Finding and fostering community: Michigan Housing’s Multicultural Lounges

Elsa Olander and friend smiling next to her painting of three elephants at the Ambatana Hallway Celebration

November 7, 2023
By Ella Loveland, Student Life

Elsa Olander understands the challenges that many college students face: coping with homesickness. Building new relationships. Adapting to a new environment. She searched for a sense of connection and community at the beginning of her college career. 

Eventually, Olander found comfort through Michigan Housing's Ambatana - The Afro American Multicultural Lounge, over 7,500 miles away from her country of origin in Kenya.

Ambatana - The Afro American Multicultural Lounge, located in South Quadrangle, is a part of MHousing’s larger Multicultural Lounge Program, the first of its kind and largest Multicultural Lounge program among U.S. higher education institutions to create physical inclusive spaces for students.

Established in 1972 as a response to the Black Action Movement of the late 1960s, Ambatana - The Afro American Multicultural Lounge became a safe gathering place for Black students amid a hostile campus environment. 

Black students and allies at U-M requested funding from the Board of Regents throughout the early 1970s, and made plans for the establishment of Black lounges within residence halls that would serve as a gathering place for minority students.

Decades later, the lounge is fulfilling its purpose for a new generation of Wolverines.

“The lounge feels like a safe space for me to talk about my African culture,” shares Olander, a third-year student at the Penny Stamps School of Art and Design. “Coming from a different country, I was very uncomfortable for the first semester, and the lounge has made me comfortable. It is a place to share my ethnic and cultural background and to learn about those of other students whose families also came from African countries.”


Renovating Ambatana

Besides fostering a welcoming environment on campus, MHousing’s Diversity and Inclusion team is in the process of renovating all 16 multicultural lounges to honor the Multicultural Lounge Program’s legacy and revitalize students’ passion for these spaces.

From sourcing written graphics of quotes, poems and lyrics used for storytelling to working with local artists that share similar identities as those celebrated in the lounges, the MHousing team incorporates art and design that reflects the culture of each multicultural lounge during the renovation process. 

Ambatana - The Afro American Multicultural Lounge is undergoing a two-year renovation. The first phase includes four original wall murals, one student painting, the addition of a reflection room, and new storytelling of the multicultural lounge through graphics and quotes. The second phase, which begins in March 2024, includes the restoration of artwork originally from the multicultural lounge, additional storytelling and a major expansion of the multicultural lounge with upgrades such as a fresh coat of paint, new furniture and carpeting. 

Details matter to the MHousing team. Throughout the renovation process, the team seeks feedback from organizations and students before making any decision, no matter how small.

“It is so important to us that current students have a voice in what these spaces look like, so that it speaks to them and so they feel safe and comfortable in them. We do a lot of feedback sessions and design showcases with students before we settle on designs for the space so that we know the direction we are going in resonates with the students the multicultural lounge speaks to,”  said Amanda McLittle, director of Diversity and Inclusion in Michigan Housing. 

The Ghanaian granary door in Ambatana - The Afro American Multicultural Lounge is one example of how the MHousing team makes detailed design choices. For the Nupe people of Nigeria and the Dogon people of Mali, granary doors feature spiritually symbolic carvings, calling upon spirits and mythic heroes for an extra layer of defense and protection. 

As the MHousing team redesigns the multicultural lounges, they search for pieces much like the granary door to help connect the community to the culture of the multicultural lounge and symbolize to students their desire for them to feel a sense of belonging here.

From student to artist

Olander's initial exposure to the multicultural lounge came from her role within the African Student Association (ASA), a student organization that regularly meets in the multicultural lounge. Olander sits on ASA’s 2023-2024 Board as the African Studies Center ASA Liaison. From her experience, the consistent meeting space helped foster an environment conducive to inclusive discussions and the exchange of culture.

Now, Olander proudly adds her name to the list of artists contributing to Ambatana – The Afro American Multicultural Lounge.

As MHousing’s Diversity and Inclusion team began the search for art, they held discussions with legacy organizations–groups that helped in the establishment of the Multicultural Lounge Program–and shared interest in featuring student artwork. Olander’s portfolio caught the team’s attention.

Unfortunately for the MHousing team, the artwork of Olander’s that initially piqued their interest, named “Bull in the Dust,” is not for sale.

Recognizing Olander's talent, the team asked her to paint a new piece specifically for the multicultural lounge. Olander credits the MHousing team for how much freedom and support she received throughout the process. 

Elsa Olander with her painting of three elephants

Her piece, titled "Stronger Together," depicts three elephants walking side by side and symbolizes the idea that people make greater progress, individually and as a community, when supporting one another. 

A message that echoes the original meaning behind “Ambatana,”derived from the Swahili phrase meaning "stick together."

“It doesn't matter where you're from, who you are or your background, just help each other become better individuals. Someone's weakness is another’s strength,” explains Olander.

Art and advocacy

Art is an integral part of the multicultural lounge program. Each multicultural lounge’s art helps share the narratives and values a culture holds. As a platform of expression and communication, the multicultural lounges’ art evokes thought, emotion and dialogue. 

“I can protest and do advocacy work, but my strongest voice is showing awareness through my work,” explains Olander. “It’s more than just the artwork; it’s the discussions happening behind the piece.”

Ambatana - The Afro American Multicultural Lounge paved the path for future multicultural lounges. When it opened in 1972, the second addition to U-M’s burgeoning Multicultural Lounge Program, it became the first to prominently showcase Black culture through art, including Jon Onye Lockard’s work. 

Jon Onye Lockard, previous lecturer and a founding faculty member of the Department of Afro American and African Studies at U-M, focused on resisting the notion of elitism in art through both the art he created and in his teachings–making art accessible to the viewer.

The MHousing team incorporated a Jon Onye Lockard Dedication Alcove into the first phase of their renovation, recognizing the significance of his work in shaping the history and culture of the multicultural lounge.

By placing importance on the art and culture of these spaces, the MHousing Diversity and Inclusion team creates unity, celebrates diversity and fosters a sense of belonging for all U-M students while adding a contemporary work that speaks to today’s student into the multicultural lounges.

“My hope is that students see the art and realize we are actually being listened to,” shares Olander, “I hope it encourages more students to use their voice.”

Having discovered her community through Ambatana - The Afro American Multicultural Lounge, Olander takes pride in her dual role as a U-M student who found a sense of home at the multicultural lounge, and as an artist who contributes her work to its enriching environment.