Marc Lamont Hill on the power of student voices

President of Diversity Program Council Sadia Khatri moderates a conversation about student activism with Dr. Marc Lamont Hill on April 3. Photo by Jada Gangazha


Disclaimer: Sadia Khatri is a Collegian staff member and therefore could not be interviewed as a conflict of interest

Once a student himself, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill understands the challenge of advocacy on a college campus. On Wednesday, April 3, Hill sat in conversation with Diversity Program Council (DPC) President Sadia Khatri at Shelton Auditorium to reflect on these challenges and discuss how students can overcome them at Butler University. 

Hill is a journalist, professor, activist and organizer who has hosted BET News, The Grio, Al Jazeera UpFront and the Coffee & Books podcast. In 2018, Hill was fired from CNN for his remarks during a United Nations meeting to celebrate the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, calling for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” 

Hill’s activism centers primarily around abolishing the death penalty and prison system in the United States, but he advocates and organizes for a variety of social movements. His discussion with Butler students centered partially around the war in Gaza

As a writer, Hill has received awards for his journalism from the National Association of Black Journalists and GLAAD among others. Hill has authored and co-authored eight books, two of which — “Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics” and “Seen & Unseen: Technology, Social Media, and the Fight for Racial Justice” — DPC offered to students for free on Wednesday. 

Hill’s visit began with a passionate introduction by Anthony Murdock II ’17 who is a lecturer in entrepreneurship and innovation and faculty director of Butler’s minority-owned business initiative. Murdock recounted Hill’s last visit to the university in the spring of 2017

In 2017, Hill spoke about the power of Black student voices at a pivotal time in the Black Lives Matter movement. Hill returned on April 3 this year to address the power of Palestinian and Muslim student voices as they shed light on human rights violations and widespread destruction in Gaza. Murdock drew a parallel between the two movements. 

“For him to take a gap of seven years but have a message that was so similar, I know it speaks to his foresight, his intellect [and] his wisdom,” Murdock said. “But it also speaks to just how antique the systems we seek to dismantle are. In [the systems] being so old they become so strong that seven years [later] he can say the same thing about two different populations, and it [hits] like the first time.” 

Khatri, a healthcare and business major and president of DPC, moderated the question-and-answer style conversation with Hill. Khatri posed questions chosen by DPC members that reflected various experiences and topics. These topics ranged from organizing for change as a college student to the progressive position on the war in Palestine. All the questions pointed back to one common theme — the power of college students’ voices. 

Hill explained that he was most engaged in activism in high school, constantly reading, learning and advocating for social causes. When he got to college, a lot of his activism work stopped. 

“Most people get radicalized in college,” Hill said. “I got domesticated.” 

Hill dropped out during his first year at Morehouse College. He later resumed his college education, earning his degree in education and Spanish at Temple University in 2000. After graduating and entering the “real world,” his passion for activism and advocacy returned. 

“I don’t want [college students] to skip the part I skipped,” Hill said. “I want them to engage. I want them to join organizations in college. I want them to struggle both on campus to change their campus environment [and] also to change the surrounding community.” 

Hill encouraged students to engage with ideas that challenge their own and to learn all they can during their time in college. 

After reflecting on his time as a student, Hill described that students have a unique opportunity to raise awareness of problems in society. Using the example of repeated human rights violations and the rising death toll in Gaza, Hill explained how students have a responsibility to use their voices to shine a light on their university’s involvement — if it exists — in the war in Gaza. Hill encouraged students to use their voices collectively to pressure an institution to change its ways. 

“Roaches operate in the dark,” Hill said. “When the lights are off, roaches do whatever they want in your crib … But the moment the light comes on, what do they do? They scatter. What activism does and what young people can do in a university is stop the stuff that is happening in the dark from operating in the dark.” 

While Hill encouraged students to use their voices, he also addressed the burden of activism work felt by marginalized students on campus. He addressed those students, many of whom are on DPC or members of marginalized groups themselves, directly. 

“Because you carry a heavy burden, and because there’s like 10 of y’all trying to do the work of one hundred, you feel guilty sometimes if you don’t get all the work done,” Hill said. “Be gentle with yourself, be gracious with yourself, [and] be generous with yourself.” 

Ali Mohammed is a junior biology major and vice president of DPC. He took Hill’s advice to heart and appreciated his recognition of marginalized students’ activism on campus. 

“I took away so much from him, especially in his conversation about … the burden that marginalized students have doing DEI work on campuses, especially at a [predominantly white institution],” Mohammed said. “He talked a little about the high expectations we set for ourselves, and I think that’s so incredibly true of a lot of the organizations that I’m in.” 

Not only did students like Mohammed take away new ideas and feelings from the conversation with Hill, but faculty members also gained new insight from the conversation. One of Khatri’s questions addressed the recent resignation of Harvard’s first Black president Claudine Gay. Relating the way members of Congress and Harvard faculty members treated Gay to the experiences of faculty members of color at Butler University, Khatri asked Hill to discuss how and why institutions fail Black women and faculty members of color more generally. 

Hill spoke extensively on the topic, explaining that universities and colleges were built as exclusive institutions to uplift and perpetuate whiteness. He explained that these systems were not built for marginalized people. 

Murdock echoed this sentiment. He believes educators have much to learn from Hill’s experience as a college student because, similarly to Gay, Hill himself worked to fit into a university system that was not built for him. 

“The first thing I can say that [I gained] as an educator is we cannot put confines on the spectrum of a student’s educational experience because Marc Lamont Hill embodied the image of a student that educators believe college isn’t for: the dropout,” Murdock said. 

Murdock points to Hill as an example of a student who deserved professors willing to create a classroom where not just all students can succeed, but also one where specific students are given the space to succeed. These types of professors help transform institutions that were originally built to support the white, cisgender man into spaces that can welcome all people — people like Hill and Gay. 

Sophomore biochemistry major Rebecca Hoff left Hill’s talk with new ideas as well. 

“Some of the main messages I took away [included] how college is a business, and I’m well aware of that, but students do have power,” Hoff said. “You’re paying to be here which means you’re paying to be able to use your voice to advocate for things that are important to you.” 

Murdock asked his students to write a reflection on Hill’s discussion to receive extra credit in his class. Most of Murdock’s students who attended the event and submitted reflections were white cisgender men — people Murdock described as the standard Butler student. 

“They showed up in droves, and I am glad they did, to hear him speak: a Black man who is shedding light on the genocide happening in Gaza,” Murdock said. “For [Hill] to reach them is why people need to show up. If that Butler student can get something from Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, anybody can get something from Dr. Marc Lamont Hill.” 


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