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UNI stands on higher ground
Story by Sara Wesselmann, UNI University Relations online magazine and public relations assistant
Judy Shepard spoke at the University of Northern Iowa as part of the "Standing on Higher Ground" project, which examines civility, understanding and the impact to a community when those qualities are missing.
Shepard, who lost her son in October 1998 to a murder motivated by anti-gay hate, travels across the nation speaking to audiences about their role as individuals and communities in making this world an accepting place for diversity.
In a message to campus, President Ben Allen said, "I am confident we can embrace this opportunity to increase civility on campus and aid in developing empathy for people with different lives and beliefs."
The Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. planned to protest Shepard's appearance at UNI. Hundreds of UNI students launched a counter protest. The Kansas group's protest never materialized.
Becca Evans and Evelyn Marolf, UNI teaching majors, were among hundreds of faculty, community members, students and staff who came to hear Shepard. "As a future educator, she can give us a really good representation of our roles as teachers in children's lives. Listening to a mother and teacher's perspective on bullying and hate will be beneficial so we know what students are actually going through when they aren't accepted at school," said Evans.
"Diversity is all about standing up for what you believe in," said Marolf. "Today, being around so many people who are accepting of so many things is a good feeling. Yes, you might only be one person, but you want to be a voice for the people who might not have a voice. People who accept others show that the world isn't as evil as everyone thinks."
While Shepard spoke about diversity, the reasons why people attended her speech were equally diverse.
Michaela Rich, UNI alum and faculty member said, "It's important that we're having this discussion. Drawing prejudice out in the open in a positive way creates awareness. I want to hear about her and her work and the message she is going to give us tonight. Coming here, everyone will leave a more tolerant individual to all situations."
Joanie Shafer, UNI graduate student and staff member, was excited to hear Shepard talk about the struggle for equality. "I think the story brings a community together to say, 'We're taking a higher ground in the realm of equality.'"
As an introductory film played before Shepard spoke, clips of the Holocaust, Salem witch trials and other hate crimes filled the screen. "We're not just talking about the color of skin or sexual orientation; we're talking about protecting the rights of people," said the narrator.