Constructive Conversations on Societal Change

A virtual town hall on Friday, June 5, brought university leadership, students, staff, and faculty together in a show of solidarity to discuss the ongoing fight against racism in an engaging and supportive platform.

With over 4,600 participants on Zoom and YouTube, the town hall provided a platform for the U-M community to have an important and constructive conversation about race and law enforcement through the lens of education and scholarship.

Robert Sellers, PhD, vice provost for equity & inclusion and chief diversity officer, moderated the event, and was joined by six panelists:

  • President Mark Schlissel
  • Eddie L. Washington, Jr., executive director, Division of Public Safety and Security
  • Riana Elyse Anderson, assistant professor, School of Public Health
  • Eugene Rogers, co-creator of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed, director of choral activities and conductor of U-M Chamber Choir, School of Music, Theatre & Dance
  • Darlena York, undergraduate student, political Science and Afroamerican and African studies, parliamentarian on the National Pan-Hellenic Council, president of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. Iota Psi Chapter, secretary of the NAACP Chapter at U-M
  • Naomi M. Wilson, PhD candidate in education policy, activist scholar, Ginsberg Center graduate liaison, and former two-term Rackham Student Government president

York and Wilson, the student representatives on the panel, opened the event by sharing their experiences and what they are hearing from peers about the need for societal change, as well as change at U-M, to combat structural racism.

Anderson discussed how racism is a public health concern, and emphasized the importance of understanding the role and toll of racism.

“Anti-black racism is the systemic virus that permeates and promotes other oppressive social determinants of health, like police brutality or lethality, housing segregation, inequitable schools, and health care services,” Anderson said.

Questions were collected from the U-M community prior to the event for panelists to address, as well as during the town hall. One question posed: how will the university maintain accountability for the commitments and changes proposed for the U-M community?

Schlissel responded first by saying, “Ultimately, I’m accountable and the Board of Regents is accountable. I accept that it’s part of my job. I work closely with you, Rob, but it’s not just you. 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.”

Washington added: “My role and my responsibility here is to make sure that everyone not only is safe, but that they feel safe. That they feel they’re being served by a functional area that takes the oath to protect and to serve seriously. For me, what I’ve learned in these types of settings is where we’ve identified our blind spots within the profession and we’ve tried to be educated to it.”

Wilson also responded to the question. “The more we can be transparent about the moves and actions you all are making and also give us the dates, let us know when we can hold you accountable to what you said you were going to tell us and update us, the more people will feel like, okay, you’re moving,” she said.

Sellers offered five questions he suggests individuals ask themselves if they are struggling to figure out how to address systemic racism:

  • What is one thing that you’re willing to do personally to address your own racial bias and your own opportunity to improve the lives of African Americans?
  • What is one thing that you’re willing to do to engage at least one other person to address their own racial bias, to address what they’re doing with regard to improving the lives of African Americans?
  • What can we do to make the University of Michigan a better place?
  • What is one thing that you’re willing to do to fight systemic racism in your own community?
  • What is one thing that you’re willing to do to fight systemic racism in our country?

“I do have hope, particularly when I hear from folks like Darlena and Naomi, about what that future is actually going to look like. Because they’re going to be the ones, along with us, who are going to continue that battle long after we’re gone and how are we going to help them and win that struggle. Thank you. And Go Blue,” Sellers said as the town hall ended.