On Friday, as part of the University of Michigan's annual month-long Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, a group of three career advocates led a discussion in the Helmut Stern Auditorium at the University’s Museum of Art discussion titled “Advocacy in Action: This is Our Work,” each sharing their experiences in the realm of activism.
Raised in a conservative, Christian home, and is also openly gay, Steph White came from a small town of Kansas, . Rather than her own identity inspiring advocacy, though, she said her motivation came from her sister being bullied as a child. She found herself questioning how to put her moral convictions into action and asked how she could develop the strength to make the world a better place.
“Advocacy is an acceptable outlet for righteous anger about the world being an unfair place and, like many of us, I see injustice in the world and I get angry about it,” she said. “I desired to want to help others in a big notion.”
White has had a wide-ranging career: She was a U.S. Army Commander, spent six years in Washington, D.C. working on federal policy issues, including serving as the managing director for the National Center for Transgender Equality, and is now the executive director for Equality Michigan and Equality Michigan Action Network. She has recently been working to update the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the workplace on the basis of race or sex, but not sexual orientation or gender identity. Under the act, people with LGBTQ identities can get fired from their job, or kicked out of a restaurant or their home purely because of their identity. She is combatting the most recent bill President Donald Trump and the Department of Health and Human Services have proposed, which would allow healthcare workers to refuse to perform abortions on religious and moral grounds.
“One of the first things we need to do is look at the world as it is against the world as it should be. In a world as it should be, we would all have health care and no discrimination. The world as it is, we don’t have those things,” White said. “It is important to keep both those two ideas in an equal balance. If you’re always working in the world as it is all the time, then you’re like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, you never get anywhere. If you’re always in the world as it should be, you’d be, well depressed and decide that nothing can change.”
The next panelist, Nicole Ver Kuilen, an alum of the Ross School of Business, had a different story to tell. At the age of 10 she was diagnosed with bone cancer, resulting in the loss of her left leg — but she said that didn’t stop her from continuing to live a full life. Using a prosthetic leg, she ran her first 5K at the University, and then began running a 5K every single day, then moved on to half marathons, full marathons and then triathlons. The only thing getting in her way, she said, was the cost of her prosthetic she needed to replace every few years: $15,000.
The process of getting prosthetics covered by insurance, she said, was complicated and confusing. In the state of Michigan, people who lose limbs in automobile accidents get full coverage and unlimited medical supplies. Cancer survivors, however, do not. A waterproof leg is also not considered a medical necessity. In New York state, only one leg is given to an amputee for the span of their entire life. This led to found Forrest Stump, an organization to raise awareness about the barriers that limit access to prosthetic technology. She collected a team of athletes and completed a 1,500-mile triathlon down the entire West Coast.
“There are various barriers that come up in our lives because of these identities, but we are working together toward similar causes. The power out there the limits us, limits all of us,” she said. “I think that this passion and power that millennials have showcases the greatest sense of urgency. I quit my job and took the greatest risk of my life. I just want to lift up the voices of the people that are not being heard.”
LSA freshman Allessandra Hoover thought that Ver Kuilen’s words were powerful and was surprised by how inspired she was by her speech.
“I personally thought that this panel was a diverse and inspiring group of people. I didn't go in with the expectation that I would feel moved to do something,” Hoover said. “But I definitely do feel very moved, and I thought that their words were very beautiful. I thought Nicole’s story was most inspiring in the way she overcame all the challenges she faced.”
The last panelist, singer William Hung, told his unconventional story. Hung auditioned for season three of “American Idol” with the song “She Bangs” by Ricky Martin. His off-key performance instantly catapulted him into an internet stardom. He promptly dropped out of studying civil engineering at the University of California, Berkeley in order to pursue a career in entertainment. Though he was offered a $25,000 recording contract, his career was riddled with controversy. Hung received endless criticism as both he and his fans were accused of promoting racial stereotypes against Asians. Despite this, Hung simply believed he was living the celebrity dream. He said he decided to inspire others to chase theirs.
“I knew I was considered the laughing stock for Asians on ‘American Idol,’ but I decided that I was no longer going to hide. I started sharing my story, inspiring others to take action. In entertainment people laugh, they have fun; but they forget about you and that’s it,” he said. “Too many people in this world are doing great work and they are the best kept secret in the world. I want to live a life that is bigger than myself and leverage my influence to help the right people achieve their dreams.”
Ver Kuilen ended the discussion with advice for moving forward with advocacy and reaching out toward not just ones’ immediate community, but toward all people who are in need.
“I wanted to share a quote from freedom writer John Lewis. He said, ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’ Which really gets to the point that if you’re only for yourself, you truly cease to be human, what makes us human, and I think thinking of that quote can help us get over the fear that we need to be only for ourself, or that I am only for amputees, because there is limited resources,” she said. “No, we need to go beyond that and be there for each other and say if not now, when?”
Kyra Allen, a freshman at the University of Toledo, thought White's mention of the current issues regarding gender really resonate within the political and social climate.
“I was pleased that the panelists were all very different,” Allen said. “I especially liked the LGBTQ issues, and the discussion about stereotypes because those are very big problems of today and we should continue to try to understand people who are different. I really appreciated how Steph talked about intersexuality and supporting everyone and each other.”