In response to the growing visibility of white nationalist movements across the country and subsequent debates about free speech, the social justice nonprofit Michigan Student Power Network hosted a workshop Friday afternoon about the power of community organizing and action. The workshop was one of many events hosted during the conference “Building Power: Organizing Effectively Against White Supremacy,” which discussed topics like nonviolence and the Black Action movement.
Inspiration for the conference, which described itself as “Black-led,” stemmed from controversial events last year that received pushback from students and campus organizations. In November 2017, white supremacist Richard Spencer’s request to speak at the University of Michigan incited protests from the Black Student Union and the University’s chapter of the NAACP. Spencer cancelled his request to speak in January and canceled all national college tours after violence broke out at his stop at Michigan State University.
MSPN member Hoai An Pham, an LSA senior who helped lead the workshop, said the discussion was intended to challenge the belief that individual action is the best way to create meaningful change. Instead, Pham stressed the effectiveness of community activism.
“How many of you have heard the phrase, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world?’” Pham asked. “With our workshop based on collective action and saying why individual action isn’t enough, the meaning behind this phrase or the way that people have construed it is a little bit harmful. It perpetuates the idea that in order to see the change that we want to see in the world, to see a problem and want to change it, it’s individual responsibility.”
Pham noted how issues like white supremacy cannot be confronted by individual action because they are often systemic. The workshop discussed nationwide movements such as the Women’s March that has failed to address white supremacy. LSA senior Chanelle Davis, who also led the discussion, said the lack of Black student representation in meetings about Spencer’s proposed visit turned her off even though she was invested in the cause.
“Although the collaboration got it done — Spencer didn’t come — it was missing that piece about building sustainable organizing spaces and groups and relationships with folks,” Davis said.
Davis also mentioned how communities need to acknowledge the differences of opinion and background among their members.
“We each possess unique experiences and also different identities and we also face oppressions differently and at different levels, and we also have some privileges and things like that,” Davis said. “But everyone has a place in the larger work for justice.”
Kaitlyn Wilson, a Master’s student at the School of Social Work, acknowledged the uncertainty some white people may feel with their role in organizing against white supremacy. However, she expressed the importance of utilizing racial privilege to help dismantle it.
“I am a white woman," Wilson said. "For me, something like this, I might feel like maybe I’m not welcome because I’m kind of the group that we’re organizing against, but I think it’s important that white people like myself are also able to be a part of it and acknowledge our own privilege and use it to work towards dismantling white supremacy.”
“Oftentimes we are taught to look back in the past to build power upon what we’ve seen in history, but then also remembering that it’s necessary to revisit the history we’re told, who was writing that history, and also constantly challenging it,” Pham said. “Who was it written by? Whose voices is it representing?”
Wearing the organization’s signature “Midwest against capitalism” sweatshirt, MSPN statewide organizer Ian Matchett also said the workshop was ultimately meant to inform students and community members about how different types of oppression are interwoven.
“Racism and capitalism, especially in the United States, are part of the same system and are kind of inextricable,” Matchett said. “I think that the way that racism has developed in the United States is very much tied to the way capitalism has developed, and the two rely on each other a whole bunch. So if we want to undo any one form of oppression, we need to undo them all and capitalism is the ruling economic engine that is pulling resources out of communities.”
Daily staff reporter Zayna Syed contributed to this article.