University of Michigan students, faculty and staff gathered for a virtual town hall June 5 during which panelists discussed how individuals and the university as a whole can combat structural racism.
The session was an important step in acknowledging the pain around the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and part of an effort to bring about meaningful change, said Robert Sellers, U-M’s chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion.
“Our conversation today marks our collective recommitment as individuals and as a university to ending systemic racism in our society and within our own institution,” Sellers said. “In doing so, we emphatically affirm that black lives matter.
“We recognize that this conversation is not the solution, nor can it be 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, identifying strategic and effective ways forward and bridging our resolve to action.”
The hourlong town hall, titled “Constructive Conversations for Societal Change,” drew 4,645 viewers who watched it live on Zoom and YouTube.
Along with Sellers, the event featured President Mark Schlissel; Eddie L. Washington, executive director of the Division of Public Safety and Security; Riana Anderson, assistant professor of health behavior and health education; Eugene Rogers, director of choral activities and conductor of the U-M Chamber Choir; and students Darlena York and Naomi M. Wilson.
The panelists shared their experiences with structural racism and ideas for how the university community can come together to fight it.
Schlissel said the university needs to do a better job of diversifying its student body and helping young African-American students realize that a U-M education is within their reach. He said there should be more initiatives such as Wolverine Pathways, a college-readiness program for middle and high school students in Detroit, Southfield and Ypsilanti.
Schlissel also reiterated his commitment to U-M’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.
“I will keep my foot on the gas until the day I no longer have the privilege of leading the university. It’s fundamentally important,” he said. “The whole rubric of ‘Leaders and Best,’ it doesn’t exist unless we can build a diverse and equitable community.”
York, a senior studying political science and Afro-American and African studies, said she would like to see an increase in the number of black faculty members, students and staff. She also said professors should be more empathetic toward students who might be struggling to complete coursework due to mental health challenges related to issues around racism.
York said she was a freshman in 2017 when racist graffiti was discovered on campus. She also recalled how she and her friends have been stopped by police while walking out of campus buildings at night and asked whether they attend the university.
“A lot of my experiences aren’t that positive when reflecting on racial inequality on campus,” she said. “It’s very exhausting as a student leader sometimes having to constantly combat those things.”
Wilson, a Ph.D. candidate in education policy and longtime community organizer, said she feels a mix of exhaustion and a fire in her spirit to fight for justice.
Anderson talked about racism as a public health concern. She said it’s important to understand both the role and toll of racism.
“Given the two factors at play in our society right now, namely the disproportionate rate of transmission, treatment and mortality regarding COVID-19, and the unquestionable and consistent evidence demonstrating the disproportionate use of police force and lethal action toward unarmed black people, there is no doubt that the health of black people is compromised and at-risk,” she said. “This is the definition of a public health crisis.”
Washington said when he saw the video of Floyd’s last moments, he immediately thought about the impact his death would have on his family and community.
He said he also has been thinking about the work that has been done to improve the culture around policing — and how much work there is left to do.
Reading a question submitted by a community member, Sellers asked the panelists how people can effectively engage with those who aren’t interested in learning about the problem, or who don’t think that the problem is real.
“I believe arts absolutely is a way to begin these critical conversations, because sometimes words fail us,” said Rogers, who co-created “Seven Last Words of the Unarmed,” a musical composition that incorporates the last words of seven black men who died at the hands of authority figures.
“Arts sometimes will just open a door in a way, or help us look at this issue or these issues from a different perspective, so I’m going to start there.”
Sellers said it’s not enough to simply talk about fighting structural racism; people must also commit to action.
“It’s not enough to complain. It’s not enough to be upset,” he said. “The question is, ‘What are you willing to do?’ We all have a role to play.”