After decades of activism, new Trotter Multicultural Center opens on State Street
Thursday morning, hundreds of students, faculty, alumni and community members filled the new home of the Trotter Multicultural Center on South State Street. University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, Regent Ron Weiser and Cynthia Stephens, the 1st District Court of Appeals judge, were among the speakers at the Trotter Center’s opening ceremony.
Alphonse Pitawanakwat, a lecturer in the Native American Ojibwe language, opened up the ceremony, acknowledging the new Trotter Center’s location on land previously inhabited by the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi tribes.
In his opening remarks, Schlissel spoke about the importance of the new center’s establishment.
“This is a historic occasion, not just for the University of Michigan, but for our students and graduates, the society we serve, and really, the shared future that we’re all hoping to create,” Schlissel said. “The Trotter Multicultural Center is a new home for many personal and shared identities, for unity, for learning, for reflection and for hope.”
The new Trotter Center’s opening was the result of decades of petitioning from student activist groups, specifically the Black Student Union. At the beginning of 2014, as part of a greater list of demands for expanded scholarships, more student diversity and more equitable housing opportunities, the student group petitioned the University to move the Trotter Center from its previous location, a 15-minute walk to Central Campus from Washtenaw Avenue, to a more accessible location on Central Campus.
In late 2013, members of BSU popularized the hashtag #BBUM, or “Being Black at the University of Michigan,” prompting a campus-wide movement to increase equity in admissions, resources and student opportunities, as well as offering a space for Black students to share their experiences on campus.
While many of BSU’s original demands were not fully met, five years later the University has granted the student body the new $10 million facility intended to house student organizations, lounge spaces and student resources as well as act as a safe space for minority communities on campus.
University alum Brittney Williams, a former BSU executive board member, attended the opening ceremony. According to Williams, while BSU members several years ago made the final push toward a new multicultural center, the original movement had its roots in decades of student protest and activism.
“The Black Action Movements were what started (the push for a new Trotter Center),” Williams said. “There were three, in 1970, 1975 and 1987, and then a lot of people consider #BBUM to be kind of like an honorary BAM four. So I think a lot of the reason why people are so emotional today is because it’s almost 50 years of a push for us to have a space, not only like this but also actually on campus as opposed to where the old Trotter was.”
Tyrell Collier, speaker of BSU during the #BBUM movement in 2013, echoed Williams’ sentiments in his remarks to attendees during the opening ceremony.
“Make no mistake, we would not be here if it were not for the students who fought for this very moment,” Collier said. “When I see this building, I’m reminded of the Black Action Movements that shook this University to its core in response to racist incidents on campus, and in an effort to recognize Black student rights. I’m reminded of the Students of Color Coalition’s early 2000s takeover of the Michigan Union tower. I’m reminded of the multiple takeovers of the Fleming Administration Building by Black student activists. I’m reminded of my peers, who due to their dedication to this work, had to take on additional years at this University to graduate, and those who never made it to graduation at all.”
Williams herself was one of these students, as she was a member of BSU from 2005 to 2011, and ultimately earned her bachelor’s degree from the University in 2016. According to Williams, during her time with BSU, minority students had to work around a number of obstacles in order to achieve a sense of community in the Trotter Center.
“We were meeting a lot with administration, and also with our leadership … to talk about ways that we could continue to make the space that we were in on Washtenaw more welcoming, but also to figure out ways to get a little bit closer,” Williams said. “We also started the campaign where we were having students meet up and walk together to Trotter for BSU meetings. So we kind of had to do the best we could with what we had, while still pushing at the top to get something better.”
With regard to the center’s 2019 reopening, Collier also cited the support of Elizabeth James, a member of BSU during the late ’70s and current program associate of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.
“When I see this building, I am reminded of our immensely selfless elder, Ms. Elizabeth James, whose unwavering support never let the fight die off in between generations, whose steadfast leadership has guided us always in the right direction and whose wisdom has comforted us in some of our darkest moments,” Collier said in his remarks. “Ms. Beth, if it were up to me, this building would be named after you.”
Along with BSU’s foundational role in the establishment of a new multicultural center, speakers at the center’s opening ceremony also emphasized the role of the center as a space for minority students of all backgrounds to find resources and a community.
Taubman junior Juan Muñoz, a representative from the Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, explained the importance of the center’s reopening to the Latinx community.
“Trotter, for our community, has just been a place of gathering and a place of comfort and space for our community to come together,” Muñoz said. “We just really appreciate how it’s more centralized and that makes us feel more included on campus. I think that this building does a really good job of acknowledging all of the impact people before us had and how they’ve impacted our communities and our ability to feel welcome on campus.”
Public Policy junior Arwa Gayar, the co-president of the Arab Student Association, echoed Muñoz’s sentiments about the convenience of a centrally located Trotter Center.
“A lot of the Arab students, when they come together after class, they’re usually in the Fishbowl, and last year when the Black community would come together it would be in the basement of the Union,” Gayar said. “So a lot of our communities were very fragmented. We think that Trotter is going to be a really good place for us to come together and foster those natural relationships between our communities. I also think that ASA being an umbrella org over a very diverse group of organizations, we have a variety of programming and I think that Trotter, in terms of the intention of the space, is a perfect place for all of that.”
According to Muñoz, the newly established center also represents a willingness of University administration to work with minority students on the issues they face in a college setting. As a member of SCOPE, which works to expand opportunities for undocumented students on campus, he explained this cooperation from administration is particularly needed to address certain student concerns.
“Currently we’re facing a struggle with the 28-month policy, a clause within a policy that prevents DACA, or undocumented transfer students, from receiving in-state tuition,” Muñoz said. “We (hope to) receive support from the public and raise awareness on this issue that it is preventing students from receiving education.”
LSA sophomore Sandra Perez, also a member of SCOPE present on Thursday, built off Muñoz’s comments, explaining the effect of such policies on undocumented Michigan residents hoping to achieve higher education.
“It personally affects Juan himself, and my brother,” Perez said. “My brother just received (notice) today that he was denied in-state classification, while I have been living with him for so many years, and was granted in-state classification. So now he’s an out-of-state student, and I’m an in-state student, and that’s preventing him from coming to this university.”
Looking back on the goals set out by BSU five years ago to eliminate similar institutional obstacles facing minority students, Collier recognized the difficulty of achieving change on issues of equity and inclusion.
“I just want everybody to know that this moment didn’t come easy; no one should leave here thinking that this came easy,” Collier said. “Nothing that is right and just usually comes easy. I think the idea of diversity is a bit on trend now, but getting institutions like this university that we all love to put time, energy and money into finding institutional racism is no small feat. I’m happy that we made it here, and it definitely didn’t happen merely by inspiration.”