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The Meaning of Allyship: Judy Shepard’s Quest to Change People’s Hearts and Minds


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Some tragedies are so profound that they forever alter the course of a family’s life. The Matthew Shepard story — an American tragedy triggered by hate, ignorance and intolerance — altered the course of history.

In the fall of 1998, the senseless, brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay student at the University of Wyoming, rocked a stunned and sullied nation. Today that heinous hate crime still resonates far and wide, seared into the public conscience by Judy Shepard, Matthew’s mother.

Shepard spoke authentically and passionately about her activism Thursday in a riveting discussion with WorldatWork CEO Scott Cawood at the Workplace Equity Virtual Forum (WEVF). The intimate conversation brought tears to both Shepard and Cawood as they dissected the overarching and lasting impact of Matthew Shepard’s death.

Cawood framed the keynote session by explaining the importance of tackling systemic discrimination and addressing it through the lens of Shepard’s devastating loss and recognizing the wider societal implications. He examined the delicate subject within the context of business via corporate social responsibility (CSR) and the advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

“We want to use our differences and personal attributes to accelerate meaningful conversations and good business outcomes,” Cawood said. “Inequity isn’t just a moment or an event . . . Inequity is a system. It’s a process that happens the minute we start looking at people who are different than ourselves as ‘less than’ in any capacity.”

Judy Shepard relayed how surreal it was to see the headlines of Matt’s violent end. It must have been a confluence of events, she said, that caused the media frenzy because the press immediately latched onto the story, thankfully without sensationalizing it.

“It was the only time they treated a gay incident with any kind of compassion and without any victim blaming,” said Shepard, author of The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.

In the hospital shortly before Matt’s impending death, Judy Shepard and her family made a pact to keep his story in the public eye. Soon thereafter, they founded Matthew Shepard Foundation to inspire individuals, organizations and communities to embrace the dignity and equality of all people.

“It wasn’t hard to make the decision . . . to do what we could to speak out,” said Judy, a self-described “introvert by nature.”

Her work with the foundation became her sole reason for getting out of bed, her purpose, her survival. She just never realized that she would still be doing it after more than 22 years.

In 2009, it would have been easy for her to say that “my work here is done” when the federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act named after her son (and James Byrd Jr.) was signed into law. But Judy knew that she had a voice — and no matter how small it was — people still wanted to hear from an ally.

“This is not a moment; this is a journey,” she said. “All good things take time.” 

Making Choices Based on Your Conscience

 “A product of the Sixties,” Judy Shepard learned at a young age that hate is a learned behavior. As a child, she made a conscious decision to not think or behave like her mom, whom she called a racist.

“People who come from rural America don’t see diversity in their life,” she said. “We are all ‘The Other’ to somebody.”

When asked by Cawood what boards and business leaders could do to be more supportive of marginalized populations, she advocated for a bigger push to allyships and more collaboration with employee resource groups (ERGs).

“Intersectionality is everything,” she said. “Learn what everyone else is trying to do to become more of an ally . . . Understand what the issues are, learn the terms, find out what the laws are in your state. You may think you’re an ally because you have a friend who is gay, but maybe he lives in Wyoming where he could be fired for being gay.”

The stereotypes and misunderstanding and ignorance about the gay community are still out there, she said. “Lobby for laws . . . Be fearless.”

Organizations, she said, must establish DEI groups for the right reasons. “It’s gotta be real,” she said. “It cannot be just a box to check.”

Shepard paused when asked by an audience member the advice she would give to DEI networks and groups within organizations that are struggling with authority to make policy changes.

“The personal experience is what changes people’s hearts and minds,” she said. “Living your life authentically is the thing that changes people’s hearts and minds.”

Editor’s note: For more on Judy Shepard’s quest to make a difference in the lives of the LGBT community, listen to the WorldatWork podcast, The Judy Shepard Interview, and read the Workspan Daily article, “Twenty-Two Years of Progress: The Matt Shepard Story.”

About the Author

Dan Cafaro Bio Image

Dan Cafaro is the director and editor-in-chief of Publications at WorldatWork.