TikTok Sensation “Dilla” Blows Minds at the SSP 2022 Annual Conference

by Susan


If you are familiar with the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP), you know that this erudite and electrically charged organization is a powerhouse of advocacy and action for the world’s scientific, technical, medical, and social sciences publishing communities.

I’ve always been struck that no one segment or discipline of the society truly holds sway. SSP is a highly functioning organization in which commercial publishers, association and society publishers, university presses, librarians, researchers, and solutions providers are not only given equal voice in the conversations, but—probably more so than in any other organization I’ve seen—so many of these individuals have traded one discipline for another. The member from a behemoth commercial publisher becomes a respected industry consultant. The researcher at some point trades duties to sign on with a university press. A solutions provider member seeks out an opportunity with a scientific society. (Talk about Community!) Despite varying and oftentimes conflicting views, there is a pervasive deep appreciation and respect for all points of view that make up the community collective. And that’s how things get accomplished.

In the publishing world, the charge is, and always will be, Communication. Authenticity in communication is paramount. And SSP core values are very clearly steering the ship: Community. Adaptability. Inclusivity. Integrity.

So, as we all gathered for the opening keynote at this year’s conference (the first in-person conference in three years), we certainly expected some manifestation of that focus, reflective of this year’s theme: Building a More Connected Scholarly Community.

Shermann “Dilla” Thomas

I’m not sure all of us were expecting Shermann “Dilla” Thomas.

The choice to invite this on-the-surface unlikely keynote speaker was brilliant, as what Dilla had to offer not only cemented but propelled every SSP core value into the stratosphere.

Shermann “Dilla” Thomas is an urban historian. A father of seven. A proudly born and bred Chicagoan. A full-time utility worker on the South Side. The communication medium that catapulted him to social media stardom is TikTok.

Dilla shared an engaging, informative, and eyebrow-raising hour and 15 minutes of his time. The title of his presentation carried no small weight: “How Chicago History Shapes Modern Education and the City’s Impact on Global Academia.”  Oh my.

Dilla’s obvious pride in his hometown, his community, is infectious. And it’s based in communicating accurate stories of the city and its people. People that changed the world—whether unknown, famous, or infamous. His goal is to change negative perceptions of the city, its people, its diverse communities, and its culture by simply and eloquently ‘telling truth’, and amazing his followers and listeners in the process.

Of the many noteworthy Chicago-born firsts, the assembly line (a community in and of itself) stands out. Widely and wrongly assumed to be an invention of Henry Ford’s, it was Ford who traveled to Chicago to observe the unique “disassembly” line at the Chicago Union Stock Yards, bringing that idea back to his motor company. Thank you, Chicago.

Thank Chicago for setting the nation’s time zones. For founding the Harlem Globetrotters, circa 1926. For the skyscraper, the establishment of kindergarten curriculum, the concepts of sociology and learning disabilities, developed at University of Chicago. And so much more.

This treasure-trove of information now firmly deposited in our brains came courtesy of a single individual who cared enough to research, validate, and bring these informed snapshots of his town to us. The keynote itself underscored the importance of presenting accurate information and making it accessible to all. It is the scholarly publishing charge. Dilla acknowledged the challenges our community faces in that there is a very real cost to producing vetted information, and that there’s work to be done.

A final side note on the conference: Happily, youth infusion is happening in this organization. This society is known for lifers. Once you’ve become a member, you are a career member by choice. So many societies and organizations are struggling to entice new members. Not to say that this isn’t a challenge for SSP, but as a long-time conference attendee, I was quite encouraged to see a “new guard” emerging, taking part in committees and presentations and making those all-important connections; embracing the society that will serve them so well throughout their careers. Community, as I’m sure Dilla would agree, is what it’s all about.

Postscript: This post is actually intended as a bit of a love letter to the SSP and its extraordinary sense of community. But, if you are intrigued about Dilla and his devotion to his community, follow him on Instagram and TikTok at @6figga_dilla. His passion is the epitome of building and connecting community.