Internationally-renowned speakers for equality are coming to Laramie for the 20th annual Shepard Symposium on Social Justice next week.
Christine Boggs, co-chair of the Shepard Symposium committee, is prepared for the 500 people expected to attend the conference, which started as a small University of Wyoming College of Education event.
“(The Shepard Symposium) is an annual event we have every year since 1997 by two College of Education faculty — Omowale Akintunde and Margaret Cooney,” she said. “It’s evolved from a small College of Education thing to an international conference.
“It’s just to engage people to think about actions and strategies to make the world a more socially equal place.”
Boggs said most of the visitors are UW faculty, staff and students, but some people travel across the country, especially for this year’s four keynote speakers — Rebecca Peabody, Masha Gessen, Janaya Khan and Omowale Akintunde.
“We have Gessen, who is a Russian-American journalist,” Boggs said. “She was in Russia for 20 years, but had to leave when they had their anti-gay campaign and forced her to leave. Janaya Khan is an international ambassador from the Black Lives Matter (Movement).”
Akintunde is the final keynote speaker, who has become a critically acclaimed diversity filmmaker. Boggs said many UW faculty are excited to have him back, as he was a co-founder of the symposium.
“It’s the 20th anniversary, so we’re trying to get a lot of really good stuff and a nice variety of speakers,” Boggs said.
The four keynote speakers are not the only participants in the symposium — dozens of hour and half-hour classes fill the day Thursday and Friday, including Rachel Watson, a molecular biology professor.
“One of my areas of interest is the scientific method that includes those that are marginalized,” she said. “It’s a session that will look at and hopefully allow participants to uncover some of the norms that exist in science that would cause those that are minorities or women to feel uncomfortable.”
Something as simple as designing a course taking into account different standpoints of diverse students can make a difference, Watson said.
“My hope is that I can actually allow participants to take a journey through the looking glass,” she said. “Even if you are a member of a marginalized group, sometimes you’ve been conditioned to see the way we do science as the only way to do science. There’s a norm that exists.”
Jacqueline Leonard, an elementary and early childhood education professor, is leading her first discussion since 2015 after a personal encounter with social injustice.
“I was involved with the rescue of the two young women that were being trafficked in Rawlins back in January, and it sort of changed my outlook on the topic,” she said. “This is a serious problem and I thought, ‘How could I bring about awareness?’ And I thought the Shepard Symposium would be the perfect place for that.”
Leonard’s session will focus on spreading the word on the January trafficking and show people this isn’t something that affects people in far-off lands.
“If I didn’t know, other people didn’t know,” she said. “So, this session is about bringing awareness to the issues and helping people be more cognisant of the surroundings.”
In fact, many of the topics of discussion at the Shepard Symposium might not seem directly related to Laramie. However, that only shows they’re more important than ever, Boggs said.
“They bring a lot of issues we have seen thus far from afar,” she said. “Black Lives Matter isn’t as directly touching or hitting Laramie — not necessarily because it shouldn’t, but it hasn’t, so the opportunity to see people who are on the ground is great.
“I also think that it’s a great opportunity to come and really celebrate all kinds of diversity,” Boggs continued. “We have a wide variety of speakers and panelists in lots of different areas, from diversity in sciences all the way to issues on transgender. If you’re interested in any kind of environmental or social justice, there’s something here you can find here.”
IF YOU GO ...
What: Shepard Symposium on Social Justice
When: Various times Wednesday-Saturday
Where: University of Wyoming campus
How much: Free
More info: www.shepardsymposium.org