Graphic by Priya Ganji/Daily.

“Ujima,” meaning collective work and responsibility in Kiswahili, is a concept that defines the importance of unified action to create change. The term often materializes by way of strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest. Integral to Black activism at the University of Michigan, Ujima has inspired visible change, including the formation of alliances between student groups, the establishment of an academic department for Black students and uplifting spaces for minority students on campus. To capture the practice and impact of the concept, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies‘ Program Manager Elizabeth James, LSA senior Solomon Lucy and U-M alums Kai Dotson and Justin Williams from the Black Student Union curated an exhibit using its name — “UJIMA: Collective activism at the University of Michigan.”

Located at the south end of Haven Hall, the exhibit includes descriptions, posters and photographs from as early as 1853 and as recent as 2017. It presents multiple campaigns and activist groups that aimed to address discrimination against Black students through community organization and coalition-building. 

Those unable to visit UJIMA in person can still engage with the exhibit by visiting the virtual gallery, which provides just as illuminating of an experience. Administrative Coordinator at DAAS Arielle Chen, who managed the creation of the virtual gallery, noted that she and her colleagues aimed to make the gallery accessible to a wide array of people, including neurodivergent individuals and people with visual and auditory impairments. When speaking about her motives behind creating the virtual gallery, Chen stated that “art tends to be for the elite,” but by making the exhibit public and accessible, students and other members of the Ann Arbor community could actually benefit from it. With access, viewers can learn about the several Black student-led movements that have shaped the University for the better.

Among these student-led movements was a sit-in following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., held on the day of his burial, April 9, 1968. On the same day, members of the then-newly established BSU locked themselves inside the Administration Building and demanded an increase in funding and Black representation amongst faculty. The sit-in pressured the University to establish the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies — now called DAAS — which serves as an academic department devoted to Black studies. However, the number of Black faculty had barely increased by 1970, sparking a wave of protests known as the first Black Action Movement. This time around, not only did the BSU play a critical role, but other Black student organizations — such as the Black Law Student Alliance, Black Medical Students, Association of Black Social Work Students, Black Psychologist Organization and Black Educational Caucus — did as well. And, in 1970, after administrators disregarded demonstrations for months, then-University President Robben Fleming agreed to meet with the aforementioned groups. Collectively, the organizations issued a list of demands to the University:

1. 10% Black enrollment by fall 1973.

2. 900 new Black students by fall 1971 – 450 freshmen, 150 transfers, 300 graduate students.

3. An adequate supportive services program, including financial aid to finance Black students’ education.

4. Graduate and undergraduate recruiters (9) to recruit Black students.

5. A referendum to the March Student Government Council ballot to have students vote on assessing themselves $3.00 for one year for the Martin Luther King Scholarship Fund.

6. Tuition waivers for minority group students who are also residents of the state of Michigan.

7. The establishment of a community-located Black Student Center.

8. All work of a permanent nature on the Black studies program is to be halted until an effective input is fully developed by a community-university forum.

9. The creation of a university-wide appeal board to rule on the adequacy of financial aid grants to students.

10. A revamping of the Parent’s Confidential Statement.

11. There should be one recruit for Chicano students to ensure 50 Chicano students are admitted by fall 1970.

12. Black students are to be referred to as Black, not Negro or anything else.

Courtesy of Neil Joseph Nakkash/MiC.

More than half a century since the protests erupted, the University has not satisfied these demands. Despite the University’s inaction, BAM demonstrated the strength of collective action, successfully advocating for the establishment of the first minority institutions on campus. Black students demanded the establishment of a community-located Black Student Center, which led to the foundation of the Trotter House and Ambatana Lounge — the first spaces dedicated to minority students on campus. Today, a newly-renovated Trotter Multicultural Center exists in these buildings’ places after Black students campaigned for a more accessible institution in early 2014. 

While BAM was one of the first Black student-led movements on campus, GalleryDAAS’ exhibit features many coalitions and protest movements that also practiced Ujima. In the 1980s, Black activism started to transcend beyond merely targeting racial discrimination on campus. In tandem, Black students and allies began protesting against apartheid in South Africa and discrimination against Indigenous and Mexican American students.

With each movement, student activists issued more demands. But, for the University, more demands meant more neglect, as administrators further disregarded the actions its students felt were needed. 

Courtesy of Neil Joseph Nakkash/MiC.

When addressing racism on campus, University administrators have issued statements condemning discrimination. However, they have increasingly failed to meet the demands presented to them by Black and other minority students, showing the performative nature behind their comments. The first demand of BAM was for the University’s student body to include a Black population of 10% — a number then reflective of the state’s percentage of Black residents. Not only has the University failed to meet this quota, it has regressed in doing so. In the 1970s, the peak percentage of Black students at the university was 7.7%. Today, Black students make up 5% of the University of Michigan’s student body. When this number is compared to the percentage of Black residents in Michigan, approximately 14%, it ranks the University of Michigan as third-worst among public universities in terms of Black student enrollment.

Courtesy of Neil Joseph Nakkash/MiC.

Despite the University’s lack of progress on the matter, it is still essential to underscore Black activism, unity and resilience on campus. UJIMA does exactly this, presenting the ongoing struggle of Black students, professors and alumni, but also, more importantly, their triumphs as a community. With justified dissatisfaction, activists still strive for legitimate action, such as diversity policy that provides Black students with organizing spaces, rather than performative action, such as marketing campaigns that aim to propel an inaccurate representation of the student body’s diversity. While UJIMA exists as a recollection of Black protest on campus, the need for the University to meet decades-old demands and adequately combat racial injustice remains.

MiC Columnist Neil Nakkash can be reached at nakkashn@umich.edu.