In 2015, the Diversity and Inclusion Office in University of Michigan Housing made a commitment to students and the campus community to renovate all of its 16 multicultural lounges, together comprising the largest and oldest multicultural lounge program in the United States. An often overlooked but powerful component of diversity and inclusion work is the physical on-campus space where students learn, study, and live. When students share their need to feel included, to “see” themselves on campus, they are often talking about whether physical spaces exist: places that aren’t just labeled “safe” but feel safe, that speak to their culture, that make them feel welcome. Building on more than 50 years of student activism, the multicultural lounge program at the University of Michigan reflects the commitment to renovate and preserve each space for future generations of students.
Multicultural Lounge History
The University of Michigan’s multicultural lounge program was born out of the first wave of Black student activism in the late 1960s. Known as the Black Action Movement, a coalition of Black University of Michigan students and allies protested a hostile campus environment and requested university funding from the Board of Regents throughout the early and mid 1970s; this marked the beginning of a collaboration between students and Michigan Housing. Specifically, a group of Black students started laying plans for the installation of Black lounges within the residence hall system that would serve as a gathering place for minority students.
What started as five multicultural lounges created in the 1970s and 1980s transformed over time with continued student support and activism into the United States’ largest multicultural lounge program. Currently, the program encompasses 16 multicultural lounges, one multicultural engagement center, one memorial lounge, and four reflection rooms. To this day, Michigan Housing’s multicultural lounges remain distinct from other general lounges within the residence halls. Created to provide students of color the opportunity to interact with one another in a relaxed and open environment, the multicultural lounges are havens for support and solidarity. At the program’s onset, Black students were clear: they also wanted the multicultural lounges to be a space of learning for students, of all identities, on campus. From these students’ hard work, activism, and dedication, Michigan’s multicultural spaces have grown into a program with over 50 years of commitment to creating intentional spaces for residents that celebrate and honor multiple diverse identities.
Renewed Commitment to Multicultural Lounges
More than 40 years after the Abeng multicultural lounge and Afro-American multicultural lounge became the university’s first multicultural lounges, Michigan Housing completed an extensive assessment to gather current student and alumni feedback on the multicultural lounges in 2014. The goal was to revive students’ usage of these spaces. Housing staff had observed that many spaces sat empty, and they sought to understand why. Four themes quickly emerged:
- The spaces were outdated, dark, and dreary.
- Students didn’t use the spaces because the furniture was old and uncomfortable.
- Students felt Michigan Housing had lost sight of the commitment to, and reason for, the multicultural lounges.
- Residents of the building did not have access to use the space unless they completed a brief yet mandatory orientation that seemed contrary to the original intention of the multicultural lounges.
Through the assessment, many students said that while it was great Michigan had these physical spaces, a lack of investment since their original creation meant evolving student needs outpaced the spaces’ possibilities. Based on this feedback, Michigan Housing publicly made a commitment to the campus community that would grow, sustain, and honor the Multicultural Lounge Program. This commitment included five components: (1) consistent renovation process, (2) full redesign and renovation, (3) increase access and awareness, (4) increase partnerships, and (5) use of unique storytelling.
Consistent Renovation Process
Years of deferred improvements led students to associate the multicultural lounges with bleak, uncomfortable spaces—a complete misalignment with the multicultural lounges’ original intent. To revitalize students’ passion for these spaces, Michigan Housing made renovations, guided by community feedback—a key element of its commitment. A consistent and public process was critical to build community trust in the outcome of the renovations. And a step-by-step process allowed each multicultural lounge the same opportunity to have community feedback. It is a year-long process by the design team, made up of staff from Michigan Housing Diversity and Inclusion and Student Life Capital projects. The initial renovation process includes a feedback session before any design or renovation work is completed, a design showcase that allows the community to give feedback on textiles, finishes, and potential storytelling options for the multicultural lounge, and a grand reopening. Community feedback is specifically sought from residents, select student organizations, and campus stakeholders, which varies based on the multicultural lounge.
