After garnering support from students and faculty at all three University of Michigan campuses, a campaign called #WeExist to add a Middle Eastern/North African identity category to University documents launched Monday night. A running online petition features more than 350 faculty and staff signatures in support of the identity box.
“For the University, the ability to ascertain who identifies with the ME/NA community is a necessary step in developing programs and interventions to address any disparities and to achieve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) goals,” the petition reads.
Data from the sample campus climate survey found ME/NA-identifying students to make up 4 percent of the student body. Resolutions in favor of creating a Middle Eastern/North African identity category were passed by Central Student Government last February and by LSA Student Government last month — the CSG resolution passed unanimously.
This lack of a Middle Eastern/North African option on University documents from application forms to financial aid is mirrored by the U.S. Census documents sent out every 10 years. The Arab American Institute has been leading the charge on this issue, saying the current method of tabulating the number of ME/NA citizens in the country is inaccurate. Including the ME/NA category, some argue, would have positive effects on issues of health, education and more.
According to the Arab American Institute, adjusted for under-reporting, Michigan is ranked second in the nation for highest Arab-American population. The same case study reports the number of Michigan residents who claim an Arab ancestry has almost tripled since 1980.
LSA senior Jad Elharake, one of the main organizers of the campaign, sent a petition to University faculty and staff a few days ago outlining the movement and his reasons why the identity category should be added. He said a number of campus communities illustrate campus-wide support for the initiative.
“(The ME/NA community) is a community on campus that’s not being recognized and not being acknowledged really, especially when you don’t have a checkbox on University documents,” Elharake said. “Us not having this checkbox removes a lot of potential support for us and really puts us behind compared to many other communities on campu,s and so this is what it means to us and why it’s so critical.”
Sally Howell, the director of the Center for Arab American Studies at U-M Dearborn, supports the campaign and said the high proportion of Arab-American students at the Dearborn campus and surrounding cities cannot be accurately measured without a ME/NA identity checkbox.
“We don’t want to count Arab Americans or Middle Eastern Americans just so we can know how many there are but this is a community that has, for the last 20 years roughly, been treated differently by our society, been thought of different and represented differently in the media and treated differently by the U.S. government,” Howell said. “Therefore, their experiences of citizenship and the lives of our students on campus, they’ve experienced the world a little bit differently than other people so we need to know what the issues they’re facing are. We need to know how well they’re doing as a community.”
According to a USA Today Diversity Index report, the odds of selecting two Michigan residents randomly and having them be of different ethnic or racial backgrounds will jump from 39 percent to 60 percent by 2060. Faced with these reports and the already large concentration of Arab Americans in Michigan, Elharake said, after talking with alumni, the ME/NA identity category conversation has been circulated among ME/NA communities at the University for years now.
“This has been a conversation for over a decade and it’s been, in a sense, every year it’s been pushed off and pushed off and pushed off, and we don’t have time for that anymore,” Elharake said. “Enough is enough and this is the time for it.”
Elharake said he plans to bring the petitions from students, faculty and speakers to the next Board of Regents meeting on Dec. 7.
Howell said she has seen large amounts of support from students, faculty and administration at the Dearborn campus for the initiative. She said the issue is not a question of whether the checkbox should be added but, rather, how to go about implementing it.
“I’ve seen the interest,” Howell said. “The students seem to understand the issue and how important it is across the spectrum of different kinds of student organizations and students representing different populations on campus. There’s just overwhelming support for the idea.”