Ignite the Conversation

University of Illinois at Chicago

March 22, 2019

Take a Seat, Make a Friend video

This 2013 SoulPancake Street Team production was the inspiration behind the University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) ‘Ignite the Conversation’ civic-dialogue series. Leading up to and following the 2016 Presidential Election, tensions rose high and divisive behavior began to spread. As UIC’s Student Leadership and Civic Engagement team reflected on the political climate and began to develop our 2018 Civic Action plan, we knew there had to be a dialogue component to get students to debrief and share their views in a healthy way. Upon the conclusion of our talks and brainstorming sessions, we decided to take the risk and purchase a ball-pit as the framework for our dialogue series.

Did we just say a ball-pit? Yes, a ball-pit! We knew that for this to be successful, a number of factors had to be at play. First, there was a need to create a WOW factor that drew students in to participate. Eventually, we figured that putting a ball-pit in a centralized, high-traffic part campus would accomplish just that. Second, we needed to form a space that deescalated potential tension and division in order to ensure meaningful dialogue was taking place and a ball-pit provided the playful atmosphere we were looking for. Third, we needed to create or recite a platform that the conversation would follow. It was then that our team came across the ‘Ask Big Questions: Civics Edition’, https://www.askbigquestions.org/, which provides eight conversation/dialogue starters on everything from voting rights to the importance of community engagement. This platform served as our greatest asset to our students since it fit the campus environment we serve. Students were able to link baseline topics that helped shape their perception of civic participation with the ways they lived out those beliefs. Now that we had established a wow factor, found a way to deescalate tensions, and had a dialogue platform in place, the last thing we needed as a name. Being that we are the UIC Flames, Ignite the Conversation fit the brand and delivered the call-to-action we were looking for!

As the start of the fall 2018 semester approached, we decided that the best day to roll out this new initiative would be the first day of classes. Although risky, we decided to add an element of surprise in the middle of our campus’ quad and watched the reactions unfold organically. Our risk was a success! The process of constructing the ball-pit was enough to stir attention. However, once assembled, the interest grew stronger and the conversations did not stop.

Not only was the ball-pit effective in encouraging civic, high-risk dialogue, it also served as an opportunity to educate onlookers on the democratic process. Since not all students are immediately comfortable by the environment the ball-pit was captivating, we had the chance to meet with students and provide them with registration information, election-related dates, and non-partisan educational toolkits. Even without directly engaging with the ball-pit, we still found our students on the peripheral having just as an impactful experience.

Word of our ball-pit spread far throughout campus and soon enough, other campus units were looking to partner and borrow our tool for their own programs. UIC found the ball-pit moving from civic-dialogue, to a reunion party activity, and even to a social media, photo-op room. We were shocked by the impact our once ‘shower idea’ had made. We began to take notice of the various ways campus was utilizing our tool and began to expand our own programming to be inclusive of these new takes. Now, ‘Ignite the Conversation’ serves as a meeting point for dialogue, but also an accessory for student panel debrief and so on.

Our biggest takeaway with this ball-pit initiative is the acceptance of risk-taking. In many instances, risks do not pay off. However, for our team at UIC Student Leadership and Civic Engagement, we found this not being one of those instances. If you are a campus looking for creative, innovative engagement tools, start with having fun. In our office, we are always looking for ways to get a grip on our students and understand the different ways that they learn. The possibilities for this are endless. We’ve done civic engagement programming ranging from ‘Red, White, and Bowl’ (an event hosted in collaboration with the Student Center Bowling Alley to offer free bowling, while the Presidential Debate took place) to ‘Ignite the Conversation’, and even for a bicentennial birthday bash for our home state of Illinois. Take the risks. Be creative. You would be surprised how much you can learn when you are goofing off with some pals.


  • Spencer Long, Director of Student Leadership and Civic Engagement, University of Illinois at Chicago
  • Dominic Belcaster, Graduate Assistant of Student Leadership and Civic Engagement, University of Illinois at Chicago

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