Sankofa: Trotter Multicultural Center looks towards new beginnings

Thursday, April 11, 2019 - 11:10pm

Members of BSU executive board, speakers, and alumni join together at the grand opening of the new Trotter Multicultural Center Thursday afternoon.

Members of BSU executive board, speakers, and alumni join together at the grand opening of the new Trotter Multicultural Center Thursday afternoon. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Na'kia Channey

On Thursday, generations of students and alumni joined in unity to welcome the grand opening of the new Trotter Multicultural Center on Central Campus. Forged from decades' worth of student activism, largely spearheaded by the Black Student Union, Trotter opened its doors to the public and community during a historic community gathering. Students, alumni, faculty and staff lined the basement from wall-to-wall, nearly reaching capacity. The space, amalgamating the past and the present, produced a tangible reward for all the blood, sweat and tears poured into making the new Trotter Center a reality.  

The Trotter Center’s new space, placed on Central Campus’ South State Street, is a direct result of Black student activism on campus, dating all the way back to the 1970s with the Black Action Movement . Since then, the Black Student Union has continued these efforts with various social movements, a focal point being its 2013 #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) Twitter movement. In addition to launching the viral social media campaign, BSU released a list of demands, one of them being an opportunity to congregate at a new Trotter Center on Central Campus.

Tyrell Collier, speaker of Black Student Union during #BBUM, spoke at the ribbon-cutting about the persistence of Black student activists on campus and paid homage to organizations like BAM and the Students of Color Coalition that came before him.

“It really started decades and decades ago when folks were calling for a new Trotter to recognize Black student rights in general, since the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s,” he said.

Collier earned his Bachelor of Arts in Afroamerican and African Studies and Sociology from the University in 2014. He currently serves as the senior coordinator of operations for Relay Graduate School of Education in New York City. At the Trotter Center, Collier remarked on the palpable energy surrounding the groundbreaking day and spoke of his hopes for the future.

“Walking through this building, I got emotional. Going into the Sankofa Lounge, seeing all those photos, it means a lot. I just hope from here on out that history isn’t lost and that this still remains a beacon and a sanctuary for students of color. But, like I said, I always mention the Black student organizations because Trotter started off as the Black house and then it moved to the multicultural center. I just want to make sure that this remains a house and a safe space for Black students here on campus.”

This sentiment of paying homage to those who came before was a common thread in many of the words orated by the other speakers at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The Honorable Cynthia D. Stephens, the 1st District Court of Appeals judge and a University alum, made sure to give thanks to Thaddeus R. Harrison, the only student activist with a criminal conviction for his role in BAM that has not been overturned.

Student activism has been a driving force for the prosperity of these movements, and these efforts are apparent in the construction of the Trotter Center’s space. During all steps in the process of the Trotter Center’s design and planning of its architecture, student input was prioritized and integrated into the edification. Notably, the new Trotter Center features a community lounge titled Sankofa on the first floor, a name advocated by BSU Speaker Kayla McKinney and Secretary Camyrea Barnes.

Barnes spoke of the tireless, accumulative efforts of Black students who have fought for a space to share their experiences.

“I’m speechless. My heart is full right now. Just knowing the work and the efforts that many of the Black students on this campus have been putting into for 50 years now, and now that it’s being fulfilled, it’s like a full circle of life. It’s up for the future generation of Black students to keep the momentum going.”

E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, reiterated this in her speech to the packed room in her anecdote concerning the significance of the Sankofa Lounge. Sankofa, originating from the Twi language of Ghana, is stylized by a bird with its head turned backward while its feet face forward. Like its symbol, Royster Harper urged community onlookers to acknowledge history and the efforts of the past while pursuing initiative for the future.

“In some ways, it really is Sankofa. It really is this idea of looking back and remembering your past and seeing what’s possible for the future. And that’s what it means to me, a combination of all of that, and to see all of the students and all of the work that has caused this to happen over time.”

Elizabeth James, adviser for BSU, reflected on the deep significance of the Trotter Center’s revitalization of community on campus. James’ roots in the University span across generations, — both she and her mother attended the University, in addition to her 27 years of working for U-M.

“For me, it’s really surreal to see a dream come true — (it) means more than I can even express in words. It’s the people, not the facility. We could meet at Angell Hall, but we would still be a community.”

Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, talked about the Trotter Center’s importance to the institution and its catalytic role in creating a brighter future.

“I am deeply touched, deeply moved. The fact that we, as an institution, are able to mark this moment in time as a way of both symbolizing the incredible work that the BSU and many students before the current BSU (have done) in terms of trying to move the University forward to become the institution that it can be, it should be, and that it needs to be, I think this is one more milestone, but it is not the endpoint, and in many ways, it is a new beginning.”

Michigan in Color commends the continuous efforts of students of color on campus and the plethora of community members and alumni that have supported these initiatives throughout the years. We hope that students of color will feel empowered, represented and grounded in their rightful place at this University and institutions like it. We welcome students of color from all backgrounds to revel in this space explicitly grounded in intercultural engagement, inclusivity and activism.

But while the center is a positive step in the right direction, it is only one step in a larger journey. As the new Trotter Center begins to solidify its place on campus, students will continue to make strides in current and novel initiatives towards equity, inclusion, representation and unity at the University’s campus and beyond.