Michigan in Color: Dear Black People
Dear Black People at the University of Michigan,
I love you. I love Black people more than my words can give me the ability to articulate. I miss you. I miss the collective community we are. I chose to take a step back from leadership in Black student organizations this year to devote my time toward career-related endeavors. Since then, I feel as though I have been disconnected from the Black community. Though it was my choice to step back from leadership, I did not anticipate this feeling of being lost. It struck me deeply, and it made me wonder if this is how other Black students who have not interacted with the Black community via student organizations feel.
I was most intimately connected with the community my freshman year. I attended talks, mass meetings, frat parties, study tables and the like. I felt like I had found a family at Michigan. Freshmen and sophomores, I hope you are engaging in this community and find a home in the Black community. These events and spaces were created for you. I hope you return to these spaces often, these spaces that open their arms for you and uplift you during moments when being at this university can make you question the power and excellence of your inner king or queen. Juniors and seniors, continue in your greatness. You are everything that you need to be and more. Continue building the atmosphere to share your energy, talents and time to nurture others just as we were nurtured.
The power that our community has been able to achieve climaxed with the #BBUM movement. In 2013, the #BBUM set the national media ablaze and brought University leadership to the table to discuss institutionally perpetuated inequities that hinder Black students’ academic, social, financial and mental well-being. However, University leadership met with the Black Student Union executive board exclusively, and other Black student organization leaders were left out of the conversation. When these leaders demanded to be included in the conversations around the #BBUM demands, the BSU created the Black Community Collective (BCC), an assembly of Black student organization leaders — typically presidents and vice presidents — who would dialogue about the progress of the demands. Since its creation, the BCC has become more of a gathering space limited to networking for these Black student organization leaders rather than strategizing about next steps on ensuring the #BBUM demands are met.
The BCC has potential to solve many of the demands that Black students hope the University will undertake. Organizations like Sister 2 Sister host an annual Charity Date Auction that raises money to award scholarships to two high school seniors for college. Similar events with fundraising structures can assist in creating an emergency scholarship fund for Black students in need of financial support. Intellectual Minds Making a Difference (IMMAD) provides eight months of free ACT prep. Programs like theirs should be expanded to Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and other Metro Detroit schools to aid in the increase in Black student enrollment at Michigan. ACT prep, tutoring and mentoring programs will not only help future students have the academic qualifications needed to be a competitive applicant, but also gives prospective students an opportunity to interact with people who look like them who attend a prestigious university. These organizations cannot work optimally without institutional support, but the infrastructure for these programs is effective enough for the University to begin to build up and scale upwards. The BCC could be a space to share processes on how student-facilitated efforts can foster the change we seek at this university. Yet, the BCC is exclusive in its membership. Students who hold official leadership positions have more privilege than others. These leaders should remain cognizant of making space for other leaders, those without titles and access to institutional resources. Those students still want to be a part of the movement.
“The most effective movements grow organically from the people whom they are designed to serve,” Shane Bernando, the outreach coordinator for Earthworks Urban Farm, said at a University Food Justic Panel in January. His words are the theme that drives me to empower students to be the change they want to see. I have not been one to believe that systematic change begins with the institution. I rather choose to invest my energy in influencing the people who occupy the institutions. I believe in the power of the people to transform institutions and systems, a philosophy many social movements adopt. It is evident that specific minorities and other allies are morally aroused by the injustices of our society and have reached the peak of outrage, but when will we realize the self-evident truth that we have the passion and political leverage necessary to internally transform our own communities? We have already begun the work of bringing the issues to action. The collective organizing must muster actionable steps for meaningful change.
Black students at Michigan seem to hold this sentiment that power is somewhere other than where they are, but movements on our campus and nationwide have demonstrated the otherwise. Students have an incredible amount of power. We have seen this through the leaders of the civil rights movement, the Black Action Movement, the Coalition for Tuition Equality and even our own #BBUM. Incidents at the University of Missouri, Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley were led by Black university students, challenging their respective universities’ administrations to shift the dynamics of diversity on their campuses. You, as a student, can do so much. Attend a University Board of Regents meeting. Request meetings with the provosts, deans, faculty and staff. Voice your concerns any and all the time. Write columns for The Michigan Daily. Invest yourself in local activist groups in the Ann Arbor community. Organize your own activist group. Give back to the community. Do you want to see an increase in Black students at Michigan? Tutor in the surrounding school areas. Go into schools in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Detroit where Black and brown students in the public schools need your academic and social support. Interested in being an entrepreneur? Serve the Black community. Become the CEOs, business owners and creators of your own incubators that contribute to sustainable Black business. Let’s create an entrepreneurial culture that is by us and that serves us. Interested in education? Create a school where students learn about Black history all year round and can learn about the history of the continent their ancestors descended from. Teach and share your knowledge. Be inspired to have the difficult, truth-telling conversations. Challenge yourself to be an example for others. Live to serve, serve to give and give to love. Be in the business of improving the social condition for all, but especially for Black folks. It’s not segregation, it’s called taking care of your village.
Though we have come a long way, progress is never complete. #BBUM was and is an amazing starting point of reparations for Black University students. Those demands for reparation must continue, as Carlton Mark Watson rightly quoted: “Are not reparations paid at the end of a war? Well, America’s war against black people has not ended.” Black students, within our mobilizing frameworks like the BCC, can the fight toward justice by utilizing our own resources to fulfill our own needs, regaining independence in determining our destiny. It’s time for Black students to get in formation, and slay the forces that perpetuate the war against Black lives and Black upward mobility. You were destined to be equipped to handle adversity. Your ancestors were enslaved and endured an unruly bout of violence, but they carried on and moved forward. They loved each other and created new traditions and norms to pave the way to where we are now. Though the fruits of our labor may not be fulfilled in our lifetime, the work we do is for the generations unborn. No reward could be greater.