The lights dimmed, clamorous chattering came to a halt and the background music dwindled into silence. As students sat quietly and attentively, Michael Eric Dyson stepped onto the stage.
“Like Biggie said, ‘Pink gators, my Detroit players/’Timbs’ for my hooligans in Brooklyn,’” Dyson said.
The crowd’s silence broke into an uproar of cheering and laughter as they applauded the Detroit-born professor, author, radio show host and academic’s reference to The Notorious B.I.G’s 1996 hit song, “Hypnotize” before he swiftly shifted back to intellectual vernacular.
Dyson spoke at the Stevenson Event Center May 9 for the sixth annual speaker blowout. The jointly organized SUA and Engaging Education event was aimed toward addressing issues that affect access to higher education and the success of under-resourced and under-represented communities on campus.
“There are a lot of students struggling that need a sense of community and we thought that Dr. Michael Eric Dyson would be that person to help bridge that gap in building solidarity between different communities here on campus,” said Abel Pineda, co-program coordinator for Engaging Education.
Dyson’s ability to reach students and elucidate what he called, “the powers and perils of diversity,” lies not only in his master’s degree and doctorate from Princeton University, the 16 books he has authored, his countless appearances on several major media outlets, his former show on NPR or his current position as a sociology professor at Georgetown University, but also in his own personal background and presence.
Stretches of erudite speech were frequently sprinkled with commentary and jokes, and sometimes song — or rap — to support Dyson’s thoughts. From Trey Songz to Marvin Gaye, at various points the staid tone erupted into fingers snapping and hands clapping as the audience sang along with Dyson’s use of musical reference to engage the crowd.
In addition to Dyson’s magnetic speaking abilities, he did not shy away from addressing the issues surrounding race and ethnicity. His talk urged students to eradicate an assigned hierarchy of difference and to embrace diversity.
“The beauty of diversity is that those outsiders come to the table, shape the table, ask questions about who’s at the table, begin to participate, begin to be included, begin to be integrated, begin to be invited,” Dyson said. “It invites voices that didn’t used to be heard to be heard, faces that were never seen to be included.”
Dyson warned against discrimination between separated minority groups and its potential to divest diversity of its radical intent to challenge the majority. He said it was important instead to understand the universality of different communities while emphasizing the value in maintaining their unique differences.
“The differences among ourselves are suppressed, so our challenge is figuring out ways to embrace and allow to breathe those differences that make us who we are,” Dyson said.
Inciting dialogue on inclusion and diversity within the campus community was essential to the event organizers.
“An event like this and a speaker like this is especially important to SUA because people need to be challenged,” said DT Amajoyi, SUA commissioner of diversity. “It will challenge [students] to not just stick with the status quo, but to figure out what it is that’s going on.”
Amajoyi said the talk is especially relevant for the upcoming academic year with plans for new programs in critical race and ethnic studies on campus. Voices of underrepresented communities are also threatened with voter ID laws and other legislation like SB1070 and HB56.
Voter ID laws require a person to show formal identification to vote and are thought by some to be a problem of intimidation to voters of underrepresented communities. SB1070 is an Arizona law that obliges immigrants to have registration documents in possession at all times. HB56 is another Arizona law that “[requires] a person to present proof of citizenship and residency before voting,” according to the act.
Dyson’s words also reflect and encourage the collaboration that took place between SUA and Engaging Education to plan and execute the evening along with several other organizations that came together to help support the event.
“Different ethnic organizations and different student organizations on campus are very divided in a sense because they have their own projects and they want to do their own things,” said Adrianne Sebastian, co-program coordinator at Engaging Education. “But we felt it was necessary to promote cross-collaboration and joining together of different spaces.”
“Some of the ideas that were brought up and introduced by Dyson and the students are very instrumental in terms of how we are going to continue producing programs,” said Engaging Education co-program coordinator Pineda, “and hopefully be producing more collaborative programs within the different communities.”