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Race and Social Media on Campus: Do Hashtags Help?

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Sit-ins were the preferred avenue of protest on college campuses during the 1960s and 1970s. Students protested in support of civil rights and opposition to war, and their actions sparked social, legal and cultural changes nationwide. As recently as last year, the Dream Defenders spent 31 days camped in the Florida capitol to protest criminal justice issues.

Sit-ins take time, though – time to organize, time for the sit-in to transpire and time to have an impact.

The new protest can be as quick as typing a hashtag into Twitter. Enter #BBUM – Being Black at the University of Michigan. The university’s Black Student Union launched #BBUM to hear experiences directly from students – positive and negative. It went viral. Thousands of #BBUM tweets came in rapid succession, and the administration heard it loud and clear: “Thanks for engaging in this conversation. We’re listening, and will be sure all of your voices are heard. #BBUM” tweeted the official @umich Twitter account.

Concerns were plentiful. Just 4.65 percent of undergraduates last fall were black. The Black Student Union’s budget was miniscule. A multicultural center was an inadequate venue to serve students.

In a panel at EWA’s 67th National Seminar, held last month in Nashville at Vanderbilt University, Michigan student leader Shayla Scales explained that the movement grew from concerns of black students to concerns of all students.

“We were fighting for all groups, not just one,” Scales told dozens of reporters during the seminar session.

A few months and 2 million – yes, 2 million – #BBUM-related tweets later, the BSU released a list of seven demands to administration based on the feedback it collected:

  1. Financial: Provide an equal opportunity to implement change by increasing the BSU budget;
  2. Housing: Make on-campus housing affordable for students with lower socio-economic status;
  3. Community: Construct a new multicultural center on campus so students can congregate and share experiences;
  4. History: Provide education about America’s historical treatment and marginalization of some races and ethnicities;
  5. Scholarships: Offer emergency scholarships for black students in need of financial support;
  6. Documents: Increase exposure of all documents in the historical library and be more transparent about the university’s history of race relations;
  7. Representation: Diversify enrollment so black students equal 10 percent of the student body.

The university’s administration not only listened, Scales said, but also acted. Student leaders entered into negotiations, almost like union leaders coming to the table with a list of bargaining points. The group finished negotiations just before the spring term ended, but with a new president taking the helm, Scales is hopeful the two parties will continue to make progress.

Aside from national media attention, Michigan students began to see a movement nationally and internationally from various groups. Students at UCLA, Harvard, Oxford and others have been in touch, and their online postings have covered all forms of social media, YouTube and other sites.

“Now it’s this international connection where we can Skype, and we can call,” said Scales, adding that campuses have shared game plans and negotiation strategies. “That, more than anything, leads us to a positive future.”

Scales is stepping aside from the movement now that she’s a graduate. With startup funding from the university, Scales created her own company in 2013 called InControl Wear Inc.

Michigan’s BSU treasurer, Robert Greenfield, was slated to appear at the EWA seminar, but had to cancel due to a family emergency.

Dave Breitenstein (@D_Breitenstein) covers higher education for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla.