Giving Your Campus Commemoration Event Staying Power

Every month offers a full palate of opportunities to intentionally commemorate, recognize, celebrate, or honor legacies, pivotal moments in time, and historic events. In May, it could be Asian Pacific American Heritage Month or Jewish American Month, or the specific days designated for National College Decision Day, Cinco De Mayo, National Prayer Day, Mother’s Day, National Teacher Day, and Memorial Day.

No one knows how to give these opportunities visibility and impact more than the campus communities supporting student organizations and events, where these occasions can often be crafted to intertwine campus strategies like equity and inclusivity.

Last weekend in the Centennial Student Union ballroom at Minnesota–Mankato, Africa Night was back as a cultural showcase. The week before, the Great Hall at Iowa State’s Memorial Union hosted a multicultural amalgamation known as Global Gala, and at the same time, at Oklahoma State, the student union board worked with the Arab Student Association for an Arabian Nights event. In that same week, the Iraqi Student Association at the University of Michigan hosted a Chai & Chobi Cultural Night, while students at the University of West Virginia were marketing an upcoming Lavender Graduation set for the student center’s Mountainlair ballrooms.

As campuses define clearer goals geared toward building capacity for advancing equity, inclusivity, and diversity, the roles that community building and engagement can play are becoming more clearly defined as initiatives worth investing in. Social events that can be tagged to a specific commemoration, historic event, or designation can amplify cultural heritage, support employee and student affinity groups, and identify existing alienation experiences. These events can become campus “Welcome Wagons” that bring to light global perspectives, and sometimes, historical inequities. They can also become steppingstones for creating alliances and collaborations that may last for generations.  

Two events that can serve as exemplars to weaving equity-building into student events might be Latinx/e Activism Week at Colorado State University and the Myaamiaki Conference at Miami University. While in its first year, Latinx/e Activism Week is not new, it is just bigger, having ballooned into a weeklong event from what had been annual celebrations recognizing Cesar Chavez Day, held on March 31 each year to recognize the late American labor rights leader.

President Barack Obama proclaimed Cesar Chavez Day as a U.S. federal commemorative holiday in 2014, but the Lory Student Center and Colorado State has been hosting Chavez Day celebrations for decades prior. Colorado is one of a handful of states that allows government agencies the option of officially observing it. Denver city government closes its offices one day to recognize it, as do the cities of Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. California and Wisconsin are the only two states that close all state offices and schools to recognize the day.

Colorado State’s Latinx/e Activism Week ran from March 28-April 1 and included a keynote address in the Lory Center ballroom by Mónica Ramírez, an activist attorney who received Harvard Kennedy Schools first Gender Equity Changemaker Award.

Dora Frias, director of the Latinx community support program El Centro at Colorado State, told The Rocky Mountain Collegian that the event needed to expand beyond a single day recognizing Cesar Chavez: “As important as it is to recognize achievements from activists in the past, we should also acknowledge the work being done by contemporary Latinx/e activists,” Frias told the student newspaper. “We decided to start Latinx/e Activism Week so we could recognize important figures from the past and present.”

That meant an opportunity for students to have lunch with community organizer Betty Aragon-Mitotes, as well as attend an activism training workshop presented by SEED–Students Empowering & Engaging in Dialogue and workshops focused on “Art as a Healing Practice” and “Writing with Ancestors.”

This year’s Myaamiaki Conference, which was free and open to the public at the Miami University’s Armstrong Student Center, has been a biennial event for nearly 20 years, marking the relationship between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the university. This year the event celebrated a 50-year partnership between the tribe and the campus, a relationship that started when the Miami Tribe chief Forest Olds visited the campus unexpectedly. Myaamia is the tribe’s name for themselves in their Algonquin language of Miami-Illinois.

At Armstrong Student Center you can find the Wiikiaami Room, which was designated at the student center’s opening eight years ago as a learning and engagement center to highlight Myaamia culture. Meaning “home” or “lodge,” wiikiaami is the theme throughout the room: the room is round, and its entrance is from the east; a decorative wood inlay that extends from the floor through the wooden bench encircling the room was created by a Myaamia artist and relates a traditional tribal artform called ribbonwork that serves as a symbol of cultural revitalization. The Myaamia Center at Miami University, which cosponsors the event with the tribe, provides an array of resource materials at its website, including access to a book and other materials about ribbonwork. “The art of ribbonwork and its reclamation is akin to the revitalization of our language; it is a language in and of itself and likewise requires community support and participation,” Myaamia ribbonwork artist Scott Shoemaker notes on the website.

Held April 9, the conference included a panel of Myaamia students attending Miami University, educational sessions, and music. The university and tribe have also signed a memorandum of understanding and developed a Myaamia Heritage logo; and the university has a Myaamia Heritage Collection that includes shirts, an anniversary blanket, hats, and more, from which proceeds benefit the Myaamia Heritage Award Program.

Did You Know: Still Being Commemorated

Little more than two weeks after George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, demonstrators in Richmond, Virginia, toppled a public statue of Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. Two days after that, on June 13, Kentucky joined a host of other states removing Davis statues from public spaces—this one was in the state capitol. But in Alabama, state offices still close to recognize his birthday, as the state does for Confederate Memorial Day in April and on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, ironically the same day as Martin Luther King Jr. Day is recognized as a national holiday.

 

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