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How A Twitter Hashtag Sparked A Push For Diversity At The University Of Michigan

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A campaign that started with a four-letter Twitter hashtag has sparked a movement as minority students at an elite public university wonder why they see so few people of color on campus and commit to change it.

The United Coalition for Racial Justice at the University of Michigan held the "1,000 Speak Out for Racial Justice" demonstration Tuesday night, and hundreds of students reportedly filled the Shaprio Undergraduate Library for 12 hours lasting into Wednesday morning.

The event was arranged to protest "low underrepresented minority enrollment and poor racial climate for students of color" at the school, with student open mic sessions, film screenings, teach-ins and a talk by University of Illinois professor Barbara Ransby, who organized with the United Coalition against Racism at U of M in the 1980s, according to WEMU. Students talked about their goals for the administration, as well as their personal experiences as minorities on campus.

"On a daily basis I feel alone," Melissa Golliday said Tuesday night, MLive reports. According to the news site, she is the only black woman in her graduating class in her program at the School of Music, Theater and Dance. "Not being understood and heard because of the barrier that comes with being 'the only' in your class is indescribable."

Black students make up just 4.6 percent of undergraduates at the school, a significant decline since the state passed a ban on affirmative action in 2006. For comparison, Detroit is less than an hour's drive away and has a black population of 83 percent, as Ransby highlighted in her talk Tuesday. Though the affirmative action ban may prevent the university from taking some measures to increase black student enrollment, students say the administration still needs to do more.

On Twitter, students who attended and participated in Tuesday's protest shared moments from the night using the hashtag #speakoutUM.

Twitter has been an integral part of minority students' campaign to be heard on U of M's campus. Last fall, the school's Black Student Union (BSU) started the hashtag #BBUM (Being Black at University of Michigan) for students to voice concerns and explain what it's really like to be a minority at a prestigious school; alums added their support and past experiences. The conversation gained national attention.

Since its beginnings on Twitter, the #BBUM movement has gained support from the school's Central Student Government Assembly as students talk to administration about changes it can make. In January, the BSU made seven demands, including housing on central campus for low-income students, improvements to the multicultural center, emergency scholarships for black students in need of financial support and an a black student enrollment increase of 10 percent.

The university has planned some changes to address diversity in light of the protests and conversations with students, including a $300,000 commitment to improve the Trotter Multicultural Center, a pledge to relocate it to a more central location and initiatives to increase minority enrollment and retention, according to the Michigan Daily.

"This commitment is longstanding and fundamental to who we are as an institution,” Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Martha Pollack wrote in an email to faculty and students last month. "And yet, there are times we have not lived up to our highest aspirations."

Pollack also addressed the way BSU's Twitter campaign jumpstarted the administration's actions.

"Last term, we saw this in public displays of racial and religious insensitivity and in the daily aggression our students so eloquently described in the #BBUM (Being Black at UM) Twitter dialogue," she wrote. "To become the model public university to which we aspire, we will directly address the challenges we face."

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