Michigan State University’s campus was rocked with controversy in autumn 2006. A conservative student group had been involved in trying to host a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day,” among other events and activities soaked in white supremacy and racism.
Grace Wojcik was a student just beginning to come out to her friends and engage politically on campus. She ran headlong into the MSU chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom. As the group and its leader, Kyle Bristow, ramped up to more and more provocative activities, Wojcik joined dozens of students and community activists in protest.
It was a seminal moment in her life — eye-opening and terrifying.
When the group was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Wojcik said the moment was both “surreal and validating.”
Relaying the story of those days to students at MSU fewer than three months into her position as the new director of the MSU Gender and Sexuality Campus Center, the 37-year-old was stunned. None of them had heard of the group or the controversies.
She was surprised by the lack of knowledge. But that is also a reality she knows comes with her job.
Another former student who works at MSU told her about the opening. “So, I know you’re done with higher ed, but,” Wojcik said of the student’s pitch, “if you ever thought about coming back, I think you’d be good at this job.”
She landed the position. In her journey from being an MSU undergrad, she’s worked at Affirmations Community Center in Ferndale and then spent over a decade heading up the gender and sexuality office at Oakland University. She also earned two master’s degrees to sit beside her bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies and social science/public policy studies. One is in public administration from OU, the other in social justice from Mary Grove College.
Her journey has come full circle. But the youth she is mentoring have a different perspective on today’s LGBTQ+ acceptance. When marriage equality was declared constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, many people thought the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in the U.S. was over. She found herself both cheering and questioning the sudden marketing of brands using rainbows.
“It’s like, ‘Wow! That’s so cool.’ And then the other part of it is, but where have you been this whole time, right?” she said.
She finds the current generation of college students more “jaded,” having weathered the Great Recession and lengthy wars since 911.
“They’re gonna dig deeper,” she said. They fundamentally don’t believe the current social construction of capitalism serves people well.
When she was an undergraduate, students were “used to not having any sort of representation. Any progress seemed “like a win,” she said. “But the students now, I just don’t think they see things in that same manner, which is super interesting. They wanna see action, not just words or platitudes.”
While this generation grew up with the internet — and the world of ideas — at their fingertips, they also have created lightning-fast innovations in communicating with each other. But with the rise of social media activism, thought bubbles are formed, creating legions of like-thinking groups — on both sides of the political divide — where orthodoxy has taken hold. Questioning that is a social taboo and one she hopes to challenge.
“It’s a huge misstep,” she said of the bubbles. The taboo prevents persuasion and conversation that gains support and allies. “We can’t win as marginalized people with that strategy. The numbers are not in our favor.”
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