Human rights conference addresses ‘equality before the law’


The ninth annual Human Rights Conference co-coordinator, Julie Setele, said the United States has a great rhetoric about equality, but its policies do not support that in practice.

“We have a long way to go until ‘equality before the law’ is a reality, but our path is made easier by knowing we’re not alone in fighting for justice,” Setele said.

The theme of the conference was “Equality Before the Law”, adopted from Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The conference took place Sept. 28 and 29.

Photo illustration by Sara Bannoura
Photo illustration by Sara Bannoura

Setele, a human rights professor, said the conference brought together academics, activists and community members to learn about the problems of inequality people face in St. Louis and what they are doing to address them.

The conference covered Ferguson, municipal courts, sexual abuse and more. Featured speakers expanded on how these topics are treated under the law.

Brenna Whitehurst, Webster alumni, said the diversity of the speakers brought more validity to the conversations.

“It was so refreshing to be there because I feel like there’s probably people in the audience that didn’t know about these issues,” Whitehurst said.

Terri Reilly, adjunct professor and member of faculty senate, said the speakers provided factual evidence proving not everyone is created equal under the law. Reilly co-coordinated the conference with Setele.

“This conference spoke quite eloquently and with credibility and with evidence,” Reilly said.

Setele said Black Lives Matter was an implicit driving theme of the event. She said the speeches were critical.

Kimberly Norwood was one of the speakers who talked about race, inequality and colorblindness. Norwood is a Professor of Law at Washington University and the author of the book Ferguson’s Fault Lines.

Norwood said equality is not our past or present but it is a fairy tale we tell ourselves to feel good. She said the problem is that we have been believing it.

  Setele said the first step to creating change is understanding the problem.

“I think it’s important to reckon with that reality because if we don’t there’s nothing we can do about it,” Setele said. “If we pretend and buy into the fairytale of equality, and just pretend that we are equal because we say we are, then we’re not going to do anything to actually make us more equal than we are right now.”

Setele said black people and people of color are already aware of inequality and it is the white people who need to be informed.

“People power and social pressure is what gets things done,” Setele said.

Whitehurst said these conferences are great because they present information in an educational way. She said she believes a lot of people are ignorant about Black Lives Matter, and as an activist she says her job is to help people become anti-racist.

Setele said the conference is a necessary step to bring awareness but it is only a beginning and the university can not stop there. She said for change to occur, the university needs to be supportive from the top down.

Reilly said these conversations are appropriate for Webster to highlight.

Both Reilly and Setele said they believe hiring more faculty and staff of color is a first step to bringing more equality and diversity to Webster University.

“I think anytime you have faculty who reflect the student body, it’s a wonderful thing,” Reilly said. “To students of color, when they don’t have role models in their professors, if they don’t see professors who look like them, come from their background or experiences, I think it makes it a little more difficult to relate.”

Setele said the university needs to diversify not only the faculty, but adjunct faculty and staff members as well. She said adjunct faculty have limited rights on campus and staff members do not have a strong organized voice.

“I think we also have to make sure that we’re supporting the less powerful people on campus who I’m seeing as the staff,” Setele added.

Setele said having a dialogue with the student body and meeting their needs is another step towards bringing equality to campus.

“We need to prioritize student voices and what students need,” Setele said. “We need to figure out how we can make our practice match the rhetoric.”

Setele sees her job as planting seeds and being part of the conference is one way of doing so.

“My job is to encourage [students] to be critically thinking global citizens, who are skeptical and questioning of the institutions that they are a part of,” Setele said.

Setele hopes students would take on positions of power and responsibility after graduating in a thoughtful and careful way and have the intention of creating greater social justice in their communities.

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