Actress Rosario Dawson encouraged Illinois State students to get involved by giving back Sunday at the fifth annual Latino Cultural Dinner.
This year’s dinner, co-sponsored by University Housing, Campus Dining, and the Association of Residence Halls, among others, focused on civic engagement as its theme.
“(The Latino Cultural Dinner) fosters a sense of belonging for Latino students on campus and makes them feel appreciated and comfortable,” said University Housing Assistant Director for Student Development Mboka Mwilambwe. “It is also important for other students to learn about other cultures because it will make them that much more effective in the workplace after graduation.”
Dawson was chosen to headline the dinner at Bone Student Center due to her commitment to various causes, since this coincides with Illinois State’s values, Mwilambwe added. Dawson spent the evening being interviewed by fellow activist and friend Tiffany Persons, followed by a Q&A with attendees.
The night’s focus on Puerto Rican culture was evident through the pre-dinner performance and slide show with facts about the commonwealth. The dinner also served typical Puerto Rican cuisine with choices such as carne guisada (stewed meat) and arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas). Once dinner was finished, Persons began interviewing Dawson.
The actress’s Afro-Puerto Rican roots led her to become involved in many causes such as the Lower Eastside Girls Club, the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet, and Shine on Sierra Leone. One of her biggest accomplishments was founding Votó Latino, an organization that encourages Latinos across the United States to register to vote in order to make them feel empowered.
“Don’t let your silence ring louder than your vote,” Dawson told the 500-plus audience members.
The activist also spoke about the difference between acceptance and tolerance when referring to other people, especially in regard to various cultures. She grew up in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side of New York where her “cultural eyes” were opened.
“Things you think are hindrances often turn out to be benefits with time,” she said, explaining that she auditioned for her role in Rent solely because of her childhood experiences on the Lower East Side.
Now that Dawson has gained recognition in Hollywood with roles in movies such as Sin City and Zookeeper, she recognizes the importance of paying it forward, leading to her involvement in many organizations. She expressed how interesting it is to learn about people.
“It’s just amazing to be able to give back now because nothing is in isolation,” she said. One of her many passions includes trying to educate young minorities because “education will always open doors and will always give you opportunities.”
She closed the dinner by discussing how she is always challenging herself to get better at everything she does as an actress and an activist.
“I just think we don’t have enough awe anymore. We overlook the simple things,” she said.
Grace Johnson can be reached at gvjohns@IllinoisState.edu.