January 20, 2023

2023 Community Unity Dinner Unites Community, Emphasizes Dialogue on Social Justice

Hundreds of MSU students, faculty, staff and community members gathered Jan. 12 to kick off a series of events in honor of MLK Day and the civil rights leader’s life and legacy. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Unity Dinner also served to honor this year’s endowed scholarship recipients.

Over 530 people registered for the event at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, the first in-person unity dinner in over three years due to the lingering pandemic. Tammye Coles, associate director of Spartan Experiences in the Division of Student Life & Engagement, believes being in-person again was a vital ingredient to a very real sense of community within the crowd. This tangible energy felt different considering the circumstances. To Coles, this helped bond the crowd.

“It was just good to see people from all different parts of campus and the city. We had been in lockdown for so long — it was nice to have the Unity Dinner actually unite us in person,” Coles said. “It made me stop and think about all the stuff that is going to happen this week.”

Coles attended the event with her son, who had delivered a speech at MSU in a previous year’s MLK commemorative luncheon. Beyond coming full circle for the family, Coles’ team within Spartan Experiences worked with the MLK Community Unity Dinner planning committee to put on this and other events in a weeklong calendar that also includes health and wellness events along with a film series and March for Justice among others. The theme of the celebration this year is “Living Purpose, Promise and Perseverance.”

“My table [at the event] had people that looked like me, that didn’t look like me. And I kept thinking to myself, ‘Gosh, back in the day we could never have done this.’ It was a really good feeling having that whole event as a kickoff for the rest of the week.”

Like Coles, Dreux Baker noticed it felt different too. As co-chair of the planning committee for the Unity Dinner, he also felt like the gathering was more than just a kickoff.
“I felt a good energy; a welcomeness. Some of the people, I’ve known a long time; some I just met. But it felt like family. While we had people from all corners of campus, there was a good blend of staff, faculty and students,” Baker said. 

Baker knows it’s not always easy to bring so many students with a roster of staff and administrators, let alone to share space with the MSU Interim President Teresa Woodruff, PhD, and VP/Chief Diversity Officer Jabbar Bennett, PhD. Both offered remarks at the event, respectively, and spoke warmly of the efforts administrators are taking via strategic plans and more to make MSU a more diverse and equitable institution for intersectional identities. 

Baker is an MSU alumnus and now serves as the assistant director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for Residence Education and Housing Services. Among the many hats he wears, he even served as one of the emcees for the evening. To Baker, he could feel a sort of unique energy he couldn’t quite name. It seemed this particular Unity Dinner served a more intentional and focused purpose than in the past.

“From side to side of the banquet room, you heard people greeting each other and laughing. There was more than the typical small talk at these events. There was a sort of larger dialogue taking place to address our issues on and off campus. It felt like something magical was happening between the lines that we didn’t plan.”

To Baker, the intergenerational nature of the audience was important. Yet even more, it seemed to Baker as if, despite the different backgrounds and generations of students, alumni, faculty and staff, everyone was on the same page as it relates to the urgency needed to make transformational change on this campus and beyond.

The event featured a student address by School of Social Work graduate student Arianna Pittenger, as well as an impactful, honest keynote by LeConte Dill, PhD, associate professor in African American and African Studies, both of which drew standing ovations. While the addresses naturally focused on much of the experiences of Black and marginalized communities at MSU, they tied to the very real impacts with national and global relevance around systemic racism and violence, intersectionality and protest.

Pittenger, relating to the theme, shared her journey of perseverance and promise from her youth in Flint to becoming a first-generation college graduate who hopes to research the impacts of trauma survivors within BIPOC LGBTQIA+ communities.

Dr. Dill, likewise, touched on the barriers many Black women and marginalized groups face, not only in academia, but in a society that rarely centers them in narratives of education, health, industry or even history. Guided by Black feminist epistemologies, she expressed the importance of sharing the truths of systemic harms and cultures of complicity and confronting the outcomes like that of Dr. King’s life and death: that it is important in the face of censorship and historical revisionism to embrace truths like Dr. King’s murder to better understand the challenges of today. With true understanding, real dialogues can become solutions for real problems and oppressions.

It is this focus on depth and relevance, combined with the intergenerational and diverse audience that, according to Coles, sets a tone.

“I’m a child of the civil rights movement. My family had an opportunity to meet Dr. King, and many of those experiences were around eating; sharing. So, to have a Unity Dinner that honors a man who sacrificed so much is special,” Coles said. “The [Unity Dinner] set the tone for the week. It’s a gentle reminder that we have to stay on the case.”

Baker felt that the audience was genuinely united and inspired to work for a better MSU. It’s that link to the institution and the MSU community that helped the camaraderie feel palpable.

He said, summing up the experience, “People found a commonality. We know we have something in common, and finding that commonality as an unspoken vibe made everything comfortable. That holds weight to us all despite where we came to the dinner from.”

Spartan helmet