by Matthew Schraft, Phoenix
Hundreds of students and young professionals throughout the greater Lansing area are proud to call the MSU Student Housing Cooperative (SHC) home. Though affordable housing is often the biggest hook in attracting new members, many of us fall in love with the SHC’s uniquely diverse and inclusive community. Our recent election for Vice President of Facilities, a position overseeing maintenance and upkeep for all 17 SHC houses, provides rare insight into this culture.
As I sat in the MSU Library observing the dreary weather, my phone vibrated. Representatives from each SHC house were voting to confirm the president’s selection for VP of Facilities; my house’s member on the board was unable to attend and a friend was asking me to substitute. Upon entering the office, the woman nominated immediately drew my attention. She stood tall, confidently surveying the apprehensive room and refusing to shy away from the clearly awkward environment awaiting your own confirmation vote warrants. After subjecting everyone to several clearly ignorant questions about the process, I joined the board in unanimously confirming Nikki Blackburn.
Nikki grew up in the Indianapolis area and relocated to Michigan in 2015; she then moved into Rivendell last fall, one of the SHC’s Lansing houses populated largely by young professionals working in the city. As a Lansing Community College (LCC) student, a former canvasser for Clean Water Action, and a leader in directing SHC projects prior to her current position, Nikki immediately proved her worth as a dedicated member of our community. “When I first moved into Rivendell, I was just looking for a cheap place to stay. My love for cooperative ideals and our co-op specifically grew from my experiences at Rivendell and work with the SHC.” This swift and easy integration into the community is not an isolated incident. Anyone in the SHC will tell you the strong sense of family administered through a diverse range of individuals often empowers members with the confidence and knowledge to further engage and improve their communities.
Considering how easily Republican officials in the state legislature have consistently ignored or opposed LGBTQ issues without consequence (most recently in their continued refusal to expand the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act), I was very interested to hear Nikki’s perspective as a transwoman in Michigan. “Perhaps it’s the circle of people I’ve surrounded myself with, but I have never experienced any serious harassment in Lansing or East Lansing, even the people I randomly interact with in the bars and around the city are just good, decent people.” Nikki went on to describe how Lansing provided her a fresh start; a place to transition in a supportive and healthy space. “So many things in my life have gotten better since I started transitioning. I struggle with anxiety less, but primarily, I don’t hate myself or my body image anymore. The relief that provides, being able to look in the mirror without feeling disgust, is the greatest benefit so far.” Though she had many kind words for Lansing, Nikki didn’t hesitate to point out the lack of a strong, central community outreach center alongside the continued prevalence of societal discrimination.
As the LGBTQ community endures higher rates of depression, anxiety, and sexual violence than heterosexual individuals, I sought Nikki’s perception on mental health. “Between cutting out bad habits and focusing on developing into the person I wanted to be, my life has really started to come together in a way that didn’t seem possible even 2 years ago. I consider myself to be very fortunate in many ways considering how many people in the LGBTQ community are affected by mental health problems. I have definitely struggled heavily with anxiety and depression in the last 10 years, but I’ve always been able to find the strength and support I needed. I’ve always had close friends to help me through rough times and who I’m eternally grateful for. A lot of people don’t get the support they need; especially those who identify as queer, have been harassed, kicked out by their families, and marginalized in society. We need a greater public understanding of mental health and how it adversely affects people in ways they can’t control.” When asked about the effect of co-op life on mental health, Nikki responded, “There’s definitely a certain therapeutic aspect of being able to see people you care about every day. It allows you to get second, third, and even fourth opinions on anything regularly. You have support working through problems, help others through theirs, and even vent your frustrations. I feel a strong affection for the sense of community between houses. As someone who has spent her whole life struggling to fit in, the sense of belonging that the co-ops inspire is a wonderful thing.” Nikki went on to stress the path for the SHC moving forward. “Our houses still have a tendency to be predominantly white spaces. This lack of balance is an issue that we will still have to address if we are to truly call ourselves a progressive and diverse community.”
Nikki currently works to ensure the SHC’s facilities crew is equipped to maintain SHC houses, directs communications between facilities staff and members, organizes city inspections, licensing, and contractor appointments, and manages the Capital Improvements Budget. Her biggest goals include standardizing certain responsibilities and procedures, improving living quality of SHC houses, and supplementing preventative maintenance knowledge among members. She plans on transferring to MSU to study Business Management and Computer Science.
Any successful and effective organization must possess an inherent ability to identify internal issues. Nikki’s assessment of the SHC represents a passion shared by countless members to grow and improve the organization. Though the SHC continues to reflect MSU’s roughly 65% white student population, this homogeneity in no way curbs the growth of a diverse, open minded, and passionately engaged culture. Our intense drive to better the world around us is evident through countless actions from the steps each house aggressively pursues to implement a culture of consent to our impressive political literacy and engagement. Furthermore, at a time when Michigan’s most recent Republican gubernatorial candidate vocally defended the state’s now unconstitutional gay marriage ban as Michigan’s attorney general, I find the SHC’s existence as an institution LGBTQ individuals can use seamlessly to network, build vital skills, and integrate into the greater Lansing area comforting. Though we often go unnoticed in the grand scheme of the region’s diverse communities, our unique culture has served the greater Lansing area for decades and continues growing.