Equality and Community: Keynote Recaps From ACUI’s Virtual Conference

In the ongoing wake of COVID-19, values of society and culture are being challenged and disrupted. Imagine a transgender child stuck in an unwelcoming home; every moment is a reminder of their struggles and anxieties. Imagine a group of friends who had been meeting regularly to socialize and work through their problems. Now, they must rely on technology to communicate, but in absence of the intimacy and personal connection they’d come accustomed to.

These challenges and others were central to comments made during the two keynote addresses during ACUI’s recent Virtual Conference. 

Laila Ireland, a veteran and retired healthcare management administration specialist, led the first keynote about LGBTQ+ rights and equality at-large. Ireland recounted her experiences with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and sexual discrimination in the military. A transgender woman, Ireland made the case for representation and visibility for marginalized groups, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She emphasized the importance of safe spaces, especially those in places such as student unions and centers.

“I don’t know what things will look like 10 to 15 years from now,” Ireland said. “It’s the not knowing that makes me determined to work even harder to create the spaces so that I can help foster the conversations like the one we’re having today.”

Ireland shared issues the LGBTQ+ community regularly faces, which have been heightened during the pandemic. These include depression; suicidal thoughts and attempts; anxiety; and strain with family members, friends, and mentors. The new fears of becoming sick and physically distancing have exacerbated these issues, creating new layers of problems for this community.

But Ireland did share how student unions and centers could help with their marginalized students: “We have the power to tell our own stories,” she said. “It’s important to share that. Once we humanize our movement and our intentions and become relatable, then people can better understand what we are trying to get across.”

The second keynote was led by Radha Agrawal, co-founder of the morning party event series Daybreaker. Agrawal’s keynote tied in her own experience fostering a positive community movement with how student unions and centers could create long-lasting communities. This included her CRAWL method, standing for constraints, rituals, aesthetics, why, and language. 

“These are the most important building blocks of community,” Agrawal said. “If you can think about each of these points around your community, you’ll have a community for life.”

Agrawal also detailed how communities can adapt to limited social interactions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These include things like virtual activities, positive outreach, and joyful music—all ideas that can be employed once in-person gatherings ramp back up. Agrawal also urged against relying on social media and instead asked others to make efforts to connect in a more human way by exploring creative outlets.

“In this time, we have to be vigilant on our time on technology and social media,” she said. “I focus on sharing phone calls and real energy with friends who I love. It’s time for going in and channeling our feelings into creativity.”


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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