Full Redesign and Renovation
This component of the commitment was important because the intention was to not just put a bandage on the multicultural lounge design, the design process had to start from scratch to meet the standard Michigan Housing had established for the finished project. The redesign and renovation includes a required list of design standards for all the multicultural lounges. Over time, lessons learned helped inform how the spaces would be used, and Michigan Housing created a more extensive list of required elements. Some requirements include that the lounge should be in close proximity to an inclusive restroom (or creating one when needed), not be on a residential floor, and be physically accessible (elevator access or on main floor). In some instances, to ensure each multicultural lounge met these standards, it has meant adding walls or moving a multicultural lounge’s location in a building.
Increase Access and Awareness
Students identified a need for greater access to the multicultural lounges; this meant decreasing barriers to their use and sharing these spaces with the entire campus community. As mentioned before, even residents of the building did not have access to use the space unless they completed a brief yet mandatory orientation; this created a lot of barriers to access, but also to the community spreading awareness of the multicultural lounges. This reflected Michigan Housing’s desire to have more than just pretty spaces; Michigan Housing wanted intentional community building spaces and selected every component of the design to help provide minority student populations with a sense of belonging on campus and majority population educational experiences. This has meant improving communication with all campus stakeholders, changing the process and ease of access to the spaces, and working with campus partners to increase knowledge of the multicultural lounges.
Once renovated, Michigan Housing recognized a need for a deeper focus on partnerships in multicultural lounges with both student organizations and various campus partners beyond the renovation stage. This became critical to the sustained success of the new phase of the multicultural lounges where the multicultural lounges were used more regularly and became a part of the campus culture again for programming and classes. Through the focus on growing awareness of spaces, Michigan Housing has been able to form partnerships with student organizations, campus community members, campus units, and faculty to use the spaces for student programming, workshops, meetings, and classes.
The team set out with a clear vision: every space would have its own feel and storytelling components unique to the individual and culture reflected, the spaces shouldn’t mirror one another, and resources had to be committed to intentional, unique, and varied storytelling. In addition, the storytelling needed to honor the history of, and the activism that led to, the multicultural lounges while also speaking to current students and contemporary stories.
Strategies for Storytelling
In the book “Cultural Centers in Higher Education,” Toby S. Jenkins shares what the modern cultural center should look like, stating “it is critical that professionals find creative ways to renovate, decorate, and mix historical art in a contemporary context in their facilities. Exposing students to historical forms of cultural expression remains important, but it must be done in ways and in environments that are appealing … Therefore, our spaces must be renewed and transformed into contemporary and culturally vibrant environments.” This quote has driven Michigan Housing’s approach to the design process; centering storytelling as one of the crucial components to making the multicultural lounges culturally vibrant and inclusive. The story must accurately represent the community or individual featured in the space, but also be accessible for those who engage in the space through learning. Michigan Housing uses three primary mediums for storytelling in the multicultural lounge renovations.
Written graphics are the most used medium for storytelling. It is a versatile way to tell stories in the form of timelines, quotes, song lyrics, poems, descriptions, and more, while having the flexibility to play with text size, dimension, and layout. Michigan Housing’s multicultural lounges include student poems, alumni quotes, artist lyrics, and historical timelines, enabling those who engage with the content visually to experience appealing, informative graphics. An important consideration within these spaces and with this medium is translating text, if appropriate for the multicultural lounge, into other languages. For example, students requested that the César Chàvez Multicultural Lounge feature Spanish as the primary language, followed by smaller print English, as Chàvez’s first language was Spanish.
Many of the multicultural lounges showcase other artistic elements, such as paintings, drawings, photographs, crafted pieces, and even music. Art is often a way for individuals and communities to pass on knowledge and stories. Showing artwork is another layer added to the depth of storytelling in these spaces. It also allows the viewer to first make their own interpretations before reading a description or artist statement. It has added to the impact of the work and interpretation of it when the artists understand the concept, history, and intentionality of the multicultural lounge being renovated. After framing the vision, artists have translated the vision into conceptual murals and specific pieces which are always incredibly moving to campus stakeholders. It is also deeply moving when artists share similar identities with those celebrated in the space, evidenced in the emotions conveyed through their art.
