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The Hashtag Heard ’Round the World
The Hashtag Heard ’Round the World

In late 2013, the University of Michigan’s Black Student Union ignited a viral discussion about race and campus climate with the #BBUM hashtag

By Theresa Walker


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MOVEMENT IN THE MAKING: Students share their experiences of #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan) on U-M's Mason Hall posting wall. (Photo: Adam Glanzman)



On the family tree of campus protest, hashtag activism is the newest branch, sprouting shoots that extend across the United States, even spanning the Atlantic Ocean. In decades past, student activists would occupy the administration building, boycott, strike, or march on campus to air their grievances and attract the media's attention. But even organized, concerted movements have found that sustaining headlines and awareness is difficult.

One of the most visible and successful examples of student activists advocating causes and issues on social media is #BBUM (Being Black at the University of Michigan), a Twitter campaign launched by U-M's Black Student Union in November 2013. #BBUM brought attention to race and diversity issues on a campus where African-American undergraduate enrollment has fallen to less than 5 percent of the student body since Proposal 2, a voter-approved amendment to the state's constitution banning affirmative action policies in the public sector, took effect in December 2006. The hashtag went viral, capturing national attention in less than 24 hours, and inspired similar hashtag conversations and Internet-based photo campaigns at several universities. 

High-profile legal challenges to the university's race-conscious admissions policies, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2003, and to state Proposal 2, which the court upheld in late April, have placed U-M at the center of the affirmative action debate for nearly two decades. So it's not altogether surprising that this discussion burgeoned at the institution. The ground for such discourse likely was made even more fertile by a dialogue that the campus invited early last year. As part of Understanding Race—the theme of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts' winter 2013 semester—the university worked with journalist Michele Norris and The Race Card Project to encourage students, faculty, and alumni to express their experiences with and thoughts about race and ethnicity in a six-word sentence written on a paper or a virtual postcard. The project's website devoted a page to U-M, and Norris met with senior administrators and participated in several on-campus Race Card discussions in spring 2013.

Lisa Rudgers, vice president for global communications and strategic initiatives at U-MLisa Rudgers, vice president for global communications and strategic initiatives at U-M, believes that the Race Card conversations were a harbinger of the #BBUM movement. "Through the years of the affirmative action lawsuits, the university became known for defending the importance of a diverse environment for every single student who sits in our classrooms," Rudgers says. "We have felt a certain kind of responsibility in higher education because of how much we have owned this issue but also because Michigan is a place where these big issues often get articulated."

In early April, CURRENTS spoke to Rudgers about how the #BBUM conversation has affected the institution's messaging efforts—and what it's like to manage communications at the center of a viral storm.

How did you react when the #BBUM conversation caught fire on campus?

My first reaction, and that of everyone with whom I work, in reading what was happening on social media was just an incredible level of admiration for our students' passion. The voices were so powerful and the message was very clear that they believe Michigan should lead the way, period. For this conversation to happen at Michigan was not surprising to us. We are known as a community where important societal debate takes hold. In fact there's an expectation in our community that we will engage on the important issues. We're proud that big societal change has happened at Michigan. Over time our students have been a driving force in that kind of change. To watch that unfolding in real time was extremely powerful. It was raw but also constructive. As I look back on that evening and through the next day, I just remember having a sense of the power of it and that social media enables individual voices in a different way. We've seen it in global conflict and with societal issues.

How has this conversation shaped discussions about improving campus climate and diversity?

Smaller groups [of students and senior administrators] are working on some of the issues [the Black Student Union] raised, and we want communications to support that work. From a communications perspective, I've also worried about overpromising or having communications that feel superficial. I haven't wanted our work to feel gimmicky.

Does this mark a change from other forms of campus activism that you've seen in the past?

Certainly for this campus it was the first time social media was used in both the individual and collective expression of activism. I think that added to its power and the attention it received. From my perspective, the most important part was all of those individual voices coming together—thousands of individual perspectives of the lived experience. I find that profound.

A sustained conversation like this can change people's perceptions. How has it affected U-M's communications with other audiences?

We are focusing on credibility in our messaging. Students are frustrated with our communications. Students are frustrated when they hear the university talk about diversity and its commitment to diversity. They see a lot of marketing and images about diversity, but they're not feeling that. It's not their experience. We are working hard at making sure that our communications aren't just about selling diversity, but that they underscore our commitment and our aspiration while also being realistic. #BBUM has been really important for us in adjusting our communications so that they're not perceived as "happy talk," which is how students describe it, but that they're realistic and aspirational. I don't want to lose the aspirational part because the campus community is deeply committed to being diverse.

How are you making those changes?

It is a work in progress. The most important thing in the short term is leadership engagement with our students. Our provost, the president's office, and the vice president for student affairs have all been involved in a series of weekly discussions with student leaders. They are addressing the student concerns that the administration really didn't understand fully, and they're working on a path toward longer-term issues of recruitment and campus climate [such as increasing diversity by working with the Black Student Union to encourage minority students who have been admitted to U-M to enroll, possibly moving the existing multicultural center to a central campus location, and increasing students' awareness of how to access emergency funds during financial crises]. The provost has put together committees where faculty, staff, and students are looking at these issues as well. President Mary Sue Coleman, [who retired July 1 after leading U-M for 12 years], has engaged with students and talked with our community about our challenges and where we've made progress but also about the incredible amount of work that we have to do. We need to be honest brokers about where we are now, what the students and our alumni have expressed, and how as a community we're going to work on a path forward.

