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Keynote Speakers

Wednesday Evening

Megan Phelps-Roper

Meghan Phelps-Roper

Megan Phelps-Roper was raised within the virulent religious group The Westboro Baptist Church: known for picketing against the LGBT community, funeral services for soldiers, and nearly every other religious faith. By 2009, she was running the church’s Twitter account (as granddaughter of Fred Phelps, church founder, and daughter of Shirley Phelps-Roper, former church spokesperson, Megan played a central role in spreading its signature brand of hateful rhetoric to a global audience). However, after interacting with calm, civil, and genuinely empathetic individuals online—including one user who would eventually become her husband—Phelps-Roper began to question the dogmatic assertions of her faith and its celebrations of human tragedy. In 2012, she and her sister made the incredibly brave (and rare) decision to abandon their cloistered way of life, leave their family and home, and renounce their teachings.

Since then, Phelps-Roper has championed the power of empathetic dialogue to change minds and connect with those we may disagree with. In her TED Talk—one of the top ten most-popular talks of 2017—she shares how understanding and compassion can transform lives, even across the widest of ideological gulfs. Her inspiring, moving, and deeply human story of change is also the subject of an upcoming memoir, called This Above All, to be released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Already, it’s set to be transformed into a major feature film—directed by Marc Webb, scripted by Nick Hornby, and produced by Reese Witherspoon. Recently, she’s appeared on Sarah Silverman’s Hulu series, I Love You, America, and on the National Geographic series The Story of Us, with Academy Award-winner Morgan Freeman.

Thursday Noon

Courtney Gehle

Courtney Gehle

Courtney is a 23-year-old South African activist with four years’ experience working towards social and environmental justice in Post-Apartheid South Africa.

Courtney is the Founder and Executive Director of The Better Tomorrow Movement - an international youth empowerment organization which was a runner up for the Queens Young Leader Award 2017, co-founder of The Greenline - a youth led environmental organization and co-founder of Ovary Action SA - an inter-sectional organization aimed at breaking down rigid and prohibitive societal constructs.

She represented South Africa at COP21 and was named one of Africa’s 100 Brightest Young Minds in 2015, named a Global Changemaker and awarded South African Green Student of the Year in 2016 and named a Young Leader for Development by the European Commission in 2017.

Courtney is passionate, driven and dedicated to creating a positive future for both her country and the rest of Africa.

Thursday Evening

Judy Shepard

Judy ShepardJudy Shepard draws from personal tragedy to promote a greater understanding of LGBTQ issues and empower audiences to embrace human dignity and diversity through outreach and advocacy in their own communities.

In 1998, Judy lost her son Matthew to a murder motivated by anti-gay hate that shocked and captivated the nation. Turning tragedy into a crusade for justice, this leading voice in the LGBTQ rights movement has since established The Matthew Shepard Foundation to carry on her son’s legacy. Later, she spearheaded The Matthew Shepard Act, which expanded the federal hate-crime law to include crimes based on gender and sexual orientation.

The author of the best-seller, “The Meaning of Matthew,” Judy offers an intimate look at how her life and the entire fight for equal rights changed when her son was killed. With a name now synonymous with activism and equal rights, Judy leaves an indelible imprint with her words, compassion and raw honesty as she urges audiences to make their schools and communities safer for everyone, regardless of race, sex, religion, or gender identity and/or expression.

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Shepard Symposium on Social Justice
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