DEI keynote speaker invites student activists on stage after protest
Thursday’s rollout of the University of Michigan’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan finished with a keynote speech delivered by Steve Robbins at the Power Center, highlighting the experience of being an outsider.
Robbins, an immigrant from Vietnam, is a motivational speaker with a degree in Communication Science from Michigan State University.
The event was disrupted early on by students affiliated with the activist group Students4Justice, who attended the event in silent protest of a perceived lack of student input into the DEI planning process. About 20 students walked in at the beginning of the lecture with tape over their mouths and passed out handouts with the hashtag #schlisselwya, a campaign that aims to ask University President Mark Schlissel “Schlissel, where you at?” The group created the campaign in response to Schlissel’s absence at protests over the discovery of racially charged flyers targeting Black, Muslim and LGBTQ populations on campus in the last two weeks.
According to a now-deleted Facebook event, the group had originally planned to actively disrupt the events earlier on, but found the student session held before the keynote in the afternoon to be too productive to leave early.
The students also stood and turned their backs to Robbins halfway through the lecture, which prompted him to invite them to stand on stage with him.
“I want to hear your voice,” Robbins said, as students took the stage. “I think it is important that the people here hear your voice.”
Though other DEI-related events were at full capacity attendance earlier in the day, only about 120 attendees in the half-full auditorium participated in Robbins’ interactive presentation. The demonstrators left the auditorium after standing on stage for close to half an hour.
LSA junior Lakyrra Magee, an organizer with Students4Justice, voiced her frustration with the DEI events being scheduled at times inconvenient for students.
“The reason we are protesting this particular event is because ... student voices weren’t as inputted as they should have been,” Magee said.
Robbins, who has advised a number of Fortune 500 companies, such as PepsiCo and Kraft Foods, on a variety of diversity issues, told the audience he would change the direction of his speech as a result of protest, and recount his personal experience with discrimination earlier than planned. He shared his experiences of being an outsider in California, and losing both his sisters to sexual violence and his mother to suicide. His understanding of the pain outsiders feel is why he brought the students on stage, he told the crowd.
“We were not treated very well when we entered the United States,” Robbins said. “We were outsiders. I know what it’s like to be an outsider, and that’s why I want these people up here with me. There’s pain involved.”
During his speech, Robbins invited the audience to shout words describing how they’ve felt in situations where they have experienced being an outsider. Words people shouted out included “self-conscious,” “shame,” “frustration,” “hopelessness” and “loneliness.”
Robbins warned the audience the academic excellence of the University is contingent upon the University’s ability to create an inclusive environment, and drew on his education in neuroscience to highlight studies showing people function better in diverse and inclusive environments.
“If all of you are not doing your part of creating an environment in which people feel welcome in, do not expect the University of Michigan to be a top-ranked University again,” Robbins said. “We all have a role in creating an environment in helping others perform optimally.”
Robbins also told the crowd the University is trying to fix the campus climate and encouraged students to support such efforts.
“I hope the students understand the University is trying to do its best under the conditions in which the University operates,” he said.
LSA sophomore Demery Gijsbers, who attended the event, welcomed the inclusion of students in the conversation concerning campus climate at events like this one and a speakout last Sunday.
“I feel like the University did not address problems last year — there was no dialogue allowed,” Gijsbers said. “Now this year we are finally able to speak out. We are all interacting about it and that’s really important.”
LSA freshman Dani Sanchez said she came with a group of friends because they all think it is important to learn about these issues and support the University’s efforts to recognize them.
“The topics that were touched on today are really important to me as a person who is part of those marginalized groups,” she said.
Erik Wesley, director of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution, echoed the need for engagement.
“Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are an incredibly important aspect in this time and space right now at the University,” Wesley said. “It’s core to our mission and what we do, so it's important for us to show up and be a part of the solution.”
During his remarks, Robbins also explained that marginalized groups experience a mental trauma that is akin to physical pain on campus, which hinders their ability to focus on other tasks. To actively demonstrate how multitasking is impossible for humans, he had the audience try to make circles with their right hand and squares with their left hand in the air.
Robbins’ key takeaway was that social pain prevents individuals’ high-level performance, ultimately stunting the success of the entire University.
At the end of the night, he challenged the audience, saying diversity is not the problem. Rather, he said, society hasn’t been addressing the full issue for the past 40 years.
“Diversity is not our problem,” Robbins said. “Our real problem is close-mindedness. I believe we have been addressing the wrong issue.