Kate Muir Welsh and the Social Justice Research Center at the University of Wyoming

social justice research centerThe Center for Social Justice Research at the University of Wyoming was founded 10 years ago.

And its creation emerged from an endowment set up after Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie in 1998.

Kate Muir Welsh directs the Center.

While her public talks often begin with the Pledge of Allegiance, they linger on, “. . . and justice for all.”

“What, exactly, is ‘justice for all?'” she asks.

“Is it equitable access?

“Equitable resources?

“Assurance that needs will be met?”

She points to examples of campus-wide justice projects: the Martin Luther King Days of Dialogue, the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice, and the student-led Good Mule Project.

Likewise, social justice is strong at Muir’s home. She said she and her husband share the same beliefs.

“We do small acts of kindness.

“We donate money to causes we believe in.

“And we engage politically.”

“What, exactly, is ‘justice for all’? Is it equitable access? Equitable resources? Assurance that everyone’s needs will be met?”

Current Research Areas

Regarding critical issues in Wyoming, Welsh says the wage gap is front and center.

As recently as 2017, Fortune found that Wyoming ranks lowest for female/male wage equality.

Sadly, women earn 64¢ to a man’s dollar15 compared to the national average of 80¢ on the dollar.

kate muir welsh
Kate Muir Welsh directs the Social Justice Research Center at the University of Wyoming.

And adding to the concerns, Muir pointed to momentum gaining for immigration issues.

Ironically, Wyoming is the only state without a refugee resettlement program16 and yet is considering hosting an immigration prison17.

With a primarily white population (about 92%), race and intolerance are also perennial concerns.18

Currently the Center awards research grants based on individual applications.


Take Action!

•  See video highlights from the Shepard Symposium on Social Justice is April 11-14, 2018 in Laramie, including talks and panels that feature Matthew Shepard’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard.

Matthew Shepard Foundation, in its 20th year of  striving “to replace hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance.”

•  Watch any of 165 Ted Talks on Social Justice.

•  Likewise, read about Safe Zone training at the University of Wyoming

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West


Cambodian Sex Trafficking and Child Exploitation: Heart Mothers Support Survivors

Ruth Williams founded Heart Mothers to support children rescued from sex trafficking and exploitation in Cambodia.

The faces of Cambodian survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation compelled her to action.

Twelve years ago Ruth Williams had just moved to Laramie. “I was sitting in a salon and saw a picture of a rescued child.”

“’Her eyes pierced me . . . I couldn’t forget her,” she said.

Within 24 hours she had emailed and heard back from Somany Mam, the woman from the article responsible for saving 6,000+ children.

And so began Williams’ journey to support young girls through her nonprofit organization, Heart Mothers.

It’s a story of frequent trips to Cambodia, fund-raising to help sustain Mam’s Center that’s home to 62 girls as young as 14 months, and enlisting the help of nearly 90 women to write letters, send gifts and bring hope to children with few life options.

“Social justice is protecting somebody’s dignity,” Ruth said. “And yet there’s so much injustice in the world.”

“Nothing will change until people realize that
pornography is epidemic.”

According to Equality Now, an activism group working to protect women’s rights around the world, trafficking is a $99 billion business and the fastest growing criminal industry in the world. Ninety-six percent of its victims are women and girls.13

Ruth says the underlying issues are poverty14 and the way we view pornography and women.

Asked how this problem will end, Ruth said, “I don’t think it will.”

“Nothing will change until people realize that pornography is epidemic,” she said.

Yet the girls themselves bring her hope.  “They are happy, confident, loving, amazing young women who have been through hell and back,” she said.

Sugar Mouse Cupcakes are a feature of the Laramie Farmer’s Market.

Financial support for Heart Mothers comes from donations and profits from thousands of Sugar Mouse Cupcakes made by Ruth and sold at Laramie’s Farmer’s Market each summer.


Take Action!

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West


Lindy Westenhoff Leads Wyoming’s Safe Zone LBGTQ Ally Trainings with Vulnerability and Empathy

Lindy Westenhoff, coordinator of University of Wyoming’s Safe Zone LGBTQ ally trainings.

