‘Put your money where your mouth is’: Students discuss Kamala Harris’s visit to Ann Arbor

The University of Michigan hosted Vice President Kamala Harris at the Rackham Auditorium last Thursday for a conversation on climate policy and action. Despite the welcome from U-M leadership, members of the campus community were divided on the implications of Harris’s visit, as well as whether or not the University and the White House could have been more conscious of the visit’s logistical impact on the city.

Outside of the auditorium and throughout the streets of Ann Arbor, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality — a U-M student organization focused on advocating for Palestinian identities — protested Harris’s visit.

Engineering senior Zaynab Elkolaly, co-director of activism for SAFE, said the organization was motivated to host a protest by Israel’s recent decision to ban the public flying of the Palestinian flag and the Biden-Harris administration’s policies on relations with Israel. The administration has continued the United States’s history of providing military support for Israel even while calling for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. Harris has personally confirmed her support for Israeli security and U.S.-Israel relations.

“There were policies in occupied Palestine, including the banning of the Palestinian flag, which prompted us to want to act, and then Kamala Harris coming to join us was just the icing on the cake,” Elkolaly said.

Elkolaly said while she and other SAFE members believe many of the topics she addressed are important, they were disappointed to see Harris calling out environmental injustices while still supporting harmful policies in Israel and Palestine.

“(Harris) was addressing some very valid points, including how disadvantaged zip codes are often the ones most disproportionately harmed by (climate change),” Elkolaly said. “She was talking about a lot of things that we as individuals and as SAFE agree with. But if you just look at the actual policies that she and her administration support, it’s completely contradictory. You cannot be supporting this ‘woke agenda’ while facilitating the death of innocent people overseas.”

LSA junior Jacob Sendra, vice president of the U-M chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, was invited to hear Harris speak. He said while he and other CCL members appreciate the Biden-Harris administration’s achievements in climate policy, their organization was hoping to hear Harris discuss more concrete commitments for the future as well.

“Although we were really happy that she came to campus and was able to speak about the climate crisis and the administration’s accomplishments in that area, we feel like there’s a lot more that needs to be done to adequately address the crisis,” Sendra said. “Unfortunately, much of the talk focused on what’s been done so far with very few commitments — or even really discussion of — what still needs to be done.”

While he said he was grateful to be invited, Sendra added that he felt the invitations excluded a number of sustainability advocates on campus, including some of CCL’s own members. According to Sendra, it was not clear to his organization why certain students were invited to attend over others — half of CCL’s executive board received invitations, but the other half did not.

“We’re lucky to have so many organizations focused on climate here,” Sendra said. “But we have also heard from a lot of other orgs some frustration about how invitations to this event were handled. There are a number of orgs that have done a lot of really good work that did not receive invitations.”

Noah Zimmerman, Central Student Government president and LSA senior told The Michigan Daily in an interview that he was partially responsible for inviting attendees. The Friday before the event — about a week in advance of Harris’s visit — Zimmerman said he was asked by the University to help compile a list of student leaders and organizations involved in climate advocacy on campus so they could attend Harris’s talk.

In the days following Harris’s visit, student organizations reflected on the significance of the event, though many expressed a desire for more aggressive climate action from the administration and the University. In an email to The Daily, LSA junior Anushka Jalisatgi, co-chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said the organization was encouraged by Harris’s visit to campus.

“It was great to have such a high-profile leader like Vice President Harris on campus last week,” the email statement read. “As young people, we appreciated the focus on climate policy and action to secure our environment and futures.”

In an email to The Daily, LSA junior Matthew Zhou, chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said while the organization respected Harris’s decision to visit campus, they believed it was contradictory for the Vice President to rely on environmentally-unfriendly methods of transportation to make the trip.

“Although we respect VP Harris’ right to free speech, there is great irony in her using a private airplane, her entire security convoy, and detouring major Blue Bus routes for her to speak on climate policy,” the email statement read.

Meanwhile, Sendra said Harris’s visit only reaffirmed CCL’s commitment to advocating for changes in climate policy. He said CCL has been calling for a nationwide carbon fee and dividend, which would require fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax and would return the tax revenue to the public in the form of energy dividends to subsidize the cost of switching to clean energy.

In addition to federal policy, Sendra said CCL and other climate action organizations have been calling on the University to implement sustainable construction measures for all future projects. CCL recently signed on to a petition for sustainable construction of the new Central Campus Recreation Building, including the use of sustainable building materials and the installation of solar panels.

Elkolaly echoed the call for stronger commitments on climate. She said she hopes to see the Biden-Harris Administration invest in restoring communities at home and abroad that have been harmed by the climate crisis and environmental injustice. She called on the administration to take concrete action on climate justice in addition to talking about what they have already accomplished at events like the one on campus last week.

“Put your money where your mouth is: into those communities that you’ve destroyed for so long,” Elkolaly said. “That means Black, Latino and other communities at home and that means communities overseas, including the Palestinian community, the Iraqi community, the Afghan community.”

Outside of student opinions about the visit on a political or social basis, some students were affected by the visit in a very different way. For those who were unaware of Harris’s visit prior to the event, road closures and transportation changes prompted unexpected interruptions during the school day. Engineering freshman Lucie Kovarik said while she knew Harris was visiting, she did not know that it would impact the campus bus schedules. Kovarik said she gave herself 30 minutes, plenty of time to get from North Campus to Central Campus, but was still late for class because of the road closures.

“I was given absolutely no notice about the bus schedules,” Kovarik said. “I learned … from the news, like Detroit News or something similar, that Kamala would be coming, and there would be some road closures but nothing from (the University) … I was nine minutes late and infuriated. I ended up missing the quiz at the beginning of class.”

Engineering freshman Tyler Buividas said he didn’t know Harris was visiting Ann Arbor until the Vice President was already there and his regular Blue Bus route took around twice as long as usual.

“Waiting for the bus wasn’t bad, about four minutes from the Bursley-Baits bus stop across from Pierpoint,” Buividas said. “The bus ride itself took about 40 minutes. I didn’t even know Kamala was going to be (in Ann Arbor) … until I saw (the news) on the Class of 2026 Snapchat story.”

Daily News Editor Samantha Rich can be reached at sammrich@umich.edu.

Daily Staff Reporter Sneha Dhandapani contributed to the reporting of this article.

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