Members of the University community gathered at the University’s Flint campus Saturday morning for the inaugural Tri-Campus Community Engagement Summit, where students from the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint communities came together to explore issues including rights of campus workers, community organizing, body image and refugee support.
The event, which drew roughly 50 students, was centered around the theme of social justice and the University’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. symposium: #WhoWillBeNext. The day’s workshops and activities were entirely student-run, a product of planning and preparation from a cross-campus committee of student leaders.
In her opening address to students, Susan Borrego, chancellor of the University’s Flint campus, said though the meeting was held in Flint due to a scheduling conflict, the relocation was ultimately a valuable opportunity for students to engage in community networking within the context of the city’s current water contamination crisis.
“It couldn’t be a more important moment in the life of this community,” Borrego said, adding that she hopes students will consider not only the theme #WhoWillBeNext but also who will be now.
“Here we are today in the midst of one of the largest acts of injustice on a community for quite some time,” Borrego said. “It wouldn’t be completely accurate to say this is new.”
Outlining other instances of environmental injustice, such as contamination of water and improper waste disposal, she said then disproportionately affected low-income communities due to their lack of political capital.
She ultimately urged students to collaborate with each other and consider ways in which they could positively and respectfully impact the Flint community.
“The consciousness that we bring to this work always has to be ‘What’s our relationship to power in the community?’ — ‘what’s our relationship to power in our daily lives?’ ” Borrego said. “How do we not exploit a people but use our power and resources to make more space?”
Following Borrego’s address, students attended various workshops, all promoting community engagement and networking, and focusing on a different campus issue.
At the workshop on workers’ rights, students from the University’s chapter of Fight for 15, a student organization dedicated to encouraging the University to raise minimum wage for its student and non-student workers to $15, gave a presentation on their cross-campus work between the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses.
LSA junior Rebecca Wren, a member of Fight for 15, said she hopes the workshop will encourage students from the University’s other campuses to engage with the organization in the future. The organization is currently active on both the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses.
“One of the most rewarding experiences of doing the campaign is meeting the Dearborn students because I think there is a lot of isolation from the campuses in general,” Wren said, attributing the barrier between the Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses to a lack of transportation.
“If more things could bring the campuses together, I think that would be really great for students to see the differences in their campuses but also see the similarities we have together as students,” Wren added.
Teia McGahey, a junior in the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters at the University’s Dearborn campus, who is also involved in Fight for 15, echoed Wren’s optimism.
“I thought today’s conversation went really well. I think it just sort of reflects the whole conference — the power of bringing the three campuses together,” McGahey said. “A big part of why I’m here is student power, and knowing how much we can get done if we work together, and finally being able to bridge the gaps between Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Flint to really make big changes on our campuses and hopefully reflect the changes that students want to see for the future.”
Following the individual workshops, participants regrouped for a speech from the day’s keynote speaker Amy Kaherl, founder and director of Detroit SOUP.
Detroit SOUP is a dinner held at various locations throughout the city that raises money for microgrants to fund creative projects that impact the city of Detroit. Participants pay a suggested donation of $5 to attend a dinner at a venue in Detroit while listening to four project proposals in a variety of areas, including art, education, technology and urban agriculture. Participants then vote on which project they want to support and the winner receives all of the money earned and attends later SOUP dinners to report on their progress.
Kaherl emphasized to attendees that, beyond the various successful projects she has seen grow out of Detroit SOUP, she is incredibly satisfied by the collaboration and networking that results from each dinner.
“We’ve created these spaces for exchange — for conversation,” Kaherl said. “My favorite thing is that we’re listening, and we’re hearing and we’re engaging in these stories. Most of us probably think that as we’re thinking about starting something, we’re probably thinking of all the things we’re going to do wrong over all the things we’re going to do right. Our fears are the driver more than our empowerment, and so I think what happens is, at SOUP, we create this opportunity for these folks to feel empowered.”
Kaherl also stressed the importance of direct interpersonal contact and networking in the age of technology and online interaction.
“What I love about SOUP is that it removes that third wall,” she said. “You have to be human. You can’t be an asshole and a troll when that person’s standing right in front of you, sharing their story — sharing their thoughts and their dreams about how they might be able to make the city a little bit better.”
LSA junior Shamaila Ashraf said she was particularly inspired by Kaherl’s emphasis on direct interaction.
“I think the whole idea of the discussions and humanizing those discussions — so what SOUP does in terms of having you come in and talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to and foster that type of engagement — is something I’m heavily invested in,” Ashraf said.
She added this personal interaction is something she sees as critical in the engagement of all three of the University’s campuses.
“I think we forget that we have Dearborn students that are Michigan students,” she said. “We have an entire campus on Flint, and just having that type of engagement when we’re here we’re just students. That’s it. We’re not Ann Arbor kids; we’re not Dearborn kids. We’re just students.”
LSA junior Anushka Sarkar said Kaherl’s message of investing in rather than merely aiding the Detroit community personally resonated with her.
“They (Detroit SOUP) invest in the city and they truly work with the people instead of working for the people, and I think that by working with the community, you do invest in the next generation of people and ‘who’s next,’ ” Sarkar said.
She said she thought a classic example of not investing in community building to fix problems was being played out within Flint’s water crisis.
“I think the Flint water crisis that’s happening right now is the perfect example of the savior complex happening, at least from Ann Arbor to Flint,” Sarkar said.
In particular, she said she thought students’ efforts to bring water to Flint are neither an impactful nor useful use of resources.
“It’s just something that maybe that campus saw as a way for us to feel better about not having been engaged with Flint beforehand to address the problem” Sarkar said. “I think, in the future, when situations come up where there are constant problems that are playing in these three campuses, if we’re proactive about our relationship in dealing with those issues, we won’t have to fall into the savior complex.”
In regard to the summit overall, LSA senior Cooper Charlton, president of Central Student Government, said he was excited and impressed with the turnout and cross-campus collaboration.
“We haven’t really collaborated in the past, so I think this is one event that goes to show that we really do want to be more interactive — campus to campus — and unfortunately we felt really isolated in the past,” Charlton said. “I think just the gesture that we are collaborating is super special.”