How are you getting fresh perspectives on the university's internal and external dialogue?

I want to create a new communications group that includes alumni voices, student voices, members of our campus diversity council, and communications practitioners to think differently about our approach going forward and to make sure that we're being authentic. I want to look at how we're presenting ourselves online. I'd like to use multimedia more to capture the voices and perspectives of our students and community without a filter.

You see this as an opportunity for creativity. How are you reassessing what you're doing?

That's part of the work going forward. I think all of us in higher education struggle with that, so we'll be looking at what we think are some best practices. I would love to see and hear more engagement with students and have Q&As with alumni who understand Michigan but have had different experiences after leaving. Highlighting those kinds of individual experiences is a big part of weaving together an authentic story that includes both good news and tough news. That's the direction we'll be going.

How has listening to the #BBUM conversation affected your perspective?

In some ways #BBUM was not a surprise because we had been involved in a dialogue with The Race Card Project. We invited The Race Card Project to campus [in winter 2013] as part of a theme semester in our College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In many classrooms and at extracurricular activities, we distributed the cards and encouraged online dialogue. A section of the project's website is devoted to U-M. Toward the end of the semester we did a presentation where people read many of the cards that had been submitted. We invited Michele Norris to speak to our executive officers, so she came to our leadership meeting with the president and all of our vice presidents to talk about what she was hearing both nationally and on our campus as well as ways in which we could better engage and learn more about the issues. I think that really began our current dialogue. We understood the raw power of it even then, and it gave us the opportunity to begin the process of listening to individual experiences. There's a lot of pressure to do something, do something, do something. What are you doing? But we have to listen carefully and work in small groups with different parts of our community. The listening has been key to our ability to better understand the issues and to learn more about how we can facilitate solutions and better outcomes.

You said there's pressure to do something, but that's not the way large institutions work. What's the level of frustration like?

The student activists and our leaders have identified things that can happen in the short term. The Trotter Multicultural Center will be renovated. A workshop and student dialogue opportunity will happen in each of the residence halls when students are back in the fall, taking an intergroup relations approach [to understanding race and ethnicity, promoting acceptance, and preventing bias]. These are some short-term actions, but some of the toughest work will be on the recruitment and the campus climate aspects that are longer-term and more challenging to get at. We will need a sustained focus within our community to address those fundamental challenges.

The #BBUM hashtag has inspired similar movements at other campuses. What's your advice for your communications peers at those institutions?

It is important that we celebrate that effort without co-opting it or taking it away from the students. That could be easy to do in the enthusiasm for it because it is such a powerful experience and you want to be involved. But it really is the students' effort, and we need to respect that. Leadership's voices and involvement are extremely important. Finally, recognizing that there aren't any easy fixes, we have to be committed to long-term engagement. Short-term language that sounds good but doesn't have substance is not helpful. It's detrimental.

What have you taken away from this discussion?

I think higher education has treated social media mostly as a marketing tool, but it's more than that. Movements like The Race Card Project and #BBUM help us recognize what a fundamental change social media is in our communications with our stakeholders. To simply think of social media as a marketing tool or promotional vehicle doesn't recognize its fundamental importance in our foundational communications with all of our stakeholder groups. I tire of going to conferences where we talk about social media as if it's a new promotional thing. This is a terrific reminder that the most effective communications must be credible and authentic. We should celebrate the stories of diversity on our campus, and our images should reflect that. We need to make sure that our communications are realistic and authentic—that they're aspirational but also credible in the minds of our stakeholders.

You can express that your campus is diverse, but if a large number of people say that it isn't, that perception could become a reality.

I would say it differently. I would say that if you are a person of color and you walk into a classroom where you are the only person of color, or one of a handful of people of color in that classroom, it's hard to hear that this is a diverse place if you're not feeling that and if it's not the experience that you're living. The challenge is to celebrate the diversity that we have, but we also recognize that it needs to ring true. Our work needs to resonate with those on our campus whose experiences are not as positive as they should be because we don't have as diverse a student population as we want to have. If the experiences of the students, faculty, and staff are contrary to the messages that we're sending out, then it's hollow, and that's not what we want.

Did your messages have some hollowness?

We certainly didn't feel that. I think that has been a really important part of the learning and listening experience for us to recognize that that's how others were perceiving our communications. It's important for us to do less institutional speak and hear from more individual voices. There is much to celebrate on this campus. We have an enormous depth and breadth of diversity resources, programs, and educational and cocurricular opportunities. We have students who are remarkable human beings and we want to demonstrate that, but we don't want to do it in a way that doesn't feel authentic.

Authenticity is the watchword.

It absolutely is.

About the Author Theresa Walker Theresa Walker

Theresa Walker is a senior editor at Currents, where she covers the marketing and communications beat.

 

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