A hundred students, alumni and faculty gathered in Keene Auditorium on Friday for the #WhatIDidThen panel, composed of student-activist alumni from various backgrounds and professional fields who have experience in community service.
From various backgrounds and professional fields, the panelists included state Rep.Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Government relations specialist Forrest Cox, Director of Operations (Brooklyn East Collegiate) Atiba Edwards, Research Assistant Diala Khalife, Consultor Donovan McKinney, Field Director Priscilla Martinez and Clinical Social Work Intern Alex Ngo.
Edwards, a resident of Brooklyn, was a founding member of Fighting Obstacles Knowing Ultimate Success, also known as FOKUS, a student advocacy group for diversity, creativity and unity in a variety of art disciplines.
When he first arrived on campus, Edwards said, he felt there was something missing at the University, but didn’t know what it was. He said he did not feel like the University was a true community and it was difficult to get involved in creative arts without pursuing a degree in one of the art programs.
FOKUS started as a way to bring together individuals of multiple backgrounds and interests under one organization. Much of his decision to start the program, Edwards said. stemmed from his Brooklyn roots.
“Along the way, the whole idea was figuring out how to connect with communities,” he said. “Growing up where I come from, in Brooklyn, my sense of community was very different than the sense of community in the circles I’ve passed through.”
He added that his involvement in FOKUS inspired him to continue a career in community involvement and education in Brooklyn, where he is currently the director of operations for Brooklyn East Collegiate.
“My time here has got me into a lot of things I’ve continued on into to this day,” he said. “The biggest thing I want to do is make connections and allow people to realize that those connections are real and possible. Building relationships within communities is highly important to me and one of the important things is the idea of, not necessarily creating a homogenous community, but looking at it more so as an assembly of individuals — we are all different humans in the room for a common purpose.”
Martinez attended the University as a transfer student and lived off-campus her first year — an experience she said was very isolating from much of the student activity on campus.
During her time at the University, her family was going through financial difficulties, and she said these experiences shaped her involvement in community action.
“Every day, I would have to drive from my house in Canton to this campus and my mom was really devastated about our economic situation,” Martinez said. “I had to come where people are wearing how much money they have and are just so different from anything I had seen. I had never seen this kind of money in my entire life and to see it every single day is just so brutal.”
Martinez was later selected as a field organizer for the Obama presidential campaign.
“For me, community organizing was my therapy,” she said. “I would not have survived if I hadn’t gotten involved as deep as I did.”
McKinney, a Detroit native, expressed similar sentiments to those of Martinez. He said he was raised in a single-parent household and was often subjected to impoverished conditions.
“I had all of the cards stacked up against me and I was thinking to myself, growing up, how can we make a difference?” McKinney said. “How can we get out of this situation? Why is it that we live in the richest country in the world and we have homelessness all around here, even in Ann Arbor?”
His experiences living in Detroit have inspired his continued dedication to serving and improving the city, he said.
“My grandmother always instilled in me this quote: ‘Never fight the urge to give,’ ” McKinney said. “From that point on, I decided to dedicate my life to service, dedicate my life to giving back, because I didn’t want people to go through the same things I had to go through.”
As a University student, McKinney was involved in the Black Action Movement and Black Student Union. He said attaining education was the key improving communities like Detroit.
“I focused that the best way out was to get an education and then use that education to come back to the city and motivate others, really use my knowledge, my skills, my talents, my abilities, to come back and teach one another,” he said. “That’s what we have to do.”
Engineering sophomore Victor Mondine said he found McKinney’s story inspirational because of his background as a Detroit Public Schools alum, and added the event helped him understand different ideas of social change.
“What I’ve most taken from it is that there are a lot of different ways that you can make a change,” Mondine said. “It doesn’t have to be running for political office. You can just start a group and make a change that way.”
Nursing junior Jasmine Johnson, who is on the committee of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the School of Nursing for the University’s strategic plan, said she hopes to take some of the ideas from the event to her group and college. She’s disappointed, she said, by other town hall meetings and discussions the University has held on topics of diversity.
“I am disappointed to see that, at the town halls the University has been holding, there is not a lot of faith in these committees,” Johnson said. “People don’t think there is going to be a difference.”