Redefining a space: Trotter hopes to expand its community

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Jessica Thompson, Trotter operations and events coordinator, at the Trotter Multicultural Center Buy this photo

By Sam Gringlas, Senior News Editor
Published November 10, 2014

In a darkened basement on Washtenaw Avenue, half a dozen students gathered Nov. 7 to watch old episodes of “Scandal” over Coldstone ice cream and waffle cones.

Attendance was slimmer than the previous week’s event. On Halloween, a couple dozen people crowded the Trotter Multicultural Center for an afternoon showing of the film “Hocus Pocus.” That group was so large the hot soup bar ran out early.

With new programming and advisory boards, formed under the leadership of recently appointed Trotter director Jackie Simpson, the center is hosting a full lineup of its own programming for the first time in years.

Trotter previously served largely as a facility that student cultural groups, such as the Michigan Gospel Choir or the Michigan Sahana, used for their own practice or meeting space. But apart from a 72-hour study break during finals, Trotter lacked a unifying program schedule to directly facilitate interactions between communities of different racial or ethnic identities.

Many students and Trotter staff say weekly programming represents a broader shift in vision for the role the center should play on the University’s campus.

Jessica Thompson, Trotter operations and events coordinator, said the center is trying to do a better job engaging a wide cross-section of the University community.

“We’ve got to encourage community, but we can’t just say it,” she said. “We’ve got to be about it and we have to teach what community looks like.”

School of Social Work student Charisma Hoskins, a member of Trotter’s programming board, said she noticed a significant number of new people to Trotter at last month’s Halloween event.

“It gives them the feel that this is an open space for everybody and everyone’s welcome,” she said. “It’s getting different people into the Trotter building. We’re creating that cohesiveness now.”

Founded in 1971, the Trotter Multicultural Center emerged from the Black Action Movements of the late 1960s as a dedicated space for Black students on a campus that was primarily white. The first house at the corner of South and East University Streets hosted workshops led by Black artists, parties, dances, a weekly luncheon and a chess clinic.

When fire destroyed that facility a year later, Trotter moved to its current location on Washtenaw Avenue, in a former fraternity house built in 1924. Though Trotter had its beginnings as a Black cultural house, the center was officially rebranded as a multicultural center in the early 1980s.

Simpson said Trotter’s mission has changed with the University’s student body, whose population of minority students has grown to include a more diverse array of cultural backgrounds.

Today, Trotter is still trying to refine a vision for the space and the kinds of communities its designed to serve.

“I’m sure that at one point or even now, this may have felt like a members-only space and it is so not that,” Thompson said. “This is a space for all of our students. And a conversation that we all had is that we say Trotter is a home away from home and that it’s a safe space. But for those students who aren’t looking for that, who don’t need that, how do we also support them?”

Simpson, who led the University’s Spectrum Center before taking the helm at Trotter over the summer, said it’s not unnatural for students to crave a space designated for people with identities similar to their own.

“If I spend all day in a primarily heterosexual world, well when I go home to relax, I don’t necessarily want to spend my relaxing time in spaces where I don’t know whether people are going to accept me,” she said. “I’m going to naturally flow to places where I think I’m going to be supported. So I might go to the Jim Toy Community Center or the Aut Bar or hang out with my friends. So it’s not a bad thing or unnatural, it’s just there needs to be a bit more balance where we challenge ourselves to believe that we actually can have safe spaces and comfortable spaces around people who seemingly might be different.”

With new programs that have the potential to draw a wider audience, staff and student leaders are trying to mold an institution that can challenge students to step outside of their cultural comfort zones while maintaining a space that’s comfortable and homey.

“So if we have a space that’s for student organizations that might have different opinions and different philosophies, that’s going to be a different space than a space that’s designated as a lounge to hangout,” Simpson said. “In this area, these are the principles. If you’re in this big student org space, it’s expected there’s going to be challenge and dialogue and debate. But when you come here, that’s not what we’re trying to create here. This isn’t a debate space. And that’s OK. And we’re just going to have to be clear about what the spaces are meant to elicit.”

Trotter’s likely move to a new Central Campus location in the next five years could exacerbate this challenge. Though the University’s Black Student Union called for a Trotter that’s closer to campus — a demand the University has preliminarily agreed to — the center’s off-the-beaten-path location has shaped the facility as a destination spot.

The current distance from campus means it is less likely that passersby will stop in to explore. That reality has resulted in a space that’s feels homey and safe for students who frequent the facility, but also a space that is not well known or widely used by the general student population.

Though a more constant flow of students into a Central Campus location might make it difficult to maintain Trotter’s atmosphere of refuge, Simpson said the benefits of increased traffic outweigh the challenges.

“I see it as a good thing,” she said. “Because the truth is we all have to learn how to engage with each other — (with people) who don’t have the same kind of experiences we do, who don’t have the same skin color we do, who don’t have the same sexual orientation we do, the same gender, the same religion. This is a practice site in some way to have the opportunity to learn how to do that and expand on this notion of not only creating a global society, but a peaceful one.”

However, Rackham student David Green, co-supervisor of Trotter’s programming board, said it is critical that students new to the facility understand Trotter’s legacy and purpose.

“It will not be a place normative students can claim as their own without recognizing the historical weight of the situation,” he said. “We don’t want to lose sight of that on campus and we don’t want the space exploited by people who do not understand the history of the center.”

A Central Campus location may alleviate some of Trotter’s current challenges, but for now, the center is still grappling with how to raise awareness about its re-envisioned programming mission.

Green said that for many people, particularly white students, Trotter is perceived as a place primarily meant for people of color. He said that’s just not true.

“Everyone is part of the multicultural-ness, if you’re white, if you’re Black, if you’re Native American,” he said.

Thompson said there has been a lack of awareness of Trotter’s offerings and the staff has to do a better job reintroducing the facility to campus.

“We can’t just sit right here and expect folks to come,” she said. “We have to go out and get you.”

Many of Trotter’s leaders recognize the potential for increased education about the center’s programs, but Green said the University has failed to introduce incoming students to Trotter’s offerings, particularly during freshman orientation.

“Students will go to the Union, they will go to the (block) ‘M’ on the Diag, they will go all across that central area, and they will not walk down here,” he said.

“I don’t think the University has done enough. If you talk about diversity and student life, it should be the first thing that students know.”

Though Trotter may not be the most recognizable building on campus, especially in comparison to iconic structures like Angell Hall or Hill Auditorium, it has garnered increased attention in recent months.

During a year when several incidents, followed by a series of protests led by the BSU, catapulted issues of diversity, identity, race and inclusion to the forefront of campus conversation, Trotter emerged as a key piece of the dialogue.

Since last year, the University spent $650,000 to renovate the current facility and an advisory team has begun meeting with architects to plan for a new space in the next three to five years.

And though Green said Trotter should have a voice at the table, it can’t be the only organization driving the conversation.

“This is a space where it’s productive and generates ideas, but it’s not the only institution on campus that needs to address these things,” he said.

For Thompson, student protests, combined with the goals and leadership of the center’s new director, forced Trotter to consider change.

“I think we got comfortable being what we were, therefore not pushing ourselves and challenging ourselves to be what we need to be,” Thompson said. “(The students) forced to us to hold the mirror up and we’ve made some changes. I don’t know that we’ve nailed it just yet, and I’m okay with not nailing it because that’s me willing to accept that we will continue to have to revisit this and grow and change with the times and the needs of our students.”