University of Michigan alum Lee A. Gill, vice president for inclusion and equity at the University of Akron, addressed a group of more than 40 students at Rackham Amphitheatre Tuesday to outline connections between the Black Action Movement at the University during the 1970s and the #BBUM campaign launched in 2014.
The hashtag and social movement surrounding its use garnered national attention when thousands of people took to social media to describe their experiences being Black at the University of Michigan.
Hosted by the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, the event was the inaugural lecture for a slate of University Black History Month events. In the lecture, Gill highlighted connections between missions of activism during his time as a student and now.
“If we had social media then, we would be saying the same things you’re saying,” Gill said, referencing the #BBUM movement.
Discussing the 2003 Supreme Court ruling in Bollinger v. Grutter to uphold affirmative action at the University’s Law School, Gill referenced Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s opinion for the case in which she wrote she hoped diversity would not be an issue in 25 years.
Thirteen years after O’Connor delivered her landmark opinion, Gill said issues of diversity and inclusion are still impacting students. He urged audience members to take initiative in addressing these issues.
“It’s still an issue,” he said. “Guess who’s taking the battle now? It’s your battle.”
When asked by an audience member about reconciling social justice efforts with academics and other educational or personal activities, Gill said he didn’t balance the two very well, noting that he had to put his activism on hold once he went to law school.
He also shared his experience as an undergraduate student at the University, describing his time on campus as one of the best decisions he has ever made, as well as several stories of individuals who have inspired him to succeed in life.
Gill was appointed the University of Akron’s first associate vice president for inclusion and equity and the chief diversity officer in 2008 after its creation to facilitate diversity initiatives with recruitment on their campus.
He cited former Jon Onye Lockard in particular as being influential in his life, saying he was inspired by how Lockard got involved in initiatives of social activism.
Lockard was a muralist who drew on African influences in his paintings and a faculty member at the University and Washtenaw Community College from 1970 until his death in 2015. While at the University, Lockard co-founded the Society for the Study of African Culture and Aesthetics.
“He was the reason I was successful here,” Gill said, noting that Lockard was the senior art advisor for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.
Gill said his inspiration for the title of Tuesday night’s lecture, “If We Don’t Tell Them, They Won’t Know,” was derived from a song Lockard would play at the beginning of every lecture, the Three Mo’ Tenors’ “Let Them Hear You.”
Discussing his own involvement at the University, Gill highlighted his appointment as resident director of his floor in South Quad. According to Gill, a panel of housing employees initially denied him the job because he was Black. Gill successfully sued the University and after a more selective committee was appointed to review his candidacy, he received the job.
He said being a resident director at South Quad Residence Hall was what ultimately allowed him, along with the newly formed Minority Council on campus, to create multicultural lounges in residence halls.
“From the Minority Council, we began to push for what we called Black Housing Units,” he said. “But what the concept was, was that we were going to take a whole half side of South Quad, and we were going to have it mixed between white and Black and other ethnic groups. But the idea was to have a predominant number to be African American, so for the first time African Americans could be in the majority as opposed to being in the minority.”
Originally, the idea was approved by the Housing Policy Committee, Gill said, but the Board of Regents rejected it on the grounds that the policy was akin to segregation. The alternative that they offered was the creation of the multicultural lounges.
LSA junior Adelia Davis, a diversity peer education, said she was intrigued by the fact that the Black Action Movement of Gill’s time was responsible for the creation of the multicultural lounges in the University’s residence halls that she and other DPEs oversee.
“I found it very inspiring,” she said. “His story, the work he’s doing, and just his point of that the battle for freedom has to be won every generation. I get frustrated, because it’s a lot of the same issues that are recurring, but it totally makes sense: Each generation has to struggle for this freedom. It’s disappointing, but at the same time it just empowers us to always be aware and active in our community,” Davis said.
Public Policy senior Eric Riley said he was also surprised by the extent to which BAM was responsible for the multicultural lounges.
“We really are the fruits of his labor,” Riley said.
Leon Howard III, a program manager in the Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, said while students today are fighting the same fight as those in Gill’s time, he thought progress was being made.
“They are standing on the shoulders of others,” he said.