Celebration of Diversity offers positive message to contrast Spencer's visit
As white nationalist Richard Spencer spoke to a small crowd south of MSU's main campus, the East Lansing community came together north of it to celebrate the city's diverse makeup.
Stickers that read, "no room in my heart for prejudice" from the Baha'i faith, a painting booth from a Christian church, and a designated Peace Team were among the sights welcoming area residents to the Celebration of Diversity at All Saints Episcopal Church on Monday afternoon.
Dave Caceres of the East Lansing Community of Christ, and his assistant Madeline Merz, laid out artistic tools for poster-making and provided a backdrop for attendees to take a picture with their art.
Caceres helped organize the celebration. Adding he was "grateful" for the opportunity to work with the interfaith planning group, Caceres praised the event for being the polar opposite of Spencer's all-white gathering.
"It's a nice gathering of everyone — not separating people out, but bringing people together and being inclusive," Caceres said.
Annette Mileski was at the All Saints parking lot handing out multicolored bubble soaps from a giant basket. Mileski, who is in training to become a deacon at the church, said Spencer's appearance on campus served to plant seeds of fear and encourage hate.
In the past Spencer has, among other things, advocated for ethnic cleansing in the United States and suggested women not be allowed to influence public policy.
Mileski said it was the goal of the Celebration of Diversity to counteract the effects of those divisive ideas.
"It's our way of saying to the community that we embrace diversity, we welcome people that are different from ourselves because that's the way we learn and grow," Mileski said. "Our job is to love everybody no matter what."
Their message was spread in many ways, from the table of sweets that greeted visitors, to the strangers striking up conversation with one another, to the local talent show staged throughout the afternoon.
Kim Breukink, a social worker at MSU who attended the event with her daughter Kate, said she hoped the show of solidarity would be enough to nullify Spencer's ideas — although, as a white woman, she didn't want to speak to how they might still affect people of color.
Kate said while her budding interest in social justice and global diversity inspired her to join her mom to the celebration, her DeWitt High School classmates largely weren't aware of the significance of Spencer's appearance on campus.
"We are not a very diverse group, so the kids who are from more diverse backgrounds are having a pretty negative response (to Spencer's rally)," Kate said. "But most students aren't very involved in politics in the area, so they're either in support of him or aren't really aware at what's going on."
There were plenty of alternative events planned in response to Spencer's visit, but the Council of Graduate Students chose to set up shop at the Celebration of Diversity because of the positive message the event represented, Vice President of Internal Affairs Liz Luna-Gagnon said.
"When we were discussing these ideas, we were really drawn to all of the people coming together," Luna-Gagnon said. "It's not even an event of opposing as much as it is an event of coming together."
Although undergraduate students were largely away at spring break, Luna-Gagnon said she was pleased to see the amount of young people who attended the event. She praised graduate students, who don't necessarily leave town in large numbers for spring break, for bringing their children out to celebrate diversity among fellow residents.
"That's very hopeful for the future," Luna-Gagnon said.