One way to increase accessibility and provide space for change and flexibility is through the use of digital formats. Interactive monitors, such as digital museum-like touch screens, allow users to physically engage with the content of the space beyond the four walls. Often, interactive monitors have additional content related to the space expanding upon the overall history and context of the multicultural lounge. For example, there may be more detail about the community or individual named in the space than can be provided through/by wall graphics. The interactive monitors also increase accessibility for visitors to the space because they can use their phones to manipulate the screen and the text is closer and more legible. Using technology allows the content shared in the multicultural lounges to change more easily instead of reprinting wall graphics. This way, as pivotal moments occur in the future, there is the capability to better adapt and continue telling these stories.
For almost 10 years, the Michigan Housing Design team has been in a unique position of being in a constant pattern of finishing a renovation, prepping to renovate the next space(s), and renovating spaces during overlapping timeframes. The fast-paced nature of the Michigan Housing Design Team’s work enables real-time feedback opportunities to learn from past projects, manage ongoing stages of current renovations, and shift future projects. The pace and process has challenged the staff to think beyond traditional modes of design and apply lessons learned immediately to the work. At times, it has created amazing opportunities to make it better and to communicate and partner with more groups.
Always Being Willing to Pivot
Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the original plan and to be defensive; learning and being willing to pivot at any point has been a requirement for success. It’s hard to think of losing hours dedicated to a certain direction (and sometimes money), but when all is said and done, it’s best to trust your gut and pivot as needed. This can take many forms, such as completely starting over with new perspectives and input; allowing yourself more time to do what you intend to do even if that means slowing a project timeline; or changing the voice, the story, or the avenue in which you tell the story. This can be hard when the pivot might impact a deadline or open date, but when possible, if your gut says pivot, do it! Needing to pivot has also come from a constant phase of problem solving. No matter how much planning goes into each space, it has been consistent that there will be a phase in every project where things do not go as planned. It took time, and still takes time, to be okay with how this results in small and big pivots.
Working with Artists
When working with artists, you can never start too early. Whether purchasing a completed piece or having a custom piece done for a specific project, you can never have too much time to get it finished. Shipping pieces of artwork, having new artwork done, and finding ways to preserve the artwork with custom framing or encasing takes time.
In addition, in the beginning, there were many times when there was a fear of challenging an artist; and every time, the end result of the work was not what the Michigan Housing design team agreed to with the artist. When this happened, it always resulted in pieces that students strongly disliked. On the campus there was also a pattern that students did not respond well to seeing artists’ interpretation of diverse people. After that pattern, all artistic works do not depict people in them unless it is a representation of a real person that has given permission to be in the work or of the artist’s own identity. For custom, multicultural-lounge specific artwork, consisting of large wall murals and large canvas works, it is beneficial to gather quotes and design proposals before selecting and approving sketches. This way there is a clear understanding between the artist and the institution on the final piece while allowing room for creativity and artistic expression.
Continued Design Considerations
After the space has been released to the community, the work continues. Michigan Housing learned that to truly honor these spaces, the work is never truly finished; it must be refined and taken care of until it is time to do it all again. Committing to doing the work in these spaces right meant committing to ongoing relationships with the community and stakeholders to gather feedback, including sustaining proper upkeep of the space. For example, it has been very beneficial to think of the multicultural lounges on a continuous cycle:
- Full Renovation
- Year 1: Critical Fixes
- Years 2-5: Overall Fixes
- Year 10: Lounge Refresh
- Years 15–20: Full Renovation
This way, the spaces won’t become stale because there is a commitment to continuously update and make improvements to the space with feedback from
Looking to the Future
Leaning into the freedom to be creative in this renovation process has been both terrifying and rewarding for the Michigan Housing Design Team. As the renovation process and management of multicultural physical spaces continue, it has been critical to capitalize on lessons learned in earlier renovations each year. Feedback from community and campus stakeholder groups is key, not only during the initial design process, but before and after. Having the support of alumni, current students, and community members is crucial in advocating for this work and so it has been critical to Michigan Housing’s success to build those relationships at every point. While creating a space that tells an amazing story and looks wonderful is rewarding, it has been the relationships and their reactions to the space that have been the biggest payoff.