UNITED BY THE DIVIDE: SVSU students lead historic Saginaw protest against racial injustice

Indigo Dudley and Simone Vaughn won’t forget the first time they watched video of George Floyd dying beneath the knee of a police officer. The disturbing footage of another public death of a black man – a man whose skin color so resembled their own – was relayed to the two Saginaw Valley State University students through the light of their smart phone screens.  Their screens, though, felt so much more like mirrors in those painful, unsettling moments.

Indigo Dudley

“That could have been me,” Dudley said. “That could have been my family, my friends, Simone, someone in my hometown. That scared me.” 

Alongside Vaughn, Dudley transformed that fear into a passion for action this week. 

The two SVSU students – acquainted since their days as teens attending Arthur Hill High School and the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy together – were among six organizers who coordinated one of the largest protests in modern Great Lakes Bay Region history. Spurred in part by Floyd’s death and following in the footsteps of a movement that now spans the globe, their Tuesday, June 2 protest rallied hundreds of participants for a march that stretched from Ojibway Island to the front lawn of the Saginaw County Governmental Center. 

It was an impressive and peaceful showing of mass support for police reform, they said. The crowd featured representation from many demographics. Even children attended, donning “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and holding signs demanding an end to racial inequality in the justice system. 

Both Dudley and Vaughn stood at the front of that crowd, inspiring followers with words and leading the half-mile march. 

For the Saginaw natives, it was an unimaginable scenario only one week earlier. Up until they were asked last weekend to help organize Tuesday’s protest, both students earned experience speaking publicly and leading groups through their studies and programs at SVSU, but neither envisioned themselves organizing such a large-scale gathering – let alone one that involved intense expectations and unsettling pressure from strangers to stay home. 

Simone Vaughn

“I received creepy messages on Facebook and then I got a call from an unknown number on the day of event from someone I had to hang up on,” Vaughn said. “I was a bit terrified, but I knew I was putting myself at risk for the right cause. You have to be strong and confident.” 

With news stories about rioting and looting emerging from other protests across the state and nation, Dudley and Vaughn were determined to organize an event in Saginaw that was safe and peaceful yet still carried a powerful message. 

“My personal goal was to educate and unify Saginaw,” Vaughn said. “The key was to make sure everything was well-organized ahead of time.”

Dudley, Vaughn and their fellow organizers recruited volunteers to help on the day of the event. They marketed the gathering using social media, where they shared videos of them preaching the need to ensure a peaceful and powerful protest. In the days leading up to the march, they gathered items to support the crowd, including food and water. With the march representing the largest gathering in the region since the beginning of a global pandemic that discourages large gatherings, they purchased protective face masks and hand sanitizer for protesters. They coordinated with local law enforcement agencies to inform them about their intended route and meeting spaces. 

The resulting march exceeded expectations for Dudley and Vaughn, concluding without any reported negative incidents. 

“We were trying to let people know, what happened to George Floyd could happen to you and it could happen here, so we have to stand together to do something about it,” Dudley said. 

“This march was an opportunity to stand with people who felt the same way and raise awareness so that the police know how we feel.” 

Along with the march, the event included guest speakers, highlighting black community members who discussed experiences where they felt justice was carried out unfairly due to the color of their skin. Listening to those stories was painful but necessary, Dudley said. 

“We just want to be safe,” she said. 

“I haven’t always felt this way, but my trust in the police is gone right now. I’m looking to get it back. I need help to get it back. That’s why we protest.” 

Dudley and Vaughn said the Tuesday event was a step in the right direction. Both were encouraged by early signs of change to come. For instance, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer the following day announced plans to pursue statewide police reform to promote racial equality. And members of local law enforcement agencies have begun meeting with protesters, announcing plans to discuss potential policy reform. 

Despite the victories, much work remains, Dudley and Vaughn said. 

While their particular group of organizers has yet to announce plans for a second protest, both students are involved in other gatherings related to the Black Lives Matter movement. Vaughn has participated daily in protests this week, including in Detroit. Dudley on Wednesday was a panelist on a Facebook Live town hall-style discussion with regional political and law enforcement leaders. 

Simone Vaughn marches during the June 2 protest in Saginaw.

“This is not going to go away easily,” Vaughn said. “We’re in this now.” 

A mutual mentor said both Dudley and Vaughn are well-equipped to help lead this movement and ready to meet the moment. Dawn Hinton, an SVSU sociology of professor and a community organizer in Saginaw, was among the protesters during the march Tuesday. She watched with pride as Dudley and Vaughn led the mass demonstration. 

“These students, who spoke passionately about their pain during the march, were fearless,” Hinton said. 

“In the midst of a virus with no cure, both Indigo and Simone worked with the community to protest the injustices continually visited on the black community. I have never been prouder of the work we do here at SVSU than when I saw these women operate in their natural element. Our community is in good hands.” 

Both Dudley and Vaughn said they felt prepared for the experience in part because of their experiences at SVSU and the mentorship of campus leaders such as Hinton. Vaughn, who serves as Miss Saginaw County and has been a regular in regional pageants for years, met the professor while attending community events. Dudley as a freshman was a student in one of Hinton’s sociology courses and continued to seek her mentorship in the years since. 

“After that first class, I absolutely fell in love with the way Dr. Hinton engaged people,” Dudley said. “I said, ‘This is a person I want to keep getting advice from,’ so I’ve kept her in my life.” 

Vaughn said Tuesday’s march was the largest crowd she ever addressed as a speaker. She felt prepared for that experience in part because of skills developed as a member of SVSU’s forensics team. 

Both students also are active with on-campus organizations and offices. Dudley works as a student employee in the SVSU Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, where she helps organize diversity-inspired events on campus. Both students also are members of the SVSU registered student group known as The Organization for Black Unity. Dudley serves as president. 

Indigo Dudley (second from left) and Simone Vaughn (second from right) are members of SVSU’s Organization for Black Unity.

Both plan to graduate in May 2021. Dudley hopes to enroll in a graduate program after earning her bachelor’s degree in music. Her dream is to perform professionally as a singer and utilize her status to pursue social change issues including racial equality. A communication major, Vaughn also plans to attend a graduate program after earning her bachelor’s degree. For years, she has volunteered in programs that seek to house the homeless as well as initiatives that promote mental health. After graduation, she plans to continue pursuing those endeavors while also continuing her activism to promote racial equality. 

“I was very passionate about this subject even before George Floyd died,” Vaughn said. “His death just amplified that passion. It changed a lot of things for a lot of people, and I hope now we can do something with that change.”

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