Aiming to highlight marginalized students on campus and promote social acceptance, LINK: Connecting Cross-Cultural Gaps Through a Common Language, a talent showcase hosted by student organizations Redefine, the Vietnamese Student Association and Zeta Omega Eta at the University of Michigan, was held Tuesday evening. 

The showcase, which featured speakers, dance groups, spoken-word, art, film and comedy, among other art forms, drew more than 250 students, faculty and community members. Before the speakers took the stage, attendees were able to browse photography exhibits and visual art from over 40 different artists who aimed at representing diversity among humanity.

The event began with a dialogue between two students, featuring a video that voiced the necessity of stripping away labels. In comparing labels to the cars we drive, the video explained we should focus on what’s on the inside rather than what is initially seen by the outside observer.

“Who would you be if the world never gave you a label, never gave you a box to check?” the video narrator said. “Would you be white, Black, Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern? No. We would be one. We’d be together, no longer living in the era of calling human beings Black people or white people. These labels that will forever blind us from seeing a person for who they are, but instead seeing them through the judgmental, prejudicial, artificial filters of who we think they are.”

Hawra Altaee, a University alum and clinical therapist, was the first speaker at the event and detailed her experiences fleeing from violence during the Persian Gulf War. Altaee was born in Iraq amid the war, and explained when she was an infant, her family fled to Saudi Arabia where they were promised a few weeks in a refugee camp. Instead, they were forced to remain for four years with limited living conditions in the desert. In 1995, her family was given the opportunity to be randomly selected to come to the United States and as she continued her academic career, her experiences led to a passion for social work.

Altaee encouraged attendees to recognize the choices given between allowing struggles to stop or halt future endeavors versus using them to our advantage. She highlighted the ambition she saw in the room and gave her best wishes to those present in pursuing future goals, however large or daunting they may initially seem.

“We have a choice as to whether we allow our struggles and our circumstances and our hurdles to motivate us or whether we allow them to be a chip on our shoulder and to hinder us,” Altaee said. “Everybody in this universe struggles equally but differently. We all have daily obstacles and challenges that we face whether it shows on our face or not, whether it’s apparent or hidden.”

Dean’s Fellow Sean Smith, a University alum, also took the stage to speak, highlighting the adjustments he had to make when he came to the University. He explained while the University presented the same kind of diversity as in New York City, groups seemed to be clustered racially with “invisible force fields,” between these different cultures.

“The first year I was here I didn’t really challenge that, and I went home that summer and I felt bad,” Smith said. “When I came back in the fall of 2015, I shopped around looking for a community, and I found pockets of like-minded people, but something was still missing.”

Smith presented “five practical points” to encourage breaking down barriers between groups, including being present and engaging with surroundings, challenging norms to enter new spaces, having the ability to discern feelings of discomfort and being intentional in making plans rather than suggestions. He also argued that the present is the most convenient time to make change, as “you don’t need a credential to treat someone decently.”

Other performances included those from dance groups Brazilian Zouk, Arabesque and Female Gayu, a presentation by Public Policy senior Ibrahim Ijaz on Arab calligraphy, as well as multiple vocal and spoken-word performances.

LSA sophomore Ceren Ege presented a spoken-word poem titled, “By Blood,” which illustrated experiences being raised in a Muslim community and spoke to her belief in the importance of challenging the assumption that people agree with every aspect of their cultural identity.

“As soon as my cherry red cheeks could speak my mother told me to repeat after her that I had been given the greatest gift of all and that that was family and that I would never love anyone more than my family,” Ege said. “I didn’t agree and I told her that expecting people to get along just because they’re in the same family is like expecting different types of fish to get along just because they’re in the same tank.”

LSA junior Mariam Reda, a co-founder of Redefine with LSA junior Hafsa Ghias, helped organize the event and highlighted her excitement promoting social acceptance through creative, student-led presentations and performances.

“The purpose of Redefine itself is to promote social acceptance through the creation and exhibition of original student talent,” Reda said. “(Looking around) I see so many different people of varying identities just coming to appreciate the same thing which I feel so happy about and I feel that we’re really making an impact and promoting the fact that dialogue doesn’t solely have to be through speech, it can be through creativity as well.”

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