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Beth Skinner standing in front of a blackboard with the words "Yes, I am" written on it.
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BETH SKINNER A graduate student in social work fights against social injustice when hate speech is directed at her.

When someone scrawled a hateful message about Beth Skinner's gender and sexuality across a campus chalkboard, she used the incident as an opportunity to speak out against discrimination.

The University of Iowa graduate student's courage was met with tremendous support from the campus community: hundreds of encouraging e-mails, T-shirts and buttons, discussion groups on diversity, and a detailed plan to reinforce the value of inclusiveness at her school.

"I knew I was taking a chance by talking to the media and having my picture in the paper. I was opening myself up to the possibility of further harassment from anyone out there who doesn't agree with my lifestyle," says Skinner, a lesbian. "But I decided it was worth the risk. I wanted this person to know that what they did was wrong, and I wanted to spark conversations that would force people to consider where they're at on the issue."

The response was overwhelming. Skinner received more than 200 e-mails from all over the University, many from strangers.

"All but one was positive," she says. "One of the most powerful notes was from a student who had been harassed at his job because he's gay, and he said because I took a stance, he had the courage to take a stance against his co-workers. That blew my mind."

The incident happened in August in North Hall, home of the School of Social Work, where Skinner earned a master's degree and is pursuing a doctorate. She was especially shocked that it happened there, since she has always felt safe and supported, and because understanding and respecting differences are such core values in the field of social work.

Skinner realizes that biases exist in the world, and she has experienced discrimination in the past. A guy at a Starbucks told her to "get out of town," adding "your people aren't welcome here." Other times, she's received disgusted looks and gestures simply for holding hands with a partner in public. But never before had it been so personal or severe, using two of the most derogatory words she could imagine and attaching her name to them.

"I went through all the emotions: shock, disbelief, anger, disappointment, and sadness—all those stages within two days," Skinner says. "But as the messages of support started to roll in, my feelings quickly evolved into a very positive state of empowerment. I said, 'I'm not going to hide from it.' I asked the school to back me up, and the school definitely did."

Faculty members reached out to see what she needed and to find out how she wanted to handle the situation. When she expressed her desire to take a stance and let everyone know what happened, the school contacted the Department of Public Safety to investigate the harassment and involved the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity, the Women's Resource and Action Center, and the Office of the Provost.

"Beth is a role model," says Ed Saunders, director of the School of Social Work. "We teach our students that it's important as social workers to fight against social injustice whenever we encounter it. The first day, Beth decided she would confront head on the attack on behalf of herself and all who share her identity as a lesbian woman.

"When the press began calling and asking her response to this hate act, Beth became a powerful spokesperson. She showed incredible courage and demonstrated commitment to social work values and ethics, which promote respect for all people."

The chalkboard was taken down. Students, faculty and staff quickly mobilized to design and distribute "safe zone" T-shirts and buttons bearing Skinner's photo and quote, "I will not hide from your hateful words."

With Skinner's leadership and input from faculty and students, the school drafted a detailed plan to address immediate and long-term consequences of the hate message. The plan includes faculty development workshops on hate speech and related topics, and student-led events such as diversity dialog circles and support meetings with LGBT students. It also involves revising admission materials to remind all potential students about social work's strong commitment to diversity. The school has already begun sharing its plan as a model for other units on campus.

Skinner views the experience as a negative turned positive.

"I feel 100 percent sure that I did the right thing," Skinner says. "It confirms to me that I'm in the right field, because as a social worker you stand up to oppression and discrimination, including hate speech, whether it's against you or someone else. It also showed that I'm in the right place. I'm surrounded by people who support me and share my values."

Upon completion of her doctorate, Skinner plans to teach social work at the collegiate level and work closely with corrections agencies to research and improve policy.

Her plans also include advocating for change in the legal definition of hate crimes. She was surprised to learn that the message written about her didn't qualify as a hate crime because there was no cost to remove it. If it had been written in marker rather than chalk, it would have been considered a hate crime, which carries a more severe punishment than harassment.

Skinner doubts the person responsible for the message will be caught, but she believes the outcry around the incident sent a clear message.

"I don't want people to hate this individual," she says. "I certainly don't. This person is just in a different place of the process of understanding difference. I hope if anything, this person was inspired to consider what they did and how it had an impact on people."

Story by Nicole Riehl; photo by Tim Schoon.

February 9, 2009