A 50-year celebration for multicultural lounges occurs at the Michigan Union ballroom Tuesday night. Sydney Hastings-Wilkins/Daily. Buy this photo.

University of Michigan community members gathered at the Michigan Union Tuesday to celebrate the 50th anniversary of multicultural lounges in University residence halls. Current students, alumni and legacy groups were in attendance for the event, which featured the commemoration of a time capsule scheduled to be opened in 25 years. The event also featured several speakers and musical performances from the Women’s Glee Club.

Multicultural spaces in residence halls serve to commemorate activists from underrepresented communities. These lounges were created following increased activism from the Black Action Movement — a coalition of Black student organizations in the 1970s that fought against injustices and advocated for Black student rights. These spaces were formed in hopes of supporting students of Color.

The first lounge, the Abeng Lounge in East Quad, was established in 1971. Since then, the program has expanded to encompass 16 lounges across the University’s dorms. Martha Cook, Betsey Barbour and Henderson House do not currently have multicultural lounges. 

Speakers at the event honored many contributors to the original lounges. One of the speakers was Lee Gill, a former U-M student and the current special assistant to the president and chief diversity officer at Clemson University. Gill explained that the importance of this event was not just to remember the history, but to keep educating students on that history.

“We need to keep beating the drum,” Gill said. “Let’s continue to build an inclusive institution of higher education … these great institutions, they have stories that we need to share with incoming students.”

The celebration of 50 years of these spaces comes at a time when conversations about safe spaces on campus for underrepresented groups have been deepened by a recent letter to the Board of Regents entitled “White Students Colonizing Trotter.” 

The letter advised administrators to work on preserving safe spaces for students of Color, specifically the Trotter Multicultural Center, which was founded in 1972. While smaller in size than Trotter, multicultural lounges have also acted as safe spaces for students of Color.

Robert Wilson, a partner with Culture Shift Team and U-M alumni, said these lounges exist as safe spaces for students of Color, but hold value for all students because of their ability to educate on marginalized communities and student activism.

“This is a gathering place to learn for all students, no matter where they’re from or what they’re background is,” Wilson said. “It’s a place that’s designated in a residence hall for people to really learn about what inclusion means, what diversity means, what equity means.”

One of the organizers of the event, Jeannene Jones-Rupert, the program manager for U-M Housing’s Diversity and Inclusion office, stated that these spaces also serve as a place for engagement among students.

“(The lounges) have grown and expanded to include many centers, all throughout campus, in all of our essential communities, where people of all backgrounds and all identities can come together to learn, and grow, and socialize and engage,” Jones-Rupert said.

One of the primary purposes of the lounges is that they are a space for students of Color to connect and collaborate. LSA senior Sean Marshall, a Multicultural Environmental intern for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, expressed how important these lounges have been to his experience.

“It’s really awesome that there’s multiple lounges dedicated to my community,” Marshall said. “It shows that the higher-ups are willing to put money into representing my marginalized group.” 

Wilson added that the lounges have also provided a unique opportunity for students in marginalized communities to interact and support one another. According to Wilson, the multicultural lounges have made lasting relationships for marginalized students, helping them find a home and succeed at the University.

“This is a group of people that you could just be authentically yourself,” Wilson said. “How many people graduated from here may not have, if it hadn’t been for that?”

The primary component of the celebration was the commemoration of a time capsule, to be opened in 25 years. The capsule held letters from representatives of legacy groups, current and former students and notes from all those who attended the event. Jones-Rupert said the time capsule was created to provide those in the future a representation of the efforts and hopes for the multicultural lounge program as they are today.

“We are really excited for the people who are going to open this tiny glimpse into the program as it is currently,” Jones-Rupert said.

Gill added that these multicultural lounges have long served as safe spaces for students, but even their existence means something to those groups that they strive to represent, Gill said. 

“I think the lounges send a signal to all groups across campus … that this University cares about them, and wants their story not only to be understood by themselves, but by the broader community,” Gill said.

Daily staff reporter Riley Hodder can be reached at rehodder@umich.edu.