2020 DEI Summit celebrates the power of the arts

Monday, October 26, 2020 - 8:51pm

University President Mark Schlissel speaks at the annual DEI Summit Monday morning.

University President Mark Schlissel speaks at the annual DEI Summit Monday morning. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Emily Blumberg

The University of Michigan held its annual Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Summit via Zoom Monday morning, focusing on the current campus culture. 

On the theme of “Arts and Social Change,” the livestream opened with a series of paintings, drawings and alternative art forms submitted by student and faculty contributors. The pre-summit slideshow also featured photos from Black Lives Matter protests in Detroit this past summer, emphasizing the significance of systemic racism and working towards a more equitable world. 

The summit’s first speaker was Robert Sellers, vice provost of DEI at the University. He opened with a statement acknowledging the University’s problematic history with a land grant from the Anishinaabe people: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadmi. , paying respects to those of Native American descent and providing an understanding of the importance of historical analysis. 

“Through scholarship and pedagogy we work to create a future in which the past is thoroughly understood and the present supports human flourishing and justice,” Sellers said. 

The next speaker introduced was University President Mark Schlissel. Schlissel brought the broader concept of DEI into its specific implications at the University, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. He emphasized the significance of systemic racism in the present day, recognizing how it often prevents educational opportunities for students of color. 

“The opportunities to live, learn, succeed and thrive at the University of Michigan and beyond are squelched by generations of systemic racism,” Schlissel said. “These are reminders of how much we need to do.”

Schlissel then introduced the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship, which will be awarded to students who are committed to improving their communities, with preference to Wolverine Pathway participants. Schlissel said donating to the fund among other DEI related scholarships will have a positive impact on underprivileged students. 

Susan Collins, provost of academic affairs at the University, was next to speak. She said the University has made significant progress since the summit’s conception in 2016. 

“This summit provides the opportunity to consider new ideas and learn from each other about how we can contribute to anti-racism work,” Collins said. 

Collins discussed new DEI projects, such as a new set of anti-racism initiatives, a task force on policing and public safety, the expansion of LSA’s race and ethnicity requirement, increased staff and professional development programs and a task force engaged in evaluating the names of buildings and streets on campus. 

University alum Johanna Kepler spoke on the practical use of the arts in enacting social change. She explained her intersectional identities, as she was adopted from Guatemala by two white mothers, one of whom is Jewish. 

As a dancer and artist, Kepler tells the stories of underrepresented students at the University. She showcased clips of her pieces “Through My Eyes” and “Through the Eyes of my People,” the former of which was performed at the School of Music, Theatre & Dances annual Collage. 

“It is easy to read a newspaper about horrible things happening in our world and not have that gut-wrenching reaction,” Kepler said. “We become numb. We have to in order to survive. But what if you put that topic you read about in ink on stage?”

Colleen Medicine, director of language and culture of the Sioux Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians, started off her speech at the summit in the language of her people, Ojibwe. 

Some of Medicine’s work includes obtaining items stolen from her tribe and placed in museums or universities, protecting ecological resources such as the Great Lakes and serving as an actress for the Anishnaabe Theater Exchange. In her theater work, Medicine said she is able to educate a wide range of people about her culture and its significance.

“The theater exchanges use theater as the main vehicle of delivery to bring awareness and education to important issues that affect tribal communities,” Medicine said. 

Courtney Cogburn, a professor of social work at Columbia University, discussed her involvement in the field of virtual reality, which she uses to create unique simulations to help explain modern racism. 

Her project titled “1000 Cut Journey” explores the struggles of a fictional Black man named Michael Sterling. In her niche of virtual reality, Cogburn said she is able to establish a deep sense of empathy in the project’s users as they are literally experiencing the Black struggle from the first-person perspective. 

“I’ve recently started working in VR, thinking about ways to represent experiences of racism in an immersive matter,” Cogburn said.

Daily News Contributor Emily Blumberg can be reached at emilybl@umich.edu


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