Monday evening, students and faculty crowded into the Anderson Room of the Michigan Union for a panel discussion about minorities in public service, organized by LSA Student Government, LSA senior Ibtihal Makki and and LSA sophomore Zoha Qureshi.
LSA senior Julia Gips, LSA Student Government president, explained LSA SG organized the event in the hopes of reaching out to minority groups at the University of Michigan.
“There are a lot of people who feel underrepresented on this campus, and as president of LSA Student Government we had a lot of conversations about how we can make minority voices better heard,” she said.
Qureshi said organizing the event was personal to her.
“Being on the Diversity Affairs Committee and being the vice chair with that along with Ibtihal (Makki, an LSA senior), the purpose of DAC is to make sure that this campus is as inclusive as possible to people of different backgrounds and different identities, and we want to make sure minority students especially feel welcome here,” she said. “And then we realized that also there are a lot of minority students who might want to explore the realm of public service, like for example me — public service is something I see in my future career and I wanted to give them an opportunity to see people who have already done successful things in that realm.”
Given the recent political climate, the panel emphasized the importance of minority representation in the traditionally white-majority field of public service, and what steps need to be taken to continue to encourage more diverse involvement. The panel allowed five public service leaders to reflect on their experiences in the Michigan community.
Abdul El-Sayed, a physician and current candidate for governor of Michigan, was one of the panelists in attendance. El-Sayed explained that he left left his job as a professor at Columbia University to dedicate his efforts to public service in Detroit. One of his projects included creating a program that provided every child in Detroit with glasses.
“The fights are worth fighting, and justice will get done if you do it,” he said, explaining to the audience the importance of not being a victim of circumstance and encouraging minorities to push through discrimination.
Alford Young, the chair of the Department of Sociology, explained how the majority of his research was inspired by his background as an African-American man. Growing up in a neighborhood in New York, Young saw how many of his friends were stereotyped based on their race.
“Almost all social service agencies think of Black men as men with problems,” he said. “I say there are more to these men than just problems.”
Martha Jones, director of the Michigan Law Program in Race, Law and History and professor of African-American studies, also learned about the dynamics of giving back in her childhood.
“In my family, whenever you got a break, the lesson was always how to pay that forward,” she said, explaining that this led to her own profession as a lawyer for people in marginalized communities.
Another panelist, Awilda Rodriguez, is an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education who researches the representation of Black, Latino, low-income and first-generation students in postsecondary education. Rodriguez shared her own childhood experience, saying she grew up valuing education, but noticed that fewer minority students tended to rise to higher schooling levels.
“There is such a lack of diversity, especially in high educational policy space where you could have a happy hour and easily fit everyone that was of color working on higher education policy in one corner,” she pointed out.
Student activists on campus also served as speakers for the events. LSA senior Nicole Khamis is the founder of the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program and is currently an intern for the U.S. State Department. Khamis was inspired to create MRAP because her parents are refugees from Palestine.
“I’ve tried to take my time here at Michigan to raise people up, and show that everyone deserves the same opportunities that I have,” she said.
Khamis also emphasized that people of color should be able to have their own operating spaces to cultivate an identity.
“It is important when we are in spaces where we see that there aren’t people like us, that we carve out a niche for people like us,” she said.
One of the recurrent themes among the panelists was the idea of pushing oneself, even when circumstances became uncomfortable. Khamis spoke about her experiences struggling to be heard in predominantly male settings.
Young said he holds the belief that leaders, who tend to stand alone, thrive as a result of challenging situations.
LSA senior Maryam Ahmed, a student who is interested in public policy, praised LSA SG for hosting the event.
“The event was really successful and resonated with me as a student hoping to work in policy," she said. "All of the panelists were so eloquent and well-spoken. LSA Student Government worked really hard to put on an event that provides multiple unique perspectives reaching a broad range of students. I hope we're able to continue to put on events like this that can connect to so many communities.”
LSA Dean Andrew Martin was also in attendance.
“The most important part about events like this is bringing together so many different communities in the same space," Martin said after the event. "…to get together to talk about things as important as public service and leadership is a really important thing we can do as a community."