“Have a cup of tea,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “and just talk.” That was the advice the U.S. Supreme Court justice gave St. Olaf College student Don Williams when they were fellow recipients of a National Dialogue award, an honor given to people who have worked to bring discussions about social change into their communities.
On the St. Olaf campus, Williams, 20, has led such discussions among students, faculty and staff, becoming a star moderator of the Sustained Dialogue program. He launched the college’s first De-Stereotype Me day, during which nearly 400 people gathered to talk about the ways they are seen by their peers and professors.
A dancer, Williams is a natural at getting up in front of a crowd. That quality has served him well on campus, but he never expected it would bring him face to face with one of the nation’s most revered jurists.
“I was shocked that I was at the same level” as Ginsburg, Williams said. “It really opened my eyes to what opportunities you can make for the community and the country, and how if you’re driven to make change, it really shows.”
Sustained Dialogue is a national organization that promotes community conversation about eight “social identifiers”: socioeconomic status, gender and sex, age, race and color, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and ability. For the past two years, these conversations have been playing out weekly at St. Olaf, resulting in “action plans,” such as presentations for the rest of the school, a breakfast discussion program and, thanks to Williams, the questioning of stereotypes in classrooms.
The conversations aren’t easy. They are “hot-button topics” that can be “harsh” for participants to talk about, he said.
Race is one that comes up frequently, and one that Williams addresses head-on on a campus where only one in six students is nonwhite. Coming from a more racially diverse community in Chicago, Williams struggled at first with settling into “a predominantly white institute.” But then, he decided to make the most of it by collaborating with his fellow students.
“I realized that in order to change the community, you have to set your foot forward, and you have to act and use resources you have in your community to make that change,” he said. “Being a student, you have a lot of power, because you’re learning and have peers around you to help you dissect a problem.”
At a typical dialogue, Williams has participants introduce themselves and explain how they define the topic. Once that’s out of the way, everyone feels more comfortable “validating” others’ experiences and sharing their own questions.
“I feel like it’s making a difference,” he said. “But it’s an ongoing difference, and it has to be driven by everyone.”
Sindy Fleming, St. Olaf’s director of multicultural and international engagement, nominated Williams for the national award. “He has great listening skills, and he’s not afraid to continue asking deeper questions that will get to the root of someone’s feelings, thoughts or emotions,” Fleming said.
Williams has always been passionate about his pursuits. He launched a dance company at his medical preparatory high school in Chicago. At St. Olaf, he founded another dance company when he realized the type of dance he loves — hip-hop, majorette, flag routines — wasn’t offered.
His dance activism was good preparation for his role as a conversation starter. “I feel like it goes hand-in-hand so well because, for me, dance is the way I speak,” he said.
And like dialogue, dance brings together multiple perspectives, he said.
“So many people can experience the same dance; however, the way they feel — the emotional baggage that comes with it — is totally different, because of our backgrounds and experiences,” he said. “Speaking, you realize, there is more than one experience. There is more than one dance.”