In a darkened ballroom, journalist, scholar, and activist Marc Lamont Hill spoke of one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s greatest strengths—the art of listening.

“Deep listening is access to a fundamental sense of dignity,” said Hill, who addressed the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner at Illinois State University. “We have to learn how to have different conversations about the issues that impact us.”

image of a crowd in the Old Main Room at the Bone Student Center.

Conversations on diversity and inclusion are the focus of the program On Common Grounds, held after the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner.

Among the hundreds of people seated within the Brown Ballroom and hearing Hill’s words were nearly 70 students, staff, and alumni, who would practice the art of listening to one another at the Division of Student Affairs’ program “On Common Grounds…Dialogues on diversity and social justice.”

On Common Grounds began in 2008 as a way to engage students and alumni in conversation about diversity and inclusion. Facilitated by trained staff members, participants attend the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner, then adjourn to a separate room to discuss the messages and issues surrounding the talk. Past speakers have included Angela Davis, Danny Glover, and Michelle Alexander.

“This program offers students not only the chance to hear incredible speakers like Dr. Hill, but to come together and have a dialogue with people who span generations,” said Erin Thomas, who organized this year’s event with fellow members of the Division of Student Affairs, Judi Khalilallah, Anna Knepler, Donald Reed, and Debbie Ungson-Walbert.

image of Camille Taylor

Alumna Camille Taylor joins the conversation during On Common Grounds after the Martin Luther King Jr. Cultural Dinner.

After the dinner, students sat at small tables with one or two alumni and their staff facilitators. The 2017 dinner was slated, coincidentally, on the same day as the inauguration of President Donald Trump, which followed a divisive election season. “This day is filled with complex emotions for many of us in this room,” said Reed as he welcomed the participants of On Common Grounds in the Old Main Room. “We’re here to take what we heard tonight from Dr. Hill, process it, talk about it, and—we hope—find a way to act and inspire others.”

You can’t sit on your couch and tweet and think you are an activist. — Caprice Risby, Illinois State University student

The desire for active involvement was a common theme shared through conversations at the tables. Some explored the idea of emulating King’s model of activism which Hill addressed, and moving beyond complaints on social media. “You can’t sit on your couch and tweet and think you are an activist,” said student Caprice Risby. “You actually need to be there, calling people, knocking on doors, and organizing.”

Fellow student Hetal Dhirawan agreed, saying people need to not only tackle “couch activism” and get involved, but also take time to truly understand an issue. “When you decide to stand up for something, do the research,” she said. “Don’t be manipulated just from what others say. Decide for yourself.”

Conversations evolved from ideas on activism to involvement opportunities on campus and in the community. Students inquired about starting a Not On Our Campus chapter at Illinois State after hearing from alumni who are active in the local Not In Our Town movement. “Work with those who have built a foundation of activism,” said alumnus Art Taylor. “It’s not just a passion that makes you ready to lead. You also need experience to guide others. Learn from those who have walked that path.”

Understanding the past to build a stronger future is one of the hallmarks of the Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner and one embraced by the students who participated. “The word ‘sankofa’ means to look back so you are able to move forward,” said a student. “We are no different from our ancestors. We need to be part of a movement to change things. Join a movement.”