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UW Profiles

Shepard Symposium on Social Justice

 

It's been a few years but Kate Muir Welsh remembers as if it were yesterday.

"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 performances.

"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 Wyoming.

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.


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