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In response to the racist and anti-semitic email hackings last month, the University of Michigan student organization Students4Justice published a public list of demands for University President Mark Schlissel, one of which was the creation of a physical space for students of color on campus to organize and enact social change. The request has since gained traction. S4J Core Organizer Lakyrra Magee, LSA junior, has confirmed the group has found a temporary space for student activists to work, but has no official funding or physical center as of yet.
In its demands, S4J said the new activism center should be separate from the Trotter Multicultural Center and should be specifically for students of color — allowing students access, with special recognition toward minorities.
Magee said S4J wants the center’s budget to include a library for social movement literature for activists. She also said the use of the library as an archive for the University’s activism history is crucial to the group’s plan.
“We also want archived past University work, so we want it to have access to previous movements from students, both online and in paper and news articles and things like that, that documents all of the activism that’s happened throughout the years at the University of Michigan,” she said. “We also just want it to be a space for students to get together in order to better prepare themselves to do said work.”
S4J Core Organizer Vikrant Garg, a Public Health student, said a new activism center would spark more social innovation on campus. He cited institutions such as the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, minority cultural lounges and others as ideas that have been created by students.
“If you think about it ideologically, what a student activist center would be would be a center that really fosters a lot of what has made this University better over time,” Garg said. “There are so many things that have been created at this University by students and by their activism.”
In the University’s 35-page response to all of S4J’s initial demands, released in February, the University said cross-cultural spaces already exist on campus, an example being The Connector that bridges the Michigan Union and West Quad Residence Hall. The report said the current plan for a new Trotter Multicultural Center closer to Central Campus addresses S4J’s original demand. Another future idea outlined in the response would create a social justice institute, which would include areas for student activists to work.
However, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the document is just a starting point for discussion, not a final decision.
Many students and faculty are comparing this request to the Baker-Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education, a social activism space for students that was active in the ’80s and ’90s. The BMC was founded in 1988 by students Premilla Nadasen, Barbara Ransby, Tracye Matthews and members of the United Coalition Against Racism.
The circumstances surrounding the BMC’s closing are unclear. However, according to Fitzgerald, there was never an official decision to remove the BMC from campus. He said the center slowly faded away after the founding students started to move away or focus on other issues. The University could not give specifics on when the BMC dismantled and the Daily last reported on its existence in September 1994. A Daily article from November 1995 reported on students’ calls for its reinstatement.
Nadasen said the incidents leading up to the founding of UCAR in 1987 and subsequently the creation of the BMC, involved racist flyers around campus, similar to the flyer incidents last semester. She said the purpose of the BMC was to not only help student activist find resources but to bring racial issues into the classroom.
“One of the goals of the BMC was to create an alternative curriculum, one that made the theories that we were learning in our classes relevant to everyday people and to our lives so we sought to link intellectualism and activism,” she said. “We wanted to have a space that was available for students of color and we were available to all students on the campus who were interested in anti-racist education.”
In 2013, Rackham student Garrett Felber cofounded the United Coalition for Racial Justice, which took inspiration from Nadasen’s UCAR. After researching the UCAR and talking with former UCAR members about the BMC, Felber began researching the original center as part of a racial justice proposal. In an email interview, Felber said the BMC had ingrained diversity into the center’s functions.
“BMC by-laws specified that the board must be a majority women and people of color,” Felber wrote. “For example, in 1993, it was 74 percent female, 61 percent Black, 9 percent Latina, 9 percent LGBTQ.”
Felber said getting funds for the BMC was a similar process to S4J’s proposal for the new center: primarily by the University.
“Funding was provided by outside philanthropic grants such as the social justice group, Funding Exchange, as well as small donations from community members, fundraising events, and donations from UM offices,” Felber wrote. “Almost 90% of funding came from grants, most of which were provided by the University.”
In response to S4J’s new proposal, Felber wrote the plan reflects the long traditions Garg mentioned of students creating change on campus. He wrote students are the main purveyors for racial justice and program innovation at the University.
“Nothing meaningful for racial justice on campus comes from top-down leadership models,” Felber wrote. “It is only through organized, thoughtful study and agitation by students and the community that administrators are pressed to come up with a program.”
Research fellow Austin McCoy, who studies and teaches about racial justice, believes the University’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan needs student-run resources like S4J’s activism center in order to make a difference in campus climate and change the University’s outlook on social activism.
“If the administrations are trying to implement any sort of campus-wide Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan, a lot of times they’re going to need to be able to draw on resources from undergrads and grad students who are on the ground,” McCoy said. “These students are actually a resource who are trying to … implement DEI policy so I think such a (S4J) resource center could directly assist this institution.”
Instead of seeing the need for another student activism center as repeating past efforts with no change in between, Nadasen said the new center builds off the BMC and provides another stepping stone in the fight for diversity and racial justice.
“There are cycles of student organizing and student activism and I think those cycles are important and they do lead to incremental change,” she said. “I think the universities of today and the University of Michigan looks very different today than it did 60 years ago and part of the reason for that is because of the ways in which student activism has made demands on the University and the ways in which they have tried to hold the University accountable.”