Essays: The Drake Community Discusses Diversity

Photo of Prof. Lori BlachfordLori Blachford

Fisher/Stelter Chair of Magazine Journalism

When we discuss diversity in the classroom, it can sometimes feel like we’re examining the issues at arm’s length.  In spring 2009, our Magazine and News/Internet Capstone class had the chance to get up close and personal with diversity issues that included civil rights, religion, sexual orientation, politics and more — all in one story: the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling that made marriage legal for same-sex couples.

This local story drew national — even international — attention. And our students were right in the middle of it. They attended news conferences, protests and rallies on the day of the decision. Three weeks later, they were at the Polk County Administrative Building to interview the first couples lining up to apply for marriage licenses, as well as a group with petitions asking that those applications be denied.

The students filled their thinkdsm.com Web site with articles, photographs and videos. Their response to the story was quick and thorough. At one point, the students’ work was among Google’s top 10 results for “Iowa gay marriage.” Matty Smith’s photo of one Iowa couple even ended up on the Oprah show.

All in all, it was stellar journalism, exactly what we expect from our students. But the greater outcome, in my view, was what happened outside the public eye, in room 104 of Meredith Hall.

That’s where the “Did you know …” and “I never thought about … ” conversations took place as students chased the story. That’s where Professor Jill Van Wyke and I talked with the students about bias and objectivity and empathy. That’s where I told them how personal this ruling was for me.

I shared the story of my 25-year relationship with another woman that was every bit a marriage with none of the legal protections. I talked about our sons and how the ruling would affect them. In return, the students shared their own views on marriage and the beliefs and experiences that shaped those views.

We didn’t always agree, of course, but we did listen to one another. As a result, we all gained a deeper understanding. A few students even shared their thoughts on the Web site’s blog.

Luz Sacta wrote about the role religion played in her reaction to the changing definition of marriage in Iowa. Kristin Looney reflected on civil rights and on her own status as a “white, heterosexual, middle-class, suburban Catholic girl.”

In a world that all but demands that we choose sides, room 104 was our middle ground. It was where diversity wasn’t just an issue; it had a face and a name. And we knew we would never look at it in quite the same way again.

Photo of Michelle LaughlinMichelle Laughlin, GR’08

Coordinator, Student Disability Services, Drake

Growing up with a disability in small town Iowa, I was the very definition of diversity. There wasn’t anyone like me. In fact, there wasn’t anyone even remotely close to being like me. My parents were never ashamed of me, and they let me live my life out in the public eye.

I was completely fine with my situation. People stared and asked questions because I was different from them. I always insisted that they were staring at me because they didn’t know me. My parents raised me to believe that I was born this way for a reason. It was up to me to figure out what that reason was.

It didn’t take long to realize that I was put here to help put people at ease accepting not only my disability but the differences I could see in others as well. When little kids ask what happened to me, I give them the most honest answer that I can because I may be the first person they feel comfortable asking their questions. I want kids to be able to accept those who are different from themselves.

Being the coordinator of student disability services at Drake has allowed me to help my students realize that they don’t need to use their disabilities as excuses or crutches but can use their disability as an asset that makes them stronger. It’s all about acceptance. As a child growing up I had a choice to make: I could either bury my head in the sand, or I could accept my disability. I decided to accept my disability. We are only given one life, so I decided to live mine to the fullest. My disability does not define me. I am grateful that I was born differently. It opens up opportunities to meet people I would never have met, go places I would never have gone and advocate for those who may not be able to do so themselves. For that I am truly grateful.

Photo of Renee HardmanRenee Hardman, LA’83, GR’89

Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Banker’s Trust

The word “diversity” by itself simply means differences among people. It represents the things that make us uniquely who we are. It can be our ethnic background, religion, socio-economic status, hobbies, interests, sexual orientation and much more. Diversity is what makes relationships richer and more meaningful.

My life at Drake consisted of many experiences that tested my ability to embrace diversity. As I journey back 31 years to when I first attended the University, I’m reminded that dorm life taught me more about diversity than any textbook ever could. Coming from a predominately African-American neighborhood and high school in a suburb of Chicago, I was excited about the life that I was about to embark upon. I remember moving into a dorm room, where I immediately met my three Caucasian roommates. I’m not sure if this was more of a shock to my roommates or to our family members. This was the closest that each of us had to a real test of endurance and acceptance. While we had a few ups and downs as most roommates do, we got through it and learned to accept each other for who we were. We began to break down the superficial barriers.

Little did I know that this prepared me in immeasurable ways for the many experiences that I have encountered throughout my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it were not for my experiences at Drake University. They prepared me for the position I have today as the only African-American female on the executive committee at Bankers Trust.

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