Shepard Symposium on Social Justice
It's been a few years but Kate Muir Welsh remembers as if it
"I was walking through Safeway on the Sunday after the
symposium, after the 10th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder," says
Welsh, "and this student who I knew to be gay came up to me and said, ‘Thank
you so much for helping me to feel safe and making my opinion feel welcomed.'"
Welsh's voice cracks as she recalls the 6-year-old encounter
in the Laramie grocery store. "That just ..." she begins before pausing to collect
her thoughts. "That's why we do this," she finally says with a smile.
The 16th Shepard Symposium on Social Justice
(SSSJ), an annual springtime event at the University of Wyoming, which, in
1998, was rocked by the senseless murder of one of its own, offers an opportunity
for faculty, staff, students and Laramie residents to contribute to the global
discussion on strategies and actions to eliminate social inequality.
The event is named in memory of Shepard, a gay UW student
whose murder garnered widespread media coverage that stained Wyoming's image
and later spawned state and federal hate crime laws and a theatrical play that
has been performed across the world.
"This symposium is the greatest thing I've ever done in my
entire college career -- and I'm really involved on campus," says Brody Tate, a
senior Communications major from Evanston who has worked two years on the
all-volunteer committee that organizes the event. "I've been in 12 student
organizations since my freshman year, I won Homecoming royalty this fall, I've
worked in student government. But this is seriously the most rewarding
experience I've had since I've been here."
This year's symposium, titled "Identities: Dismantling the
Boxes," will deconstruct and interrupt the ways in which proscriptive identities
are forced upon members of marginalized groups by society. The March 28-31 event
will include a keynote presentation by Tim Wise, a prominent anti-racist writer
and educator who has spoken at more than 600 college campuses across the
nation, as well as concurrent sessions, plenary discussions and multicultural
"We want to challenge those boxes, that set of ideals, that
people put on you which may or may not fit when you look at yourself and create
a space where people can step outside those boxes and define themselves," says
Angela Jaime, an associate professor in the UW Department of Educational
Studies who has chaired the symposium committee the past two years. "I'm always
teaching my students that your identity is what you make of it and that you
should never allow anyone else to define who you are. It's about your journey
and you are the only one who can direct it."
Recently named by Utne
Reader magazine as one of "25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,"
Wise will discuss privilege across class, race, age and gender. Wise, described
by Jaime as an "ally for progress and change," has spoken in every state but
The concurrent sessions will feature a pair of presentations
by Bridget Kesling, who uses a life-size Barbie that she constructed with iron
piping, shredded foam, duct tape and felt to illustrate the disturbing messages
that the popular doll can send to young girls about body image.
From humble beginnings -- UW College of Education faculty
members Omawale Akintunde and Margaret Cooney started the symposium to promote
dialogue on issues related to social justice, particularly within the context
of public education -- the SSSJ has blossomed into a prominent conference that
attracts participants from across the country.
"When I first started, I thought, ‘You know, we're preaching
the choir here. Everybody that's coming to this is probably interested in or
has been affected by social justice issues.' I was wondering if we were
reaching anybody else," says Bill Hankins, a junior American Studies major in
his third year on the symposium committee. "Then, one day, I remember just
sitting in the hallway of the Union after one of the sessions and I overheard
somebody say, ‘I never thought about
it that way."
"That really summarizes the whole point of what we're trying
to accomplish every year."
Adds Welsh, director of the UW Social Justice Research
Center and former symposium chair, "When we go out into the bigger world and we
talk about Laramie, it's often associated with Matthew Shepard's murder. But I
think this yearly event helps us to promote Laramie as a place that welcomes
discussion and difference."
The symposium is free and open to the public. For a complete
schedule of events or to register for the symposium, go to www.shepardsymposium.org.