The Black-Asian Coalition: Past, present and future

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Stone Stewart

 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 9:00pm

Black-Asian Coalition is an intermediary space that aims to foster meaningful connections between the Black community and the Asian-American community. It purposefully creates a space to build shared history together, organizes a context to connect and opens dialogue to acknowledge differences and appreciate similarities between these communities.

BEGINNINGS

The Black-Asian Coalition was started in January 2015. Sean Dajour Smith, a class of 2017 alum, and Sarah Hong, a class of 2016 alum, connected through their community action and social change minor and their shared interest in coalition building. Sarah wanted to create a space where members of the Asian Pacific Islander American community could confront anti-Blackness. Smith, on the other hand, thought it could be an opportunity to link people who did not necessarily interact daily.

“We just wanted to get friends in the room who wouldn’t normally be in the room together,” he said. “It started as a Black-Asian solidarity conversation.”

The first meeting was held in February 2016 at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, and the initiative grew from there. Intentionality in building the space became a deeply rooted value from the beginning, even with the naming of the group. “One of the things that Sean mentioned was when he organized before he came to U-M, other people would call and use the Black community when it was helpful for them, but never reciprocated the effort,” Hong said. “So we wanted it to be intentional that this is a space for addressing the anti-Blackness that exists within our community.”

The coalition was a success. They met six times during that semester, with roughly 50 total attendees. However, when Hong graduated in May 2016, the BAC disappeared for a short time.

PHASE TWO

The BAC would never have restarted if not for a chance encounter. While walking across the Diag, Smith ran into a friend, Sean Liu, a class of 2016 alum, who wanted him to restart the BAC. Smith was reluctant to begin meetings without an Asian co-organizer, but Liu persuaded him to reach out to a friend of his, Business senior Chelsea Racelis.

While Smith initially felt unsure about a new partner, he was blown away upon meeting Racelis. He believed she valued the same principles of intentionality and coalition-building he did. Seeking one more facilitator, Smith approached LSA junior Zainab Bhindarwala about joining the coalition as an organizer. Drawn in by the concept, Bhindarwala was also swayed by the “strong sense of purpose and urgency” displayed by Smith and Racelis. After their initial meeting, they met several times to plan and build the space as intentionally as possible.

ORGANIZING THROUGH RELATIONSHIPS

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At the University of Michigan, community organizing is most often associated with structured organizing and mass mobilization. The BAC takes a different approach. From their organizing experiences, the founders believed there was a lack of spaces dedicated to fostering relationships between different groups of people. They also wanted to create a space where people would feel energized instead of the burnout often associated with social justice. These principles led to the BAC’s focus on face-to-face interaction and sustainable change that persists after the emotional high from the latest rally.  

“Once you see people affected of those you hold dear and near, your views on a lot of things can shift," Smith said, "and you start to fight because you have that sense of accountability for others.”

LSA junior Kortez Brinson, a BAC participant, also stated the importance of creating connection. Prior to attending the University, he was an organizer in the Mikva Challenge Foundation and Chicago Student Union. Here, he sought similar community-organizing experiences and the BAC fit that need.

“To me, a lot of the organizing at the University has a lot of emotion in it, a lot of structure, almost too much structure,” he said. “In the BAC, we’re focused more on coming into this room and getting back to what organizing is. A lot of what that is is getting into communities, coming together and networking with a bunch of people we don’t know.”

The BAC believes that by bringing unlike groups into a room together, it can create friendships, and from there inspire different groups to build coalition together. Instead of focusing on the growth of the coalition, Smith, Racelis and Bhindarwala care more about the growth of individuals.

“We created a centralized space so individuals could have a context to connect with one another,” Smith said.

In building these individual relationships, they hope that it will encourage them to support one another. This idea is rooted in the notion that if the BAC stops existing, these individual relationships will continue to persist.

“When you get a Black student and an Asian student that feel comfortable and willing to hit each other up just for a conversation, you officially can say you’re successful," Brinson said. "From these connections, you get passion and understanding between each other that can make change in society."

INTENTIONALITY

Smith, Racelis, and Bhindarwala facilitating a meeting

Smith, Racelis, and Bhindarwala facilitating a meeting Buy this photo
Stone Stewart

 

Instead of advertising, the group relies on word of mouth and personal networks to bring new people into the space. It believes that it shouldn’t have to persuade people to come to this space because it believes people should feel compelled to come to this space on their own beliefs and morals — things that BAC doesn’t want to influence.

“We don't need to convince anyone to come, because if we need to convince someone, then that person isn't intrinsically motivated to engage with the space,” Racelis said.

While unconventional, the technique seems to be working. More than 60 people were at the last meeting and half had never been there before. This has become a common theme since the first meeting last January. Rather than the same set of people attending, from the experiences of Michigan in Color’s interviewees, more often than not, a majority of the room is filled with strangers.

