In a tumultuous political climate, students activists work to promote postitive change

Thursday, March 30, 2017 - 8:33pm

Public Health student Vikrant Garg, co-organizer of activist group Students4Justice, said he never really felt safe in the Michigan Union until the activist group posed its sit-in there in February.

“It really allowed me to imagine what an activist center that centered people of color and marginalized students could look like,” he said. 

In a different sphere of activism, LSA sophomore Amanda Delekta, the author of the #NotMyCampus petition that received over 300 signatures, penned the letter to alert the University of Michigan that many conservative students didn’t feel at home or included in the political conversation.

“I think #NotMyCampus accomplished its main purpose in first identifying there is a significant conservative population on campus and then creating a platform for conservative students to speak out on following the election,” she said. 

Though Delekta and Garg differ in their methods of activism, both are examples of students involved with the multiple protests, sit-ins and petitions that cropped up following the incendiary presidential election. Though months have passed since the election, in terms of activism, neither student feels like their job is done.

“I think since the election, the University has tried to create forums for students to participate in,” Delekta said. “However, I still think there is a long way to go before we reach a place where students of all ideologies are able to respect one another.”

Students4Justice aims to combat oppression and injustice on campus. After the election, the club hosted multiple sit-ins and outlined a list of demands calling for the University to respond to bias incidents on campus.

Garg said the demands posed by Students4Justice will work as a checklist for what the University needs to fulfill.

“We will continue to do everything necessary to fulfill the demands from September, reintroduced during the sit-in,” Garg said.

LSA freshman Charde Madoula-Bey, an organizer of a police brutality protest, agreed, saying activism will end when the University makes tangible improvements, not when the activists become tired.

“Because of the lack of change, I believe that activism is always needed when the demand for justice is not met, so until there is a change in the social climate towards minority groups on campus, I promote all activism,” she said.

While political activism is usually seen in a positive light, especially when dealing with younger generations, LSA freshman Tiana Brandon, finance chair of S4J, said though the organization will be working hard to fulfill its long-term goals, she hopes nothing will warrant a political protest in the future.

“I am sure, based on the current behavior already portrayed by the incoming class of 2021 and all of the political turmoil in the country, that something else will happen and a similar protest will take place,” Brandon said. “However, I would like to stay hopeful that an event will not occur that requires such response.”

Madoula-Bey agreed and said, though activism is positive, it is also an indication of large-scale issues, which she said are becoming more prevalent on campus.

“As far as any shift in the political climate, specifically on campus, the climate has become negative,” Medoula-Bey said. “The racism and discrimination has been becoming more blatant since the election. But for minority groups, there has been a prevailing mood of hope amongst our communities.”

As expressed in many of the protests, the current power ratios in Washington, with President Donald Trump in the White House and a conservative-controlled Congress, can be a major obstacle or cause for discouragement among young activists.

However, Engineering senior Keanu Richardson, who organized the protest outside University President Mark Schlissel’s home following the racist and anti-semetic emails sent to students, said now is not the time to give up or ignore the issues.

“The change we want to see on campus probably won't be seen by anyone who's on campus right now,” Richardson said. “But now's not the time to get discouraged, but motivated to make sure that this campus is better for future generations.”

Richardson added change does not have to come from large-scale protests. He said the personal relationships he has formed have been some of the most conducive to change.

“I will say that students need to stop equating people to institutions,” Richardson said. “President Schlissel isn't a bad guy. He's very genuine and wants to help, but he also understands the limitations that he has in his role as a leader of an institution. I would say that the same goes for a lot of members of administration.”

Moving forward, Richardson said he hopes student activism can be more aware of its context within a nation that is inevitably more diverse than our campus. He said ignorance can be avoided by becoming more “teachable.”

“You have people who have convinced themselves that change is happening because of a bubble they created,” Richardson said. “If I unfriend or block everyone who has a different opinion than me, then all I'm going to see are people rallying toward my cause. I'll convince myself that the world is changing because I've severely limited who's in my world, and now I can only see what I want to see."

Madoula-Bey, who has planned an April march and speak out against human trafficking, said she doesn’t see student activism waning anytime soon, considering the number of issues — such as climate change and lack of minority voice — she would like to see addressed.

Regardless of the purpose or the agitator or even effectiveness, Delekta said the recent student activism is inherently positive, and hopes it continues.

“I love to see so many students engaging in their civil freedoms to express their opinions,” Delekta said. “Insofar as protests that do not infringe on the freedoms of others, I think that student protests are an inspiring symbol of the political activism within our generation.”

On the other side of the debate, more conservative students participate in forms of activism, despite being an ideological minority on campus.

LSA sophomore Ashley Calcagno, who signed the #NotMyCampus petition, explained her perspective of campus as a conservative.

“Part of attending the University of Michigan, as a conservative, is understanding that you are entering an environment where the majority of your peers have differing political ideologies,” she said.

Calcagno added, while protests often facilitate awareness, they don’t necessarily bring about change. For Calcagno, the role of the University is not to behave as a political actor.

“As for the future, I would like to see the University continue to work toward equally including the feelings and emotions of people on both sides of the political spectrum,” she said.

Regardless, Calcagna said if need arises, an appropriate response to any bias furthered by the University should be expected.