U-M community reflects on impact of Black student activism ahead of new multicultural center’s grand opening

Monday, April 8, 2019 - 10:13pm

#BBUM

Lane KIzziah

In the fall of 2013, the Black Student Union e-board sat in a room in Palmer Commons to discuss the possibility of a new hashtag. They hoped the hashtag, #BBUM — or, Being Black at the University of Michigan — would create an opportunity for Black students at the University to share their experiences on campus. Little did the e-board know, the hashtag would lead to a movement that six years later resulted in the relocation of the Trotter Multicultural Center.

#BBUM went viral and gained traction from national media. Following the tradition of past Black activist movements on campus, the e-board created a list of demands and announced them at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally in 2014. Their seven demands included requests for increased representation and affordability on campus.

The third demand on the list was to move the Trotter Center, once a 15-minute walk from the Diag, to Central Campus. This demand was the only one administrators agreed to meet in its entirety at the time, though they have since met the sixth demand of increased exposure to documents in the Bentley Historical Library.

This Thursday, after six years, the new Trotter Multicultural Center will open its new location on State Street, a 20,000-square-foot facility across from the Diag. The space will include lounges, quiet study and student organization space, reflection rooms and a multipurpose room that can fit up to 300 people.

According to an article in the University Record from 2016, the funding for the new $10 million Trotter Multicultural Center came entirely from investment proceeds and gifts.

In an email sent to The Daily, Julio Cardona, director of the Trotter Center, said the opening of the new Trotter Center marks a historic moment for multiculturalism and inclusion on campus.

“This is a historic time for the Trotter Multicultural Center,” Cardona wrote. “The new location of the building on State Street is an important indicator of the commitment of the University to increase accessibility to the center. As a supportive home and environment committed to social justice and diversity, the Trotter Multicultural Center will continue to serve as a space that promotes an inclusive campus climate.”

According to a timeline on the Trotter Center website, various discussions were held between student groups as well as Trotter Center officials to get input on the planning process for the new building, including town halls and several meetings with groups such as the Black Student Union, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and more.

2016 LSA graduate Arnold Reed, who was president of BSU during the #BBUM movement, said the opening of the new Trotter Center exemplifies the power and reach of students’ voice on campus. However, he cautioned that it may be too early to understand what the development of the new center means in terms of the University’s responsiveness to Black students’ needs.

“It shows that students coming together are extremely powerful and so if you come together and unite, you never know what’s going to happen,” Reed said. “... I think it shows that the administration, they pledged the money, they got this thing built, and it’s right on State Street. So I think that they are responsive to student needs, but like I said again, that was something that came after years and years of activism. We’ll see what it means. It could be too early to tell, we’ll have to see how the building is used, who’s using it, for what purposes. If it fulfills its mission of Trotter Multicultural Center, I think that’s the biggest thing.”

LSA sophomore Thomas Vance, the Seba on BSU’s e-board, said the best metric to use when measuring the University’s responsiveness is if they have met the demands, or are attempting to meet them.

“Having our records in the Bentley and more transparency around conversations that were happening during Black Action Movements, that’s a plus, and the new Trotter on State Street is also a plus,” Vance said. “But things like trying to increase Black recruitment and retention … are pretty damning, and very telling, because they reflect this possible resource disparity, or possible lack of attention to the needs of Black students.”

Vance said he can’t say definitively whether the University has met the needs of Black students on campus.

“While student organizations are doing what they can to advocate for the community that they represent, at some point that all needs to come from the University, and I’m not sure if there’s a solid answer as to if are they are meeting the needs (of Black students),” Vance said.

Reed said he was surprised the new center was built so soon.

“When you’re a group of students and you’re trying to make change, you definitely expect the University to listen to you, to have some dialogue,” Reed said. “But then, for the change where it’s multiple millions of dollars and involves breaking ground and building a new building … In my wildest dreams and expectations, I still don’t know if I necessarily imagined the new building being built so quickly. I knew this was the type of demand where I wouldn’t necessarily be on campus to see it through to fruition, but I didn’t think it would happen within 10 years.”

