Panel discussion promotes inspiration and empowerment through diversity and inclusion

Tim Henson, a George Mason University freshman, took a moment to consider the recent Panel on Intersectional Identities, Disabilities and Empowerment, and agreed he liked what he heard.

“It’s great that Mason is taking steps toward an inclusive conversation about diversity,” the freshman environmental science and policy major said.

The panel on Oct. 30 in the Johnson Center Bistro discussed topics such as women’s empowerment and diverse accomplishments and identities. Kristina Angelevska, community solutions program fellow in Mason ‘s Women and Gender Studies Program, moderated the dialogue. The panel was brought to the Fairfax Campus by Mason’s Office of Disability Services, LGBTQ+ Resources, and the Women and Gender Studies Program. 

“Events like this particularly matter to the Mason community since it is one of the most diverse universities in the United States,” Angelevska said. “It is of huge importance to emphasize the structural barriers that people are facing on a daily basis in society.” 

Speakers on the panel included Julia Velasquez, who is deaf, interned at NASA and is coordinator of Gallaudet University’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program; Mason alumna Fareshta Jan, BS Biology ’18, an advocate for LGBTQ Muslim women; George Anthony, an international fellow at the Black Justice Coalition; and Mason junior Charlotte Woodward, a sociology student with Down syndrome who works with the National Down Syndrome Society.

Velasquez, whose goal is to become the first female deaf astronaut and who received her pilot’s license in 2018, was asked how she overcomes obstacles.

“The approach that I use to keep breaking down these barriers is just to keep showing up,” she said via American Sign Language with the assistance of an interpreter. “Even if it’s an uncomfortable situation, be there and do the work.” 

Angelevska called the panel discussion a “human library” in which panelists moved from table to table to sit and chat with audience members. Engaging casually, personally and directly with audience members encourages students to ask more questions and gather more inspiring answers, she said.

Evie Peterson, a junior in the Women and Gender Studies Program, agreed.

“The opportunity to engage with each panel member in small groups was great,” she said. “We should all get more involved in these types of events. Learning about intersectional identities is really important.”

Woodward said her goal was to educate people about Down syndrome by sharing her experiences and accomplishments. She wanted people to leave the event knowing that those with Down syndrome and other disabilities will exceed any low expectations.

She discussed her work with the National Down Syndrome Society, where she has lobbied on Capitol Hill for legislation to defend the rights of those with disabilities. 

“I am very confident that students left this event praising the successes of people with intersectional identities and disabilities, and being aware of the challenges that they encounter in the community and the importance of voicing them out.” Angelevska said.

“The important thing is that we are all evolving as a culture,” Jan said. “I think more families and communities are becoming open to different identities. I see hope that future generations will become more welcoming.”