As coordinator of the University’s Safe Zone LGBTQ ally trainings, Lindy Westenhoff models vulnerability and empathy.

Lindy prefers “they and them” pronouns to my “she and her” and my husband’s “he and him.”

Why is that important?

Because, as I learned in Safe Zone classes, respectful communication in the LGBTQ community is easy.

“Just ask,” Lindy said. “You can say, ‘I go by they and them. What pronouns do you go by?’”

Safe Zone is a campus educational program geared to allies of the LGBTQIA+* community.

“Social justice is about access and changing the status quo to something that’s fair for everyone.”

Lindy defines an ally as “someone who supports, uplifts, and advocates for a marginalized person or community without taking on that marginalized identity as their own.”

And some of us need help knowing how to be good allies.

The classes, combined with Lindy’s willingness to answer uncomfortable questions, helps ensure that we have ways to support members of this community.

Lindy says, “Social justice is about access and changing the status quo to something that’s fair for everyone.”

Which is why Safe Zone’s role is to give participants the knowledge needed to go out and make those changes is so important.

LGBTQIA+ is often abbreviated LGBTQ. It stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, asexuality and all of the other sexualities, sexes, and genders that aren’t included in these few letters.8

Lindy Westenhoff’s LGBTQ-Friendly Campus
and So Much more

Don’t miss this interview with Lindy that includes:
•  her vision of LBGTQ-friendly campuses
•  the biggest LGBTQ stumbling block in Wyoming
• and her own story 


Take Action!

•  Attend live Safe Zone trainings: Offered as three, 1-hour free luncheon classes twice a semester on the University of Wyoming campus (including free lunch). Class details.

Class 1: LBG 101
Where empathy is established. Check for next date.
Class 2: Gender Identity
Becoming more comfortable with complex terms.
April 4 – 12:00 p.m. in Big Horn (Union 203)
Class 3: Visible Ally
How to be both aware and supportive
April 11 – 12:00 p.m. in Big Horn (Union 203)
Additional class
Navigating Academia as an Underrepresented Student
April 25 – 12:00 p.m. in Big Horn (Union 203)

•  Watch Safe Zone classes online
Free from anywhere in the world. Includes downloadable handouts.
Suitable for individual and group learning.

•  Attend the Shepard Symposium for Social Justice
April 11-14, 2018 in Laramie

•  Additional Resources

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  — C. West


Sweet Melissa Vegetarian Café in Laramie: Few Plastic Straws and No Animals Sacrificed

Sweet Melissa vegetarian cafeIn 1999 Melissa Murphy didn’t know if a Wyoming vegetarian restaurant would last.

Nineteen years later on a family visit to Laramie, the first, second and even third food recommendations we solicited unanimously pointed to Sweet Melissa.

“And I’m not even a vegetarian! . . .” punctuated each endorsement.

Researchers at Carnegie Melon University found that eliminating meat one day a week has the same effect on greenhouse gas emissions as cutting 1,000 miles of driving a year.5

Vegetarian and no straws – environmental act

“A vegetarian restaurant is an environmental act,” Melissa said.

And in a similar way, so are her recent efforts to reduce plastic straws and water use.

One straw at a time, Melissa is cutting back on the 500 million plastic straws used and discarded each day in the United States.

Yet weaning café customers and staff off plastic straws has been a three-year process, she noted.*

Still, one straw at a time, Melissa is cutting back on the 500 million plastic straws used and discarded each day in the United States. 6

Other environmental acts at Sweet Melissa include a commitment to recycling that began in 1999.

Additionally, they participate in composting through the Acres Student Farm7 at the University of Wyoming.

And take-out cups and food containers are now corn-based versus petroleum.

When asked to define social justice, Melissa quoted a Unitarian Universalist principle: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

“. . . and animals,” she added.

Melissa Murphy owner of vegetarian restaurant
Sweet Melissa Vegetarian Cafe owner, Melissa Murphy.


no straw, thanks!

For more information on plastic straws
please see the blog resource page.

Read about food rescue in Jackson.

*for now plastic straws are used on the Tavern side.

