The University of Michigan’s School of Social Work held a day-long event Thursday focused on engaging participants on strides made by members of the Black community and its allies in the digital age.
#UMBlackout, held in Rackham Graduate School, featured a panel discussion, several keynote speakers and multiple workshop sessions for an audience of more than 50 students.
The day began with a keynote address from Dr. Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University African and African American Studies professor, who spoke on the relationship between young Black Americans and traditional media outlets. Neal said he believes this group is turning away from traditional media to express their sentiments of social change through mediums like Twitter and other social media platforms.
He elaborated on the shift through citing differences in how young African Americans reacted to the death of Michael Brown and the way he was portrayed in mass media. Brown, who was shot by police in Ferguson, Mo. in August 2014, was a catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement and sparked a national conversation on police brutality.
Young people reacted to Brown's death, Neal said, by creating an online movement with the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.
“So they began this moment, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, understanding that if they were in Mike Brown’s shoes, media might use a certain kind of portrait of them that fit into this criminalized narrative,” Neal said.
Amber Williams, primary event organizer and Social Work graduate student, said #UMBlackout was conceived as a space where community organizers and scholars could have an intellectual space centered around digital media and its importance to current Black activism. Williams said the event was meant to address both local and national issues of inclusion, access, climate, police brutality and violence against the black community.
“(#UMBlackout) is relevant because of what you see happening on our own campus,” Williams said. “It’s really a response to what we see happening.”
Following Neal's presentation, audience members broke into groups for workshop sessions, one of which practiced creating a social justice hashtag in response to a fictional event.
Community organizer and educator Zellie Imani, who led the hashtag workshop, discussed the importance of the Black community’s online presence and how collective action online can’t be met with police brutality as it can in person.
“It doesn’t matter if you left the hood per se,” Imani said. “Black bodies are never safe from state violence.”
In a talk later that day, social activist Kim Katrin Milan spoke about how the Black community uses social media as an outlet, and how they find solace in an online community. Milan mentioned a tweet she saw on her feed discussing the reality of Black History Month as celebration of Black firsts as merely being an example of Black Americans assimilating into white spaces.
“We’ve been doctors for, I don’t know, several thousand years?” Milan said. “We’re not new to this, you know? And it’s really important that those things are framed in that kind of context.”
Milan said she felt relief when she saw that tweet because it expressed how she felt while being unable to articulate the idea herself.
“It was only when I saw this and read this when I was like, ‘Right, you totally put into words something that I’ve been trying to express,’ ” she said.
After the talk, participants broke into groups for a second round of workshops, including a discussion focused on the #BBUM movement and social media’s role in Black activism at the University.
History graduate student Austin McCoy said social media was important for Black students at the University to engage with one another and find support. This push online eventually culminated in the #BBUM movement.
“You can frame your issue or build your narrative or tell a story using social media,” McCoy said. “Using social media gives everyone a role to play in your movement.”
LSA senior Rolly Abiola said she wanted to attend #UMBlackout because she knew it would affirm her intersectionality of identities.
“Going to school here, things can get very difficult,” Abiola said. “I very rarely get to attend events that affirm vital aspects of my identity.”
Abiola said she would walk away from the event feeling she has the opportunity to live a life true to herself, and she hoped her peers would understand that they are important individuals.
“Their way of seeing themselves, their way of acting, their way of behaving, their way of moving is just as important regardless of what anybody says,” Abiola said.
Abiola added that she hopes the University fosters an environment where events like #UMBlackout are more common and prominent.
“If you don’t give us space to flourish, if the University doesn’t take it upon themselves to create room for us, they are stifling us,” she said.