When organizing meetings, the three focus on intentionality and inclusivity. Every decision is chosen to meet their overarching goals of combating anti-Blackness and remaining accessible for all. 

“We held a session about colorism and that was good because it affects multiple communities in different ways, but it also has global reach," Bhindarwala said. "It comes up in very different ways in Black and Asian communities, but everyone there could relate.”

However, intentionality should not be confused with structure. While the three are deliberate in their actions, they try not to impose their agendas in the space. They intentionally build a space with the hopes of producing organic conversations.

WHY THE BAC MATTERS

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For many participants, like Music, Theatre & Dance senior Stone Stewart, the BAC is a unique space on campus. It is a chance to hang out with friends, meet new people and deepen understanding of others’ experiences.

“If someone told me that I was about to go to this social function with 90 strangers, then I would have no reason to go," Stewart said, "but it works with BAC.”

“A lot of people want to have diverse friend groups, but it can be hard to reach out and it can be awkward,” Bhindarwala said. “Being in the same space at the same time can stop this segregation.”

Black and Asian students learn from one another — an intentional construct. In other spaces, Black students are often expected to teach others about systemic oppression — an emotionally draining process that can dissuade Black students from returning.

“We recognize that when Black people are entering the space, they feel like they might have to be educators as Asian folks are trying to decolonize their own anti-Blackness," Bhindarwala said. "We put emphasis on making sure that Black folks don’t feel like educators.”

This space fosters learning and encourages each group to engage with the other. With the understanding these groups come into this space with largely different purposes, there is a common understanding that this is a space to engage and to build relationships with each other in hopes for them to separately collaborate outside the BAC. To Stewart, he believes this space is “so fundamentally human and it’s all about building that genuine connection with others.”

Yet this space is special in which these groups come together for many reasons, one of them being to learn about how these two cultures interact.

“Whether we realize it or not, Black and Asians take a lot from each other, good or for bad," Stewart said. "Most of the time we just aren’t interacting.”

There was a general sentiment held by the participants about the necessity for this space on campus. In the dominant narrative, Blacks and Asians are often used against each other in order to invalidate the struggles of Blacks in the United States. Interviewees from both racial groups felt that same tension. Stewart, who identifies as biracial (Japanese and Caribbean), said, “I think Black and Asian people and the way we are portrayed in society are at such odds with each other.” Brinson, who is Black, shared a similar sentiment, saying: “I believe there is a lot of tension between Black and Asian students. Not even naturally, more so that there are forces pushing the tension.”

This has ripple effects and often influences how these groups are raised and taught to view each other.

“The overall goal (of BAC) is that if we’re in a neighborhood together, I’m comfortable enough going up to an Asian family and saying, ‘Hello, how you doin’?’ I want my kids to kick it with their kids, to actually have a good time with them," Brinson said. "We’re still both minorities, we’re still both working hard to establish a foundation in this world, but we are not enemies, and we are not competing against each other.”

THE FUTURE

As the BAC continues to grow, so do the organizers.

“Doing BAC and even just being with Sean and Zainab has taught me a lot about organizing,” Racelis said. “You can organize from a place of real love, and now I like surrounding myself with those people.”

This idea of organizing from a compassionate place was reiterated in our interview with Hong as well who said: “We have that call-out culture in social justice, but we shouldn’t be shaming people in that way, (but) because (BAC) is so open and willing to listen, we are more peaceful and willing.” Organizing from a place of love and compassion is also evident with how BAC participants engage with the space. BAC participants have reiterated how they enjoy being in this space because it’s where participants feel empowered to bring their full selves to every meeting.

Additionally, the organizers are working to incorporate the feedback and needs of the BAC’s participants.

“People want opportunities to be together. Now we realize once a month isn’t enough to meet,” Racelis said. “Many ask if it’s every Saturday, and now we have a lot of momentum. We want to facilitate different ways for people to come together. Whether through movie nights, potlucks, etc.”

Racelis spoke about how members haven’t even touched the majority of the content that they discussed when initially building this space. 

During our interviews with Smith, Racelis and Bhindarwala, they spoke about Smith’s metaphor for the BAC. He often compares this space to an airport: “We wanted focus more on the individuals. We wanted to build everything on the ground and then (let them) take flight, rather than building while in the air.” The idea behind this metaphor is there is power in facilitating the context for these individuals to interact with while they’re in the same space. Participants in the BAC are often active members of their own communities and student organizations. Each of these student organizations and individuals can be seen as a plane that comes into the BAC. They land for an hour, develop relationships, re-energize themselves, connect on a humane level and then leave once the hour is done. In hope, BAC works to use this hour as an incubator for building meaningful relationships across these groups that will persist outside of the BAC.

The BAC organizers continuously emphasize that this space is temporary. BAC may exist now, but in a few years, it may not. Knowing this, the organizers hope that they foster a space conducive for these individual relationships to flourish and persist, and that the relationships and mindsets created will last for a lifetime.