Education staff members send open letter to Schlissel, ask University to recognize Juneteenth

Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 11:44pm

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When Education graduate student and staff member Alyssa Brandon and Kathryn Taylor, manager of communications and special projects at the School of Education, noticed the University of Michigan was not observing June 19 as a holiday, they decided to send an open letter to University President Mark Schlisel asking the University to allow faculty members and staff to officially recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday in the workplace. Since its release on June 16, the open letter has received over 500 signatures and continues to gain support from staff, students, alumni and other University community members. 

“We thought this was such a timely, urgent request,” Brandon said. “Given the daily reminders of brutality and loss faced in the Black community (and) the pain that is (being) experiencing. This is an opportunity for the University to really step up and to offer tangible evidence of its commitment to — not just only Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — but to its Black community members.”

The letter asks the University to “give all regular staff members the option to take paid time off (without having to use vacation or sick time)” on June 19. It also includes a long term request, asking the University to develop plans for continuing to acknowledge Juneteenth in the future. 

Chief Diversity Officer Robert Sellers said in a mass email that he encourages employees of the University to participate in Juneteenth events and to allows supervisors to encourage those who work for them as well.

"If you supervise faculty, staff, or students, I ask that you provide them with the opportunity to participate in Juneteenth events on Friday," Selllers said. "Please encourage them to have a voice, contribute to the community, and learn more about addressing anti-Black structural racism. These shared experiences will contribute to the important and ongoing discourse on campus on how we as a community can embrace the diversity of our experiences and work to make our climate more equitable and inclusive."

Juneteenth, celebrated on June 19, is the day all slaves in Texas were freed in 1865, which signified the freeing of all slaves across the United States. Juneteenth is known among the Black community as the Black independence day. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed proclamations recognizing Juneteenth since 2019 and the holiday has been officially celebrated in the state of Michigan for 16 years. 

Quicken Loans is giving their employees a paid holiday and other companies are recognizing Juneteenth in different ways. Many events are occurring in Ann Arbor on Friday to celebrate Juneteenth as well. The holiday has gained more recognition through the recent protests that have supported the Black Lives Matter movement and stood up against police brutality.

According to Brandon, the School of Education announced Wednesday they will give their staff early release to recognize the holiday after they sent them a similar open letter. However, she believes it is important for the whole University to be involved in celebrating Juneteenth.

“You have to think of the University (as not) just a research institution, but it’s an institution that is a member of a larger community that not only serves the Black community, but is served by the Black community,” Brandon said. “It’s also the systems of white supremacy and anti-Blackness and violence (that) impacts us just as they do (at) other organizations (and) other communities. The University is not immune to those patterns. It’s very much entrenched and impacted in them … This timing really presents a very crucial opportunity for the University to step up. It will be such an awesome opportunity to show the care and commitment that (the University has) for the Black community and the University community at large.”

University Law School has announced Thursday they are closing their offices at noon and encouraging staff to celebrate Juneteenth.

David Humphrey, School of Education diversity and inclusion officer, signed the open letter, saying it was important for him as a Black man to celebrate Juneteenth. He said the University should be able to recognize the holiday for the Black community.

“I thought this was an excellent thing to consider,” Humphrey said. “As a Black man, this is my Independence Day. An opportunity for an institution that I love and is committed to thinking deeply about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to further that commitment by highlighting a moment in history (and) remembering for our entire country to see that we still have things to wrestle … It provides that opportunity for a day of celebration for us as Black folks (but) also a day of remembering our country to see that the liberation struggle still continues to this day.”

University alum Hetali Lodaya also signed the open letter. She said although she is not a member of the Black community, she believes the short term and long term requests stated in the letter are important for recognizing the Black community at the University.

“One of the things that I appreciate most about the letter is that it has short term and long term goals,” Lodaya said. “I think that it’s important to recognize that a first step is to grant the holiday this year, but a just as important step is to continue that conversation and for the University to talk about what they are going to do moving forward.”

Summer Managing News Editor Jasmin Lee can be reached at itsshlee@umich.edu.

 

This article has been updated since its original publication.