Nationally recognized speaker, trainer and performer Elaine Penn presented “One Student, Many Stories,” about the prejudice and discrimination that often come with diversity, at the University of Indianapolis on Wednesday, Nov. 4 from 9 to 10 p.m. in UIndy Hall A. The presentation was just one of the many Diversity Lecture Series put on around campus.
Penn began by discussing her past. She grew up in a musical family and sang in the family band, played three sports in high school and two in college, coached volleyball at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and worked in student life in diversity while she was there. Before working for the college, Penn didn’t think she harbored any stereotypes or prejudices because of the way she was brought up. But when questioned by a colleague, she took a step back to reevaluate herself. She then realized that there were many instances in which even she had stereotyped others.
One such instance was when Penn was only eight years old. In the small town where she lived, there was one house that everyone called “the crazy man’s house.” It was a strange rock house with a front yard like a junkyard and gargoyles on the front porch. She and her friends used to peek inside the house, and when they saw him, they would scream and run away. The only story the children had ever heard about him was what the adults had told them that he was unstable and to stay away from him. Years later, she found out the “crazy man” was a father who had lost his wife and children in a car accident and had developed emotional issues as a result.
“The problem is this,” Penn said. “We all have a multitude of stories that make up who we are. And if we focus on just one story, we’re always going to misjudge somebody. If we focus on one story, we’re always going to get it wrong. That’s never what makes up a person’s entire life.”
In the 1980s, Penn visited New York City with her family. While walking back to their hotel, she almost tripped over a homeless man. She was taken aback because she was from a small town and was not used to seeing homeless people. Her father gave the man some money, but quickly rushed the family over to the other side of the street. A woman in their hotel that they told about it said that all homeless people are alcoholics and drug addicts.
Later on, one of Penn’s friends was planning to write a musical about homeless people and decided to do some research on them. She talked to them on the streets, in homeless shelters and in soup kitchens. She found out that all of their stories were different. Some were homeless because they lost their jobs, or they were wives running away from abusive husbands. Some were gay teenagers who had been thrown out of their own homes, people dealing with depression and veterans, along with alcoholics and drug addicts. Before continuing her speech, Penn played guitar and sang one of the songs in her friend’s musical about homeless people.
Freshman elementary education major Danielle Hmad said that she also has experienced instances in which she was discriminated against.
“I grew up Muslim, and at the time, I wore the hijab or the head scarf,” Hmad said. “It was seventh grade on Sept. 11, and this kid who rode the bus with me was like, ‘So, do you have a bomb under there?’… I felt offended, but also kind of sad, not for myself but for him, that he would just feel that way without knowing anything.”
Penn also brought student leaders, such as Resident Assistants, up to the stage to tell some stories. They spoke about discrimination and prejudice in connection with mental disorders, teenage pregnancy, racial grouping and the LGBTQIA community. Afterwards the audience was encouraged to share experiences from their own lives with the people next to them. Penn said that it takes only one conversation to learn more about someone else.
“All of you are made up of a variety of stories,” she said. “You have different backgrounds and families, and different likes and dislikes and beliefs. We know about each other, but we rarely know each other. That’s why it’s important to really… share what’s going on in your life and who you are.”
Sophomore nursing major Madison Sheline said that she learned a lot from hearing Penn’s stories.
“[I learned] how important it is not to stereotype people,” Sheline said. “Especially being in the nursing field, you deal with people from all walks of life, so you have to be open to every situation.”
Penn ended the event by singing a song entitled “It’s Your Life,” from her CD “Love Is the Way.”