“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed.” ― Paulo Freire
Today, for the first time, I picked up my favorite, well-worn navy Michigan shirt, took one look at it, and put it back on the shelf. It’s one of those shirts that’s a favorite because it’s simple — across the chest, it has “Michigan” written in maize block letters that are starting to crack from so many washes, and there’s a hole slowly spreading along the seam in the right armpit. I still remember when it had its original rough texture, as most of the standard Meijer shirts do. I wore it proudly on my high school graduation day at my high school, honored to show off the new place I’d be calling home.
My four years in Ann Arbor taught me more about myself than I could have expected. While formal education challenged me in the classroom, my real learning came through student organizations and student activism. I remember bearing witness to the Coalition for Tuition Equality, protests spring of my sophomore year. I watched undocumented students and those fighting in solidarity protesting at the Michigan Union intersection until eight were arrested for obstructing traffic. That fall, shortly after tuition equality was passed by the University’s Board of Regents, the Black Student Union demanded a reckoning with the implicit and explicit ways the University continued to protect anti-Black behavior on campus. Covering the posting wall with black chalkboard paper overnight until #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) turned into a viral Twitter campaign.
Two years later, we witnessed the Islamophobia and xenophobia present in many divisions of the University as the Center for Campus Involvement planned, and then canceled, and then rescheduled a screening of American Sniper for UMix, despite the reports that the film’s release had fueled a rise in violence against Muslims across the U.S. Even then, President Schlissel’s response was underwhelming; he asked us to acknowledge and value “underlying values (that) are at odds” while “work(ing) through them to achieve a balance that will allow us to grow as individuals and as an institution of higher learning.”
As an exhausted senior one month away from graduation, I had already learned from countless meetings with the University administration that promises were often empty, and meetings were simply for the appearance of good faith. Still, below the resentment that had grown like a hard skin over my pre-college 18-year-old self’s pride, there was still an underlying feeling of love for and faith in the University community, not the administration, to find our path forward as we worked through the burdens of pursuing higher education in a country that refuses to acknowledge its long-standing structural investment in anti-Blackness, white supremacy, patriarchy and anti-indigeneity.
I share this recent legacy of student protest and resistance to oppressive University administration policy to remind us that this struggle is not new nor is it over. While the GEO3550’s strike has officially ended after Schlissel’s pursuit of legal action against graduate student employees, University staff carry on the original demands. Preserving the legacy of collective action at the University will be crucial in giving us, broader University community members, a deeper understanding of the extent of the administration’s violation(s). Without true consciousness, we cannot have true struggle.
As a former member of University residential staff and a current graduate student employee at another public university, I am no stranger to the ways the University system takes advantage of our labor, our livelihood and our vulnerable reliance on them. What is more surprising this time is the brazen disregard for human life and respect of the right to protest and demand a better community, of which the students and workers are an integral part. Through all of this, Schlissel and the rest of the administration are making their personal and political stance quite clear: profits over people. Thankfully the people have it the right way around and are putting their humanity and needs for safety and security first.
To my fellow graduate students and other staff members who participated in strikes: Thank you for your endless labor and sacrifice on behalf of our community. While the University system blames the worker strike for the disarray and precarity of the students’ conditions, we know this is a regular tactic of the oppressor and will continue to stand with you until all demands are met with a mindset of abundance over scarcity.
To my fellow alumni: Now having reaped the benefits of the social capital that the Michigan credential provides, it is our responsibility to leverage this power and access to force the administration to treat this situation with more care, seriousness and a deeper investment in student and staff well-being. I implore those of you who make regular donations to the University to withhold your donations until all demands are met, and ensure that you are clear to the University this is why you are no longer donating.
To the University administration: You claim to bleed maize and blue, to love this University and its people. But we’ve seen your negligence when our own people have been bleeding in the streets and your opportunistic emails when the emotions have boiled over enough that they must be acknowledged. When Black students fought for desegregation in the 1960s, white University administrators appointed Black administrators to filter out students’ justice-based demands that would actually force the University to live up to its public mission. The students and staff know that the Cube only spins because of our labor and continued investment in the same institution that betrays our humanity. Your indecision and apathy masked as thoughtfulness or bureaucratic processes will no longer fool us; we will come together as loudly as we do on game day to make our voices heard.
Today, for the first time, I picked up my favorite shirt and felt … embarrassed. Ashamed, I tuck my diploma away on a dusty shelf and, as I continue to reap the benefits of this credential and use it to create the University of Michigan we imagine, I wait and watch for the day it feels worth displaying again.
Harleen Kaur is a 2015 alum of the University of Michigan and a Bonderman Fellow and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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