The University of Michigan’s sixth annual Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit took place virtually Monday for a second consecutive year. The summit focused on the “Parallel Pandemics” of both structural racism and COVID-19 on and off the University’s campus.
Byron D. Brooks, Education and Social Work graduate student and a member of the Student Advisory Planning Group, kicked off the virtual event with a spoken word performance on the injustices facing Black people in the United States.
“My brothers and sisters, it’s time that we as a people became woke,” Brooks said.
Multiple student groups participated in this event, with three students from the Black Leaders Art Collective performing a version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
After the performance, keynote speaker Soledad O’Brien — an award-winning journalist, entrepreneur and host of the weekly syndicated political show “Matter of Fact” — spoke about the importance of storytelling in media.
“The power is actually in the hands of people who decide what narratives are told and who gets the time or who is left out altogether,” O’Brien said. “What stories are elevated and who decides who gets one minute or 30 minutes. You can see it every day on the news today.”
O’Brien also discussed the results of a poll done by ABC News in 2021 on whether there is a broader problem in the treatment of Black Americans by the police in the United States. In 2021, 74% of Americans agreed, a significant increase from 43% of Americans in 2014. The reason, according to O’Brien, is partly due to the unrest after the killing of George Floyd.
“Some argue that the killing of George Floyd gave people who are often uncomfortable talking about race at all a vocabulary,” O’Brien said. “It gave them a point of reference for engaging in what is actually a complex and complicated discussion about race in America. Listen, ultimately, I think we as a nation can’t let COVID-19 lessen our commitment to diversity, because it could easily.”
After O’Brien’s keynote address, panelists Sydney Carr, president of Students of Color Rackham and Public Policy graduate student; Valarie Kaur, a renowned civil rights leader and best-selling author; Oluwaferanmi Okanlami, director of the Student Accessibility and Accommodation Services and assistant professor at Michigan Medicine; Jeff Witt, Organizational Development Lead and DEI Lead at the U-M Library spoke about the intersections of COVID-19 and systematic racism.
Kaur started the panel by connecting her family’s experience with O’Brien’s. Kaur said that when she thinks of social progress, now living in the United States with her children, she asks herself multiple questions.
“The future feels dark, but what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” Kaur said. “What if our America is not dead, but a nation still waiting to be born? What if all of our ancestors who struggled, who fought colonization, slavery, segregation, what if they are whispering in our ears now, ‘you are brave?’”
Carr said she was pleased with the way people are taking action to protest and send messages to people of color but hoped more action would be taken in the future.
“It seemed like people started to take action in ways that we have not seen before and it seemed like they started to protest particularly from non-Black and Brown people,” Carr said. “But, as a caveat to that, I think it’s also important that we can’t let it stop there.”
Racial minorities are not the only groups that faced struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic, Okanlami said, but the disabled community did as well.
“We (the disabled community) are not always recognized as a distinct community,” Okanlami said. “But what must be mentioned is the fact that while the entire world was struggling with access, access to COVID testing at first, access to vaccinations, access to medical care, access to remote learning and remote work, the disability community often felt like an afterthought.”
Robert M. Sellers, vice provost for Equity and Inclusion and chief diversity officer, delivered the event’s introductory speech earlier in the event. Sellers began with a land acknowledgement for Anishinaabe and Wyandot nations and said the summit marks the end of the first five-year DEI Strategic Plan.
“(We hope it will) elicit thoughtful reflection, stimulating penetrating dialogue, as well as motivating respectful engagement, and ultimately inspiring impactful action that will transform our community,” Sellers said.
University President Mark Schlissel also spoke at the event and said increasing the importance of DEI on the University’s campus is vital to building community.
“We cannot be excellent without being diverse,” Schlissel said. “We must ensure our community allows all individuals an equal opportunity to thrive.”
Schlissel said the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion is planning to send a census survey to faculty and staff, as well as a scientific sampling of the community, in the coming weeks.
“Our planning will include a census survey for all faculty and staff beginning in late October,” Schlissel said. “We want to know where we really made progress and where we need to try new approaches.”
Witt also spoke on the panel, comparing the protests of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement to modern-day racial justice movements. Witt said the protests for racial justice today are more racially diverse, and there are more white allies in the movement for social progress.
“I hope as … white allies, (we) can learn to move beyond just allyship and continue to learn and to listen and to humble ourselves and lean into being in solidarity with our BIPOC colleagues and family and friends and neighbors,” Witt said.
The panel ended with statements from Kaur about what she hopes the future will look like and how love can sustain community.
“In order to deliver the world we want, in order to sustain those policies, we need a shift in culture and consciousness,” Kaur said. “A new way of being and seeing each other that leaves no one behind. A revolution of the heart. And that means antiracism is the bridge, but beloved community is the destination.”
Daily News Contributor Rachel Mintz can be reached at email@example.com.