No one can deny that post-affirmative action, black enrollment has, for lack of a better term, decreased at the University of Michigan. So it should come as no surprise that  Shani faced a challenge when she sought to actively involve the Black students on campus in her exhibition The Crown, a project that heavily focuses on community engagement. 

As a Black student on campus, I am frustrated by this everyday.  So, when I first saw Shani’s post on Instagram, my immediate response was simple: “Yup.” The post, an image of Michigan Daily newspaper’s stacked on top of one another, each with a Black person pictured, had a caption that read “Every issue I’ve seen of the UM newspaper has black people and/or diversity issues on the front fold, yet… I’m seeing like 2.5 people of color per densely populated block I walk on on this campus.  In the spirit of Honor-and-Not-Exploit Marvin Gaye week I ask ?WhereAreWeGoing? #WhatsTheFutureShowing? #WithAllThatsGoingOnWhereAreWeGetting? … here and at universities across the country… #TheCrown #BeingCrownedUM #SelfieDetermination.”  A thought-provoking post to which one former student replied “That’s the way I felt the entire time I was there” with a sad face.  Another replied, “Maybe it’s #Propaganda? They’ll appear to embrace diversity (as opposed to tolerance) for posterity, despite their post-affirmative action enrollment numbers.”  The last commenter had the exact same response as I did: “Yup.”

When I sat down to speak with Shani, we discussed how, despite the obvious lack of Black enrollment, she has still been able to have many meaningful and positive interactions with Black students on campus. Shani, herself, describes these interactions:

“I’ve sat down for coffee or food, talked after class, talked after student programs.  Met in large groups, met in small groups. Talked with 19 year old students, talked with 35 year old students. Planned over email, planned over text.  Planned social media campaigns, planned on campus programs, planned off campus programs.  These “engagements” have taken many forms but have all included discussions that are sincere, that are not found within the structure of the academic schedule but are equally necessary for the development of an individuals intellectual process and general well being.  It is work that is hard to define and often challenging to navigate within existing systems, but the positives absolutely outweigh the challenges whether seen or unseen.”

Shani’s positive energy and ability to remain focused on what’s important in an environment where it is so easy to be cynical has been truly inspiring to me.  The conversations I’ve participated in with her and her family have been some of the best experiences I’ve had at this university.  The questions and conversations that her project The Crown provokes provide an opportunity for ourselves and the University to seriously consider, as Shani (and Marvin Gaye) would say, #WhereAreWeGoing?

— Paige Robinson-Frazier