After experiencing what she described as a hostile environment due to her all-white female roommates in her sophomore year dorm, Lorraine Furtado, a University of Michigan class of 2020 alum, found sanctuary in the Inter-Cooperative Council, a housing cooperative operating numerous houses across Ann Arbor. Though the situation was an improvement, Furtado said microaggressions and hostility persisted.
“I wanted to demand more for myself, and I knew I deserved to demand more for myself,” Furtado said.
So in 2019, Furtado began planning to transform her former home — the Lester Cooperative House — into a safe space for Queer and Transgender People of Color like herself. The ICC co-ops are maintained and operated by the student members who live there, rather than a landlord.
Members of Lester participated in house meetings about re-theming the house. After an almost unanimous vote in favor of re-theming among house members, they brought it to the ICC, where it was later approved in November 2019, according to Furtado.
Members voted to rename the house after Sylvia Rivera, one of the leading activists in the Gay Libration Movement.
“I cried from joy,” Furtado said. “It was such a beautiful moment to know that my housemates cared about the vision I had. They cared about the community I wanted to create, and they agreed with me about it. And it was so meaningful to know that my housemates cared about a safe space for QTPOC as much as I did.”
The change in making Lester the Rivera House will be effective in Fall 2021. The house, which was previously all-vegetarian, will no longer have any dietary restrictions.
Rivera will operate year-round. They accept applications from any University students as well as other people in the Ann Arbor area who meet the ICC’s eligibility criteria.
Approving Rivera House
According to Furtado the process of getting Rivera approved was a difficult one. She said while working to obtain approval for Rivera, ICC leadership “did not create an inclusive environment” for her and was hostile.
“I would cry after every single board meeting, my housemates would have to caravan to come pick me up because I would be so upset after board meetings, because I frankly felt bullied,” Furtado said. “I didn’t feel like I was a voice that they wanted to be there, and that was really tough mentally to know that.”
Furtado said she was treated poorly by the ICC board in a meeting to discuss a large financial decision regarding Rivera.
“The main reason people had pushback was because it would require so much red tape, so many legal resources, it would require so much forethought and planning,” Furtado said.
LSA junior Amaya Farrell, a vice president in the ICC, said that according to meeting minutes, the major concerns were legal wording for fair housing laws. Farrell, who was not on the board at the time of the meeting, said she spoke with members attending that meeting who told her some of the representatives were fixated on the legal wording, which was not the focus of the proposal being discussed.
“The (two ICC Vice Presidents) could tell there was tension (because) one board rep continually worried about the legality in a nonproductive and non-appropriate manner for the time, and after the proposal passed the communication norms were talked about to remind (people) what they had agreed on for communication and behavior,” Farrell wrote in a text message to The Daily.
When asked about the criticisms and negative member experiences, current ICC President Julian Tabron, a Rackham student, acknowledged members feeling unwelcome or marginalized in the past.
“We do membership surveys and compare it (the data) with U of M, and we had a diversity issue a couple of years ago to a point where the ICC was less diverse than U of M, which was disappointing to me,” Tabron said. “I’m African-American and Native American, and I am trying to work towards making this a more welcoming environment, and I think that’s part of what Rivera is trying to do for marginalized individuals.”
To prevent situations like Furtado’s from taking place again, Tabron said there are bystander intervention training and microaggression training sessions open to all members of the ICC, as well as the dispute action and resolution team which handles internal conflicts within the co-op houses. The training sessions have worked in the past, Tabron said, and have helped the ICC break ties with racist and prejudicial members.
Tabron said he sympathizes with those who have experienced discrimination and uncomfortable situations within the co-ops.
“I’m sorry some members felt alienated or discriminated against in the past. As a member, I’ve experienced that too,” Tabron said. “I think the ICC is heading in a more positive, better direction where we can foster better healthy relationships in our own communities. We’re still working on it — it’s a work in progress.”
University alum Ramin Samei, who also worked to re-theme the house, experienced more support from the ICC. Samei said COVID-19 has been a challenge in transitioning Lester into Rivera.
“There has been a lot of support for this idea from within the ICC, like a ton of support from our board and from the staff, in making this dream a reality,” Samei said. “I think some of the challenges have been that we have so many people coming together on this, and all of us are going through the pandemic … this is a hard time to start anything. But I think overall, I’ve had a pretty good time (with) it just because there’s been such good support.”
The future ahead for Rivera House
Furtado said Rivera is at the forefront of real change for QTPOC students, in comparison to what she sees as failed attempts at transformation by the University and some of its organizations and initiatives.
“On UMich’s campus, there are so many empty shows of racial solidarity from white folks that are just really performative, and they’re shells of what they could be, and we didn’t want to do that,” Furtado said. “We wanted to be explicitly clear that this is something that will actually cause change and create a safe space and isn’t just putting a band-aid on all of the racial issues on campus, which so many initiatives have just done, if I’m being completely honest. We wanted something that would actually be transformative.”
Farrell said Rivera will serve as a physical space for the University’s QTPOC community.
“There’s spaces for people of color and there are spaces for LGBTQ+ individuals, but there’s very few spaces for those who are both,” Farrell said. “This is a very marginalized community within our student body and in our nation, and they’re very vulnerable to any sort of assault and violence. So (the ICC and Lester) decided that dedicating a space for these marginalized members of not only our cooperatives and the council, but also the Ann Arbor students, would be very beneficial in terms of giving them a safe space to center their needs and experiences.”
University alum Shelby Christensen, who was a member of the ICC diversity committee and is currently the vice president for facilities management in the ICC, said Rivera will be a vital space for QTPOC individuals.
“I know so many queer and trans people of color, and they all share a desire for spaces where they can be authentically themselves,” Christensen said. “And ally spaces are wonderful for that. But I think it’s really important that if we can provide a community that’s genuinely intended for those people, I think that would be the best.”
Although Rivera will be a designated safe space for the QTPOC community, all interested students can apply.
“Queer (and) trans people of color are welcome to every single co-op — we just felt that it was a good idea to dedicate a specific space for these individuals as well as anyone can live there,” Farrell said. “But they have to understand that the theme of the house is that you center the needs and experiences of queer (and) trans people of color specifically. And so when they enter this house, they understand that that is the atmosphere that they’re trying to create.”
LSA junior Marcus Spinelli da Silva said he saw an Instagram post about Rivera, which sparked his interest in applying to live there next semester.
“I am interested in applying because I like the ICC’s initiative about creating a space for queer people of color, because we are everywhere and don’t have a specific place where we can all be together,” da Silva said. “We need to be seen by the U of M community and also the queer community around here.”
Da Silva said he hopes Rivera will be an essential safe space for members of the QTPOC community like himself.
“Usually, people of color … are dealing with cops all the time,” Spinelli said. “They are marginalized. They have health care issues and all that. So, now, they have a safe place to live at that’s affordable.”
Daily Staff Reporter Martha Lewand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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