Despite not being able to physically meet, student organizations carry on
“Was supposed to” seems to have become one of the most commonly used phrases of this semester.
The Prison Creative Arts Project was supposed to put on an exhibition of prisoner art from mid-March to early April. Shift, a creator space for University of Michigan students, was supposed to have a project showcase. The Michigan Journal of International Affairs was supposed to print and distribute their journal.
Yet in spite of a global pandemic and unprecedented changes to daily life, all three of these student organizations, along with other groups across campus, found ways to modify their plans to finish out the semester.
PCAP Interim Director Nora Krinitsky oversees all of PCAP’s programs, which include weekly creative art workshops inside prisons and the final performances put on by those workshops, which range from theater performances to literary reviews.
In early March, the Michigan Department of Corrections suspended all in-person volunteer programs. This meant the end of weekly workshops and forced the cancellation of PCAP’s annual art exhibition. According to Krinitsky, this exhibition is the largest curated show of prisoner art in the world.
Until they are able to host the live exhibition, PCAP created an online preview of the art show, where people can view some of the art slated to be in the exhibition and leave feedback for the artists.
“We felt that creating an online preview would enable us to fulfill our mission of community outreach and prisoner support and engagement, even though we can’t do our normal programming right now,” Krinitsky said. “So what we’re able to do is educate the public about creative arts that are happening inside prisons.”
In addition, students involved in PCAP organized correspondence to people who are incarcerated, among other forms of activism and engagement.
Executive board members for PCAP also created a mutual aid fund for formerly incarcerated people who are dealing with crises amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund has raised more than $14,000 and helped more than 30 people so far.
“It has been so successful and other students have been helping to fundraise for that effort to get the word out about it,” Krinitsky said. “It’s just been a really, really positive outcome.”
LSA senior Hannah Agnew served as president of PCAP’s student executive committee this year. According to Agnew, it was difficult for her and other students in the organization to find out they could no longer run the in-person workshops.
“The point of it is bringing joy into very difficult and dehumanizing spaces,” Agnew said. “It’s definitely a struggle of feeling really helpless about what we can do as a student org and knowing that we just have to sit back while a lot of the suffering is happening.”
Agnew worked to advance the organization’s mission by trying to help improve conditions for incarcerated people, who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19.
“The goals have shifted from finding support for our membership more so to finding support for the folks that we would usually be facilitating with inside,” Agnew said. “Right now, because we can’t engage in the community, (the goal) has really changed to how can we spread awareness about this issue? How can we find ways of rallying folks around the release of certain incarcerated populations during this difficult time?”
For smaller groups that are more focused on the campus involvement, such as Shift, having regularly scheduled meetings throughout the semester played a big role in maintaining a sense of community.
According to co-director of Shift Julia Averbuch, Business and Engineering freshman, the group has about 40 students involved. The organization also has a house where the members would gather for meetings and where projects from past members are on display.
“It has a really homey environment,” Averbuch said. “Losing that was a big deal to a lot of our members because it was such a space a lot of people felt like was a second home to them.”
To try and maintain that environment, the group shifted to hosting weekly virtual meetings, where members could discuss their personal projects. In addition, members created a website to virtually display their projects, since they could no longer host their regular end of year showcase.
“We thought having something static, that stays as similar as it could to pre-COVID, would be really beneficial for the organization,” Averbuch said. “That way, not everything’s changed. Seniors aren’t missing out on the last couple months of their experience with this organization and new members are getting the full experience as well.”
The MJIA, which holds weekly meetings, has now moved to online communications to complete the process of editing their journal, which typically publishes once a semester.
According to Public Policy senior Brooke Bacigal, who is editor in chief of the publication, the group was still able to get a majority of their editing process done in-person during the first half of the semester. However, rather than printing about 1,000 copies of the journal to distribute, as they usually do, they are running the entire publication online, printing only a few copies for writers of the journal.
“Fortunately, there are a lot of collaborative ways that you can edit remotely,” Bacigal said. “(It’s) a very exciting process that’s super dependent upon feedback and engagement, which was difficult to be able to transpose to online work … but through Google Forms, videos, recorded videos and chat options through Slack, we’ve been able to keep up communication and engagement with our staff writers and allow for that tutorial process to continue.”
Since a majority of their funds go towards the printing of the journal, according to Bacigal, the general membership unanimously voted to have that funding allocated to COVID-19 relief.
“We were able to buy, I think, close to 1,000 masks and donate to a fund that is going directly to Detroit-based hospitals for personal protection equipment,” Bacigal said.
While Bacigal said it was disappointing not to be able to print and distribute the journal around campus, she felt that current events have reinforced the need for the journal.
“The entire circumstances surrounding COVID-19 have really pushed the reason why we have this journal, in a lot of ways,” Bacigal said. “It’s giving an additional challenge, but still allowing people to share their voice.”
Daily Staff Reporter Iulia Dobrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.