University launches initiatives to promote inclusion

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By Emilie Plesset, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 2, 2014

This article is part of a Michigan Daily effort to increase coverage of issues related to diversity, inclusion and identity on campus. Read more about the initiative here.

After a year when the University’s struggle to foster inclusion on campus resonated both in Ann Arbor and across the country, the administration has rolled out several initiatives and programs designed to address some of the institution’s ongoing challenges.

On top of the hard policy changes the University’s Black Student Union called for last winter, the University’s Office of Student Life has launched two new programs with the aim of gradually creating a more inclusive campus culture by reshaping everyday communication and interaction. Both initiatives — the Inclusive Language Campaign and Change it Up! program — kicked off this fall.

These new attempts to improve campus climate come after several events pushed discussions about the experiences of minority students to the forefront of the University policy agenda.

Last fall, the fraternity Theta Xi’s planned “Hood Ratchet” party drew sharp criticism for its racialized theme. In November, the BSU began the #BBUM Twitter campaign, in Black students tweeted about their experiences at the University.

Many of these tweets detailed negative experiences, including campus tolerance for racial bias and a lack of minority voices, and called for the University to change its approach to diversity on campus.

In a September interview with The Michigan Daily, E. Royster Harper, vice president of student life, said for campus culture to become more inclusive, the University community must advance cultural shifts and promote a stronger sense of unity among members of the student body.

“We can all decide to watch out for each other,” she said. “It’s a choice we make all the time.”

Concerns about diversity and the respect afforded to people of all identities are not new issues. The Expect Respect Campaign, which aims to “create and maintain a respectful and inclusive environment that provides the support and opportunity necessary for each member of our community to prosper and achieve,” began in 2005 in response to a widely known incident where two students were harassed and assaulted due to their ethnicity. The campaign was created as a way for students to anonymously report instances of violence and hate on campus.

Despite its relative longevity in the University community, Expect Respect is also working on new initiatives to address some of the institutions contemporary challenges. Organizers are currently developing a student steering committee to create new programs that encourage a respectful campus environment, including collaborations with various departments and organizations like Greek Life and University Health Service.

Inclusive Language Initiative

Despite Expect Respect’s initial popularity, LSA junior Kidada Malloy, an Expect Respect program assistant, said she is worried the program isn’t as impactful now that all of the students who initially spearheaded the program graduated.

Malloy said she hopes the Inclusive Language Campaign will reintroduce some of the same themes promoted by Expect Respect. The ILC, which started at the beginning of the semester and is modeled after a similar program in Maryland, aims to educate students about the power of words and their potential to cause offense.

“I’m really happy we have the ILC this year that does more action around campus,” Malloy said. “A lot of students know about the Expect Respect pledge and they know that on campus they’re supposed to be respectful of people of different cultures, but I’m not sure if they actually do that. The ILC actually gets them to do those things that Expect Respect wants from the community. I’m excited to bring it back.”

The ILC began with an event where about 400 students and staff signed a pledge to avoid using harmful language and to strive for inclusive dialogue.

“A lot of the time we use words without understanding the impact they have on others,” said Meghan McCullough, a graduate student in the School of Social Work and a Diversity and Inclusion intern. “The ILC is about raising awareness about how other people are impacted by the words that we use and how that contributes to our campus culture as a whole.”

Malloy said that while organizers engaged in discussion about how to prevent larger scale events like the “Hood Ratchet” party, the ILC is more focused on combating day-to-day micro-aggressions and promoting thoughtful language.

“A lot of what students experience on campus are little comments or phrases that they overhear in class or just when they’re walking by that are also triggering that maybe don’t receive as much attention because they just happen in passing,” Malloy said. “ILC is a great program because it will improve the day-to-day language of students on campus by providing education around words that are offensive.“

McCullough said the campaign is reaching out to the student body by encouraging students to share their experiences with hurtful language. Students can fill out postcards with thought bubbles that start a potential sentence with, “Would you… If you knew…” Organizers hope to feature about 250 of the cards on a clothesline in the Michigan Union later this month.

“We want to elevate people’s voices and experiences,” McCullough said. “It’s this whole idea about how our words and our actions contribute to a larger campus climate and a campus culture. We want to highlight the connection between our words and actions in promoting inclusivity.”

Harper, the vice president of student life, said programs like the ILC break down discussions of inclusive language to the basics of what it means to be human.

“We have to be able to connect with compassion to a greater degree in this culture,” McCullough said. “That means going into the hard places of wanting to learn about the truths that other people hold and then explore, with honestly, our own truths as well. I think that in order to do that we have to not just have diversity in numbers, but spaces and cultures that seek to learn about other people’s realities in an honest and inquiring way. That to me is our biggest challenge, but also our opportunity to be positioned to form genuine bonds across lines of difference.”

Change it Up!

Launched this year, Change it Up! is a bystander intervention program designed to equip students with the skills needed to intervene in situations that are harmful, hateful, disrespectful and potentially unsafe. The program is mandatory for first-year students.

Will Sherry, interim director of the Spectrum Center, said that while many programs and student organizations discuss diversity, inclusion and social justice, there wasn’t a program focused on introductory skills where students could understand and learn how to promote campus inclusivity.

“One of the strengths is that the Change it Up! program is so connected to other initiatives going on around campus that really seek to develop a more inclusive campus,” he said. “The more students, faculty, grad students, staff, everyone, are hearing similar messages and similar techniques, the more change we will see.”

About 100 students attend each 90-minute session, which emphasizes how students come from different backgrounds and must widen their perspectives about the people around them.

“Some things that make us feel different are not the same as things that make other people feel different,” he said. “It is our responsibility as community members to being to notice things that are going on in our residence halls and our classrooms that affect other people that maybe don’t affect us.”

The workshop partners with the University Educational Theatre Company to use interactive performances to coach students how to approach offensive situations through direct intervention, distraction, delegation, or by delaying confrontation if the environment is unsafe.

Nursing freshman Hannah Glanzman said the course might have been more helpful if it further discussed how to prevent situations rather than how to approach them once they happen.

“It didn’t make me feel more comfortable to intervene in awkward situations when things are going wrong,” Glanzman said. “I’m still nervous to do that. I don’t know if you can just make people more comfortable.”

The program is still new and has only completed roughly 15 of the 65 workshops slated to run this semester, but Sherry said so far much of the feedback has been positive.

“I absolutely do believe the program has an impact,” Sherry said. “That impact can affect campus climate in that microaggressions can be reduced so the many spaces in which students are hearing and feeling messages that who they are doesn’t belong based on the language other people are using, the way other people are engaging them or the costumes that people are wearing for Halloween. Those things can be reduced based on a program like this setting a standard that, at the beginning of your first year, talks about some of the cultural values at the University of Michigan and some skills to enact those values.”

Public Policy junior Hattie McKinney, BSU co-programming chair, said that while the University has been working to address create a more inclusive campus climate, it will take time to see whether these efforts are effective.

“I feel that the University is working with a diverse group of students on campus to address the concerns that were brought up last year and to do all that it can to change the climate on campus,” McKinney said. “Anything of good quality takes time and it’s definitely not an overnight thing.”