OXFORD, Miss. – Food and fellowship in the Grove is one of the University of Mississippi's most beloved traditions, but those who gathered there for those purposes on Sunday, October 27th, hope to begin a new tradition called "The Longest Table."
The free university event stretched across the Grove, where hundreds gathered to eat hamburgers and hot dogs and get to know one other better. Organizers said the continuous table – really, 50 tables placed end-to-end – is a powerful visual, where everyone has a place, and participants are arranged as part of one community along the Walk of Champions.
Chancellor Glenn Boyce told the crowd he hopes the Longest Table becomes an annual event.
"It's such an honor to be part of this special event – one I hope will be the start of a new tradition at the University of Mississippi," Boyce said. "I hope these tables are always filled all around this beautiful area.
"When you have the opportunity to have a grand idea to create something as special as this evening, don't hesitate. Do as Lily Sweet King did and bring it forward because we are a university that will listen to you and listen with intent."
King, an Ole Miss sophomore, coordinated a similar event at her high school in Tallahassee, Fla., and she proposed through an email to the chancellor's office months ago to bring the event to UM. This led to the creation of a planning committee of faculty, staff, and students.
King provided a fantastic example of the compassion, warmth, and caring found at Ole Miss, Boyce said.
"We're very proud you are one of ours and you have two more years to come up with more wonderful ideas for us," he said.
King, who has been recognized for her efforts with the event she organized at her high school, said after the Longest Table that she was pleased with the conversations attendees were having with one other.
"What I saw from just being at a table was that the connections people were making is what leads to understanding, which in turn leads to empathy," King said. "I think that it helps to show people that when you listen to each other, you start to understand each other. That breaks downs barriers and combats divisiveness."
Cade Smith, assistant vice chancellor for community engagement, explained that the event is the university's "family table," and it uses facilitated conversations to accomplish three goals.
Participants made connections and shared a meal with people from different walks of life. Secondly, they listened in order to understand diverse perspectives and share their own thoughts and experiences. Finally, participants shared their dreams for creating an even stronger university for the benefit of all.
"Perhaps, UM's greatest assets is the rich diversity of people, experiences, skills and perspectives that form the fabric of our university," Smith said. "The Longest Table creates a time, place and format to better capture the value of these assets and envision an even stronger university."
The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement will continue to work with organizations and individuals across the campus and community "to continue the fellowship, share diverse perspectives and work together for an even better tomorrow," Smith said.
Erin L. Payseur Oeth, a project manager with the division and a Kettering Foundation fellow specializing in civic deliberation, co-led the creation of the event. She believes the strong turnout, despite overcast skies, is proof that the community genuinely wants to get to know one other.
"There is power in people coming together to share a meal together to start genuine conversation and action," she said. "There are outcomes for the event, but this is not a conversation with an agenda.
"The goal is to connect and be in conversation with each other, and we hope the response shows that people have a desire for those kinds of conversations and those kinds of opportunities. We want to continue to provide those."
Along the many tables in the Grove, lively conversations flourished as strangers got to know one other better. They talked about their experiences here and their hopes for an even better future.
Nader Pahlevan, a junior biochemistry major from Biloxi, sat at a table with a group of people he'd just met. He tried to listen without judgment. He believes this approach is important because in thinking about his vision for the university, he decided he wants it to build on the environment of open-mindedness he said he's found here.
"People are very open-minded here, but I think we can always push toward more open-mindedness by having people feel free to talk about what they want to talk about," Pahlevan said. "It's important to ask more questions, and not just assume things because asking more questions than making assumptions helps you understand better where that person is coming from."
Annabelle Harris, a freshman English and classics major from Tulsa, Oklahoma, said she has felt very welcome since she came to the university and has forged many new connections.
She wants every student to have that kind of rich experience.
"I knew no one here, but I've made lots of friends, and I have met people from all kinds of places," Harris said. "Not even just from the United States; we have so many people who come in to study from other countries. We want this to be a place where we can come in and learn and be included and just be together."
Seeking out diverse connections on campus is key to maximizing the Ole Miss experience, she said.
"You just have to talk to people," Harris said. "You have to get to know people. Everyone is different. We just have to celebrate those differences and recognize how different we are, but yet, we have so many similarities."