture of white supremacy,” said Morgan-Sterenberg. 

Morgan-Sterenberg said this experience pushed her to communicate with people of various religious backgrounds in order to unpack their experiences of facing religious discrimination.    

The panelists also reflected on their experiences in the classroom and around campus. Law School student Areeba Jibril discussed the exhaustion she has experienced as a visible Muslim because of her hijab. Jibril said our society has normalized the idea people of color are there to enrich white lives, and it is important to remember the people on the other end of questions are human.

The panel also deliberated how the University should address religious-specific issues going forward. Many of the panelists agreed professors should work on lifting the burden from the religious minorities in the room, and instead explain these narratives through readings from authors from those religious groups.

LSA senior Armind Chahal proposed underclassmen undergo religion-focused workshops, in addition to the mandatory race/ethnicity course requirement. 

In an interview with The Daily after the event, Rackham student Lauren White said she agreed with the focus on how faculty can improve campus climate.

“A good takeaway was that they were talking about faculty involvement and talking with staff about how they can better assist and be with students who are students of faith and not be offensive,” said White.

LSA junior Lorna Brown, who is a Michigan in Color editor for The Daily, grew up Methodist in a Black family that valued attending church every Sunday and praying every evening. She explained the close relationship between her race and her religion, and reflected on her experience in the dorms her freshman year when racist slurs were written on dorm door name tags. 

“That was where we really started doing our marches and going and saying we need that support,” Brown said. “That is something I continuously see, and I know that’s the case for a lot of people.”

Marlanna Landeros, Division of Public Safety and Security program manager, oversees DEI and student program collaboration with DPSS. When asked what DPSS was doing to address and prevent events like this, Landeros explained it is an ongoing process. 

“One of our major goals is feedback,” Landeros said. “Some of the things you’ll see on our webpage, DPSS app, we’re always looking for ways to engage with the community, get feedback and give feedback.” 

Rackham student Keiran Miller told The Daily after the event that she was interested in coming to this event in the spirit of DEI summit month. 

“When thinking about DEI overall, we don’t really think about religious faiths a lot, and so I thought that point was hit very truthfully,” said Miller.

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