Speaker Series continues trend of diversity, big names

Following last year’s largest-ever nine-person Speaker Series, Student Union approved more than $200,000 on Saturday to bring seven individual speakers and a panel to Washington University’s campus for the annual event. Like last year, the series promises several well-known names and a diverse range of professions and identities.

Overall, the series should help foster positive discussion on issues such as gender and identity, feminism, race and politics on our campus. Building off of the success of last year’s speakers, who included LeVar Burton, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Kwan, this year’s series certainly represents a push for diversity in Student Union’s selection process. This year’s series includes representatives from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, as well as several people of color.

This diversity is once again supported by the speakers’ qualifications and experience in their fields. Ellen Page, for instance, a well-known actress from films such as “Juno” and “Inception,” came out in 2014 at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Time to Thrive event. Page’s appearance, sponsored by OWN IT: WashU, will likely touch on her personal experiences inside and outside of Hollywood.

For the third year in a row, the Speaker Series will feature prominent transgender individuals. This year, Pride Alliance will be bringing a panel of transgender individuals from youth leader Ka’Milla McMiller to longtime activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, who was a leader in the Stonewall demonstrations. The panel should provide a rich array of experiences from the transgender community. While some of the panelists may be less well-known to the average student, the panel promises to be one of the highlights of this year’s Speaker Series.

The entertainment industry is the most-represented profession on the list, with speakers including Jessica Williams, Eddie Huang, Rick Famuyiwa and the previously mentioned Page. The number of entertainers is unsurprising, as well-known names help draw larger crowds on campus.

Jessica Williams, for example, should be familiar to students as one of the “The Daily Show” correspondents included on Social Programming Board’s fall campus comedy survey. Though she was not selected for the show, Williams will have a campus-funded appearance sponsored by Black Anthology. A breakout star since her first appearance on “The Daily Show,” Williams should bring some much-appreciated laughter to campus.

Among those not selected were educator Salman Khan, documentarian Lisa Ling and academic Anita Hill. Hill famously accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during Thomas’ confirmation process. She has since worked to educate others on issues of discrimination and is a professor of social policy, law and women’s studies at Brandeis University. Her event would have been sponsored by the Washington University Political Review, which secured funding for David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist.

The selection highlights the difficulty that some groups may find in proposing certain candidates. Both Hill and Axelrod would provide interesting insights on their respective fields, but student groups must also tread the line between their area of interest and the speaker’s ability to draw in the general student body.

Still, the Speaker Series’ commitment to diversity is evident in the fact that both those selected and not selected represent a wide variety of communities and experiences. This range is surely due to student groups’ ability to create programming that they want to see happen on campus. Hopefully, Student Union’s recent success in choosing a large and exciting field of speakers will continue in the future.

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