Ford School community celebrates Spirit Day with a conversation about the Black Lives Matter and racial justice policy

July 16, 2020

This year’s Worldwide Ford School Spirit Day on July 9, gathered nearly 150 alumni, current students, faculty, and staff located across the country and as far away as New Zealand for a discussion to better understand and take action on issues of racial justice. Dean Michael S. Barr virtually facilitated a distinguished panel of Ford School alumni, which included:

  • Dr. Menna Demessie, PhD '10, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation
  • Hardy Vieux, MPP/JD '97, Human Rights First
  • Melvin Washington, MPP '18, Vera Institute of Justice 

The panelists reflected on the successes and failures of the current social movement and their personal efforts to take on issues of racial justice. Commenting on what it means to transition Black Lives Matter “from a moment to a movement,” they considered actions that affect organizations and self — both internally and externally. All of the panelists talked about holding ourselves and organizations accountable for diversity, equity, and inclusion in different ways to make a culture shift. 
 
Dr. Demessie commented on the need for discussions that address racial justice to advance policy. “It’s important to create spaces to have conversations about the work the Black Lives Movement calls for and we must validate that racism has played a very consistent role in our democracy; it’s important as we try to advance policies to advance equity and justice for racial minorities long denied it. We have to look at these issues, not in isolation, but in terms of the systemic and historical context that enable us to move from a politics of protest to a politics of policy action moving forward.”
 
Washington noted that “there is no real progress at a local level without the mobilization of people. For example, over the past few years in Philadelphia, because of the efforts of organizers at the local level, you see different decision makers being put into positions of power, including a new district attorney, who have at least expressed a strong commitment to racial equity and allocating resources for it.”
 
Vieux reflected that as a leader of an organization, he has to put himself in uncomfortable positions and he sometimes falls short. “Even to the extent that I thought I had a lot of understanding about racial justice in America, there is a whole lot more for me to learn. A challenge for me in this moment has been to extend partnerships in a way that’s equitable and meaningful and not superficial. We need to do this work in a way that is credible that uplifts our allies and hears them.” 
 
Following the panel discussion, many webinar participants stayed on for small group discussions facilitated by alumni and current members of Students of Color in Public Policy. Although the event took place virtually, the impressive panel and meaningful small conversations reminded participants of their shared commitment to serve the public good. 

Vieux said, “Panels such as this one make clear that the Ford School is committed to helping train policy professionals and scholars to be more sensitive to how race influences policy conversations--from human rights to migration, and environmental hazards to urban planning.  Race is a central organizing principle of global policy.  Repeatedly acknowledging and confronting that reality hopefully will enable our students and graduates to continue to value the Black and Brown lives that our policy decisions undoubtedly affect.”  

“I hope that the Spirit Day conversation is just one part of a continued dialogue between the administration, students, alum, and Black and Brown communities across Southeast Michigan intended to drive transformative action in furtherance of racial equity,” Washington added. 

“This is my 10th Spirit Day and the one where I feel most closely connected to the Ford School community,” said Portia Hemphill (PhD ‘15), alumni board member and Promise Zones Program Manager for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Ford School alumni board’s engagement/visibility committee led the planning effort for the event. A sub-committee (Sylvia Herzog, Veronica Gonzales Stuva, Farah Mandich, Finn Storer, Grace Evans, Menna Demessie, Portia Hemphill, and Ben Eikey) met regularly with a goal to bring Fordies together in a meaningful way. They also planned the breakout sessions with the Students of Color in Public Policy (SCPP), led by chair Baltazar Hernandez. SCPP is a student-run organization at the Ford School that advocates for positive change for communities of color. 

Dr. Menna Demessie is the Vice President of Policy Analysis and Research at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc. (CBCF). She leads the foundation’s research and policy initiatives that affect African Americans and the global black community in areas including education, criminal justice, economic opportunity, voting and environmental sustainability, and among many others. She will oversee CBCF’s National Racial Equity Initiative for Social Justice recently announced in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. She completed her joint PhD in public policy and political science at UM and went on to work for Congresswoman Barbara Lee as an American Political Science Congressional Fellow. She is in her second term and last year of service on the Ford School Alumni board and has been nominated to serve on the executive council of the American Political Science Association. She has worked on democratic governance and gender equality abroad and serves as an appointee of Ethiopian Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, on the Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund Advisory Council.

Hardy Vieux is the senior vice president of legal for Human Rights First, an independent advocacy and action organization that uses American influence to protect human rights and the rule of law. Hardy leads and oversees management of the organization’s legal initiatives—including its pro bono legal representation, amicus brief, and legal outreach efforts. Hardy manages Human Rights First’s refugee representation work, which pairs lawyers at the nation’s top law firms with indigent refugees in need of counsel. Previously, he served as a policy fellow in the Middle East, where he worked at Save the Children International in Amman, Jordan. Prior to living in the Middle East, Vieux was in private legal practice in Washington, D.C., for over 10 years, during which time he also handled numerous pro bono matters, ranging from litigation stemming from the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to juvenile detention impact litigation and asylum representation. In 2010, the D.C. Bar recognized him as its Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year. Vieux serves on the board of directors of the National Military of Justice and the WISER Girls Secondary School. Vieux earned his MPP degree from the Ford School and JD from Michigan Law—serving as editor-in-chief of the Michigan Journal of Race & Law.

Melvin Washington II is originally from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Melvin is a proud Ford School PPIA alumnus who is passionate about supporting Black, Brown, and low-income communities. After receiving his Bachelor’s Degree in political science from Wake Forest University, he served as a political appointee in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Research, Education, and Economics mission area. He went on to become a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where he earned a Masters in Public Policy from the Ford School. He is currently an Associate at the Vera Institute of Justice. At Vera, he works in counties across the U.S., on data-informed, innovative policy solutions designed to reduce the use of jail incarceration, increase community engagement, and improve racial equity in local justice systems. This has included designing and leading the execution of research projects as well as assisting the development of new projects by building relationships with governments, advocacy groups, and other organizations.

Students of Color in Public Policy (SCPP) is a student organization at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy that advocates for positive change for communities of color. SCPP works on special projects within the Ford School and the greater community. The main goals of SCPP include:

  • Providing a venue for students of color to share ideas and work on issues that most directly affect communities of color
  • Serving as a voice for students of color in the Ford School and within the community
  • Actively participating in recruiting and retaining faculty and students of color
  • Organizing events that promote greater cultural understanding and interaction