Viewpoint: Our place at TEDxUofM

BY MARIS HARMON
Yonah Lieberman
Published April 8, 2013

Last Friday, the Power Center was ablaze with the untapped potential of TEDxUofM. Above the energy of more than 300 attendees, 20 inspiring talks and a delicious lunch, one theme stood out to us: social justice.

Some of us have been to TEDxUofM before, but never have we seen so many different advocates for equality on stage in front of us. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design — seemingly not leaving much room for people like us. We spend our time on campus encouraging dialogue across identities and advocating for environmental justice, immigrant rights and educational equality.

But on Friday, we happily found nine inspiring speakers who had social justice as a central theme throughout their talks.

Michael Williams, a Detroit native and current Semester in Detroit student, asks us to see beyond the dominant narrative of Detroit as a broken city. Instead, he encourages us to honor the complexities of a city where concentrated poverty, hipsters, vacancy and gentrification all exist in one vibrant place. Williams provokes us to see the immense value of Detroit and its strongest asset: the people. They, more than any new startup or outsider reinvestment campaigns, are going to lead Detroit’s rebirth.

Then we have Julie Steiner, graduate of the School of Natural Resources and Environment. She has devoted countless hours to ending poverty in Arizona, fighting for civil liberty in Tennessee and lobbying for women’s rights in Washington before returning to Ann Arbor to serve as the inaugural director of the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. Now, Julie‘s mission is to end homelessness in Washtenaw County. Her diverse work experiences are tied together by a common thread: a passion for social justice.

Evelyn Alsultany spoke to the negative media portrayal of Muslims and Islam and its impact on American society. She discussed a study of 900 films, where only 12 had positive portrayals of the Muslim community. In all other films, Muslims were portrayed as harem women, oil tycoons or terrorists. She invited us to wrestle with the idea that these stereotypes are not entirely false, but rather that those stories are incomplete.

Recently released after serving 26 years in prison, Mary Heinen courageously called attention to America’s system of mass incarceration. Focusing primarily on the struggles of re-entry, Heinen explored the stigmatization that ex-prisoners must face when they leave the confines of the prison walls. Mary also stressed the importance of strong support networks, continued education and personal expression in helping to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. She currently works with the University’s Prison Creative Arts Project to give voice to people like her — people struggling to survive in a system with far too many institutional barriers.

The final speaker of the day was Chris Armstrong, recent alum of the University and the University’s first openly gay student body president. Chris brought to light the ugly truths of bullying, as he shared stories of those who’ve taken their own lives as a result. He spoke to the daily acts of hate and torment that many children and adults are subjected to — something Chris himself experienced during his public battle with a former Michigan assistant attorney general.

Chris concluded by reminding the audience of their inherent privilege as students at the University: our ability to attend TEDxUofM, to hear these stories and to gain this knowledge. He exposed us to our responsibility to continue the conversations that started at TEDx and to take action on what we have learned.

We wanted to collectively thank the TEDxUofM organizers for including these stories and messages in the program this year. It truly was a bold step. You should feel proud of the social progress you helped bring about.

Now we turn to you, TEDxUofM attendees — those who watched live and those who will watch the videos later — to turn your inspiration into action.

As TEDxUofM showed us this year, social justice isn’t an isolated theme pertaining to a few issues. Rather, it’s a core value we all must live by; the pursuit of equality is relevant and integral across all paths.

Take a trip down I-94 and work with native Detroiters. Take action to end homelessness. Stand up to our biased media portrayals. Educate others on the institutional barriers to post-prison re-integration. Be proactive to end bullying.

We have untapped opportunities on this campus. Let’s use our privilege as University students productively.

Yonah Lieberman, Abby Krumbein and Emma Rosen are LSA seniors. Maris Harmon, Ariel Kaplowitz, Nina Pressman and Marissa Solomon are LSA sophomores. Chirapon Wangwongwiroj is an Engineering senior. Dustyn Wright is a Kinesiology senior.