‘U’ community discusses combating racism, law enforcement and protests at Town Hall

Friday, June 5, 2020 - 8:20pm

The University of Michigan hosted a virtual town hall on Friday to discuss combating racism.

The University of Michigan hosted a virtual town hall on Friday to discuss combating racism. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Julia Schachinger

The University of Michigan hosted a virtual town hall titled “Constructive Conversations for Societal Change” on Friday, in solidarity with the protests that have erupted across the nation against racism and police brutality. The town hall was moderated by Robert M. Sellers, vice provost of equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, and focused on providing a platform for the University of Michigan community to come together.

“Our conversation today marks our collective recommitment as individuals and as a university to ending systemic racism in our society and within our institution,” Sellers said. “In doing so, we affirm that Black lives matter. We recognize that this conversation is not the solution, nor can it be our response, our only response, to the senseless killing of George Floyd and far too many other African Americans. It's only a necessary start to acknowledging our collective pain and outrage.”

LSA senior Darlena York shared her experiences with racism on campus, citing a survey from a political science class she took and the effect of the survey on students’ mental health. 

“It makes students not want to participate in class, not want to go to class, because it's very detrimental to our mental health, detrimental to how we want to perform in class and it's detrimental to our overall well-being as students,” York said. “A lot of my experiences aren't that positive when reflecting on racial inequality on campus. It's very exhausting as a student leader sometimes, having to constantly combat those things.”

Rackham student Naomi Mae Wilson, who has been a community organizer for the past 10 years, spoke about her involvement in fighting systemic racism at the University of California at Berkeley, New York University and in her communities at the University of Michigan. She emphasized that fighting for change can be exhausting and traumatic.

“Having been in the work for 10 years, it’s not really, really long but it’s a lot for me. My experience and my feelings are both exhaustion and also a deep, deep fire in my spirit to fight for justice and to make sure that we have change,” Wilson said. “Young people are out there and they are dedicating their childhoods for justice which in some ways, in a lot of ways, is beautiful and in a lot of ways is incredibly sad that we lift up these young folks who are out there, to march and demand for their lives to matter.”

Riana Anderson, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health, spoke about the link between systemic racism and the disparate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community and the effects of the protests on mental and physical health, making people more susceptible to the dangers of COVID-19.

“My work shows how racial acts exact a toll on psychological outcomes like anxiety, depression and trauma, even if it's not personally happening to us, as is the case with so many of the virtual experiences we viewed online,” Anderson said. “Our bodies also react through physiological processes, like increased blood pressure, quickened heart rate and heightened production of stress hormones, eroding our physical health and wreaking havoc on our normal stress responses including regulated breathing, which of course ties back to COVID."

Eddie L. Washington Jr., the executive director of the Division of Public Safety and Security, shared his emotional reaction to the video of George Floyd’s murder.

“When I saw the video, the first thing I thought about was just the loss of life.  And I think about the loss of life and the impacts that that has directly on (Floyd’s) family, on the community, on Blacks specifically," Washington Jr. said. “It causes a spark of images that I think about for most of my life, images from the 60s and the 70s. I think about the loss of trust for some, but the increase of distrust for others.”

Washington Jr. spoke about his work with the leadership of the DPSS, the sheriff and the police chief in Ann Arbor.

“It’s difficult for me to talk in a positive way in this moment, but I have to think about the police officers and troopers that I work with across the state and the dedication that they have to create a culture in their organizations,” Washington Jr. said. “(They create) a culture of confidence, a culture of accountability, a culture of the community first, of never stopping learning, of how we do something better tomorrow than we did today to avoid these types of scenarios.” 

University President Mark Schlissel spoke about the need for the University to become better at identifying talent coming from less advantaged circumstances, developing a diverse student body and finding resources to extend initiatives like the Go Blue Guarantee, which commits to ensuring that students are able to pursue undergraduate study at the University without financial hardship. 

“I think we have to say and say out loud, Black lives matter and end that sentence. It doesn’t need to be modified. Black lives matter,” Schlissel said. “We need to figure out how to make a better society and things that are within our grasp, how to make a better university.”

Schlissel teared up while addressing the detrimental effect police brutality has had on the mental health of people all around the nation. He spoke about the protests bringing people together nationwide to collectively fight systemic racism.

“To me, the sources of optimism are looking at the faces of the people who are protesting in the street and they’re not just Black faces,” Schlissel said. “They’re American faces and I think this is really a moment that's captured everybody’s consciousness and touched our souls and have made us come together to identify more than words, but tangible deeds, ways of living and concrete things we can all do together.”

Eugene Rogers, director of choral activities, mentioned the negative response received by his premiere of “The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a composition by activist and composer Joel Thompson, that honored the lives of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Kenneth Chamberlain, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin and John Crawford all African-American men killed by the police or authority figures.

“When I chose to premier the work in 2015, it was five years ago. It was still a time when many were scared to even use the words ‘Black lives matter.’ I was deliberate in not (using the words) because I knew some of my students had mixed feelings,” Rogers said. “The community was not ready. I even had some alumni who asked me why I would program a piece about thugs and even in performance had people who would literally stand up, visibly rip the program to shreds and throw it in the trash.”

York said she believes that racism on campus can be combated by increasing the number of Black faculty and staff and Black students on campus. She emphasized the need for the LSA race and ethnicity requirement to be increased so that students are able to take courses that talk about problems in the Black community. She noted the need for professors to be more empathetic to students in these challenging times.

Rogers then mentioned the need for faculty to be made aware of implicit bias and be trained in ensuring respectful acknowledgment of students’ diverse cultures. 

“Students of color don’t want to be seen as a melting pot. I think that the worst thing you can say is ‘I see all my students the same.’ That is implicitly racist,” Rogers said. “Students want to be seen as individuals who bring a variety of cultural backgrounds and experiences.”

Schlissel also mentioned the need for increasing the proportion of Black students in classes, especially in the undergraduate community within the confines of Proposal 2, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which prohibits affirmative action in public institutions. 

“I think we need to work harder to make there isn't just one Black student in a class of 15 or 20 having a discussion,” Schlissel said. “I talked to so many who say how hard it is to have a professor look at you and expect you to be representative of everyone who looks like you. That’s unfair inherently and it’s just bad teaching.”

Schlissel also spoke about the importance of holding the University accountable for the commitments it makes to change and the need for students and faculty alike to work together to create change.

“You know, ultimately I’m accountable and the Board of Regents is accountable. I accept that it’s part of my job,” Schlissel said. “I work closely with (Sellers), but it’s not just (Sellers). Just because we have a chief diversity officer, one person isn’t going to change the University of Michigan. It’s a collective action issue. We need to hold one another responsible.”

Daily Staff Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at itznavya@umich.edu.