Crucial Conversations for Societal Change: Reflection, Research & Resolve

University of Michigan leadership, faculty, and students gathered on June 4 for a virtual panel conversation to reflect on the progress that has been made throughout the past year and discuss the many problems that still plague our nation today related to racism, violence, and inequality.

This conversation came nearly one year after the original Constructive Conversations for Societal Change dialogue that took place virtually on June 5, 2020 to address the ongoing fight against racism.

With several hundred participants on Zoom and YouTube, the panel conversation served as a platform for the U-M community to have an engaging discussion about race, racism, police brutality, campus action, and ongoing change.

Katrina Wade-Golden, PhD, deputy diversity officer, moderated the event, and was joined by six panelists:

Wade-Golden opened the event by reflecting on the past year and addressing why this critically important dialogue about race, law enforcement, protest, and reform is continuing to take place.

“Last year, we heard loud and clear calls from our community and our student panelists in particular asking what we as an institution are going to do,” she said. “We are at the beginning of this important work and we have a long way to go.”

“I really want to stretch us to be thinking about the collective ‘we,’ because if we are to change the culture in the institution, the responsibility is going to be upon all of us. All of us have to collectively act and contribute to the solutions,” Wade-Golden said.

Szabo and Thulin, the student representatives, shared how the past year has impacted them and the action that they have seen as a result.

“In the last year, the passion of fighting for Black lives, for Asian lives, for the rights of minorities really, really compelled me to fight for my people’s humanity as well. I’m very appreciative of conversations like these because we can collectively contribute to ending discrimination starting at our own institution,” Szabo said.

Thulin added her own thoughts about advocacy and organizing over the past year: “The need for social and structural change on campus was greatly compounded by COVID-19,” Thulin said and acknowledged the work of the Graduate Employees Organization union. “We continue to see organizing across campus from multiple student and staff groups, which helps to bring voices to higher levels of the university administration.”

Lewis explored the concept of multi-positionality as a way to reflect on how the past year has affected him.

“While I sit here as a faculty member, I’m also a 65-year-old Black man who was born in Virginia and raised in the United States and that’s only one part of myself,” Lewis said, adding that he is also an academic, a leader, a historian, a father, husband, and more. “In a way, the scholarship talks about intersectionality, while I prefer the concept of multi-positionality — that we find ourselves in different points in time foregrounding and moving to the background different aspects of ourselves. And that in some ways explains how we relate to the events of the last year,” Lewis said.

As the co-chair of the Advancing Public Safety at the University of Michigan Task Force, Lewis explained, he helped lead the committee to determine a set of recommendations for reforming and advancing new aspects of public safety work at the university. Those recommendations will be shared with the public in the next few weeks.

President Schlissel thanked all involved in helping create change at U-M through a multitude of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs and activities. He outlined numerous efforts that have been made in the past year to address the concerns of the community including the Anti-Racism Tenure-Track Faculty Hiring Program, the National Center for Institutional Diversity’s Anti-Racism Collaborative, an Envisioning an Anti-Racist World design challenge, the Advancing Public Safety at the University of Michigan Task Force, and the George Floyd Memorial Scholarship Fund.

“All around us, we’re bombarded with evidence of injustice and hate. We need to recognize when we have more to learn and not be threatened by each other’s discourse,” Schlissel said.

“We have to be able to talk to each other about these topics.”

Washington explained how DPSS is working to advance anti-racism and to call out contributions and failures in that space. He expressed gratitude for those with whom DPSS has met with to listen and learn from over the past year, and said they will continue those conversations. He added that during those meetings, they encountered some distrust and are working with the community to identify solutions for a better path forward.

“We have to accept responsibility for the fact that in too many instances, existing law enforcement practices and approaches have failed to serve the entirety of our community. DPSS shares these concerns and is committed to leading not just in this space, but across the country,” Washington said.

In further examining these issues through the lens of education and community, Cunningham joined the discussion to highlight the unique opportunities that researchers have to use passions and expertise to address some of society’s biggest challenges. She also announced the launch of the University of Michigan Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention to generate knowledge and advance innovative solutions that reduce firearm injury.

“Firearms can be an incredibly polarizing topic, but at the end of the day, despite differing perspectives on solutions, we can all agree that we have to do something about this and we have to reduce the numbers of injuries and deaths,” she said, noting that it can be difficult to have conversations about topics like firearm injury and racism, but they are important and necessary.

To close the conversation, Wade-Golden shared information about the upcoming inaugural Juneteenth Symposium at U-M. Beginning June 14 and running through June 19, this event will explore the theme of “Celebrating Black Joy, Hope, and Healing,” to recognize the liberation of Black people by slavery.