2018 LSA graduate Haleemah Aqel, program coordinator at the Program on Intergroup Relations and an activist in the Arab-American community, toured Trotter with her office and noticed a collage dedicated to the #BBUM movement. Aqel said that those who enter the building can “automatically understand” the history of the history of the BBUM movement, as well as other activist movements featured on separate walls.

Aqel said she appreciated #BBUM’s important role in securing a centralized location for Trotter. She also noted how Arab-American activism, such as the #WeExist and #UMDivest campaigns, was not featured on the walls, although she said this may be updated in the coming years.

“I think one of the things they were trying to push is that activism will always grow on this campus, so we want to adjust our walls to reflect the history,” Aqel said. “I was kind of surprised that #UMDivest wasn’t on there, or #WeExist, but at the same time I recognize how #BBUM was really the big push to have this space over here on State Street.”

Cardona said the images adorning the walls are current through October 2017 and the center intends to update the graphics on a regular basis.

“To address potential concern over inclusion of images from #WeExist or #UMDivest, there will be opportunities as materials from those important student movements as well others are chronicled by the Bentley Historical Library and are available to us to include in future wall graphic iterations in the Sankofa Lounge,” Cardona said.

LSA junior Dim Mang, incoming co-chair for the United Asian American Organizations, said the new location will make it easier for new students to attend events and participate in the activities offered by Trotter.

“I’m really excited just to be able to walk a couple of minutes to new Trotter, instead of having to go all the way down South U,” Mang said. “I think that when you have a centralized location, more people are bound to show up because you can just see the building. Even people who aren’t in those communities are able to show up to events.”

Aqel said the new location may attract students who would not usually visit the center.

“I think it will be interesting, one, to see who goes into the space,” Aqel said. “Because the Trotter on Washtenaw, it was always just people of color. But now that you have this Trotter on State Street, I’m wondering if more white students will go into the space, how inclusive it’ll be. I think so long as students recognize the history of the space and why the space moved to State Street, I think it’s fine. But I also see this space being for students of color and students who have worked effortlessly within different activism movements on this campus.”

Aqel said she appreciated the thought put into the space. As a student, she worked toward increasing the number of reflection rooms on campus, which many Muslim students use to pray. When Aqel toured Trotter with the IGR office, she was happy to find a reflection room, along with a station for wudu, which Muslim students use to wash themselves before prayer.

“It’s small, there could be more, but it’s something, because there isn’t anything on this campus, or other campuses in general, that have something like that,” Aqel said. “So I was just like, ‘Wow.’ And I was going with the rest of my coworkers, and they were just really happy to see my reaction, because we had been working so hard to create more reflection spaces, and then Trotter really spent a lot of time thinking about what Muslim students would need, or other students who would be using this space.”

LSA sophomore Ronnie Alvarez, the lead director of La Casa, said he appreciates how Trotter prioritized student needs.

“They have specific rooms that cannot be reserved at all by offices, so it’s just for students,” Alvarez said. “And they also always prioritize us — student events — over any other reservations. The director of Trotter, he let a lot of the cultural student orgs know, '...this is a space for you, and as soon as the Trotter opening week begins, we want to include all of you.’”

The opening will be followed by the Trotter Grand Extravaganza — two weeks of events to celebrate the new space. Vance said the Extravaganza seeks to remind students that Trotter is not just a study space, but a space with a hard-fought, unique history.

“One of the things we were concerned about is, well, we don’t want Trotter to just become a new study space,” Vance said. “The history of it, and how hard organizations have had to work for it, we didn’t want that history to be lost by students thinking it was just another study space, which is why we engaged in intentional programming to make sure that, at least during the grand opening, it’s not used as a study space, but rather used as a place that these organizations can get together and have a place for their communities.”