•  •  •

Ellen Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming.
Her website is EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.1  Cornell West


Hole Food Rescue Feeds 1,000 Hungry People Weekly in Jackson, Wyoming

Hole Food Rescue logo

Hole Food Rescue (HFR) founder and co-executive director, Ali Dunford,, is joy personified as she describes the one million pounds of food saved by her organization since 2013.

“It’s just the right thing to do. The right way to treat each other and the planet,” she said.

Her early days in Jackson included dumpster diving for goods discarded by grocery stores.

And what she found was high quality and plentiful. “It was an injustice,” she said.

“The flip side of waste is using something fully and respecting the planet and all the resources that go into the things we eat.”

With the support of 90 volunteers working seven days a week, HFR collects more than 5,000 pounds of edible items a week from local grocery stores and bakeries.

In turn, 31 recipient organizations take the fruit, vegetables, breads and dairy products and prepare or distribute this nutrients to at-risk and in-need clients including seniors, youth and families.

What can’t be used is given to a local pig farm.

“The flip side of waste is using something fully
and respecting the planet and all the resources
that go into the things we eat.”

Food insecurity in Teton

A 2015 Teton Public Health report2 found nearly 3,000 (13.5%) food insecure residents, a term that means “lacking reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.”3

In Wyoming, 1 in 8 adults experience hunger and 1 in 6 children are food insecure.4

Though Teton is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation, much of its population works in the service industry. Between the high cost of housing, low hourly wages and off-season layoffs, families struggle.

Dunford said any town — small or large — that has a grocery store has waste, and you can be sure there’s also food insecurity, though it’s not always obvious.

She says HFR’s part in social justice isn’t just about providing food; it’s about offering nutritious food.

“We don’t rescue highly-processed nor junk food,” she said. “It’s not going to serve our clients, and our goal is to empower them.”

Ali Dunford
Ali Dunford, founder and co-executive director, at Hole Food Rescue in Jackson, WY

More About Hole Food Rescue and Additional Resources
•  HFR is a 501(C)3 nonprofit organization
•  They welcomes volunteers and donations
•  Their website is beautiful and fun
•  You can see Ali and HFR featured in a public television story
•  Interested in rescue in your town? Here’s the guidebook Ali used.
•  See if there’s a rescue organization near you.
•  Read the blog post, Rooted in Wyoming, that looks at school gardens in Sheridan.

•  •  •

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”1  Cornell West

Witnessing Childhood Injustices Part 2: Bullying and Isolation — Two Sides of the Same Coin

Bullying and isolation are really two sides of the same coin.

Liza Thomas was in fourth grade when she brought a beer to school in her lunch box. As you might expect, all hell broke loose.

When isolation is used to bully

As a third grader I stood by and witnessed the cruelty that met her each day. On one extreme was the merciless taunting she had to endure, and when attention swung in the other direction she was socially isolated.

I wish I had a single memory of walking up to her and saying “hello” or “want to swing at recess?” but I don’t.

Sometimes I alter the images of her battling these injustices all alone and imagine her fists softening and a hint of a smile appearing. This older me wishes I’d been able to give her a moment’s peace at school.

Liza Thomas and Alvin before her are two of the reasons I created this blog.

The courage to take risks

I want to meet people around the state of Wyoming who have the clarity of mind to know what they believe in, work hard to correct what they see may be headed in the wrong direction, and have the courage to take risks in ways I never did with Liza.

This blog will be looking at these and more topics:

•   aging                         •   animals                   •  bullying
•  care of the planet    •   crime                       •   disability
•  education                  •  race                           •  healthcare
•  environment            •  domestic violence  •   fire arms
•  free speech               •  gender                      •  human trafficking
•  immigration             •  income disparity    •  LBGTQIA+
•  laws                           •  opioids                      •  politicking
•  poverty                     •  native Americans   •  water and land
•  children in foster and alternative care
•  loneliness and isolation

Please email me with names of organizations and people working for justice in Wyoming.

Also of interest:  Why I Care: Witnessing childhood injustices

•  •  •

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”1 – Cornell West

Why I Care: Witnessing Childhood Injustice


Lincoln, MaineI care. But why?

Third grade was dull though welcome. Compared, that is, to the previous year when the teacher took a ruler to Alvin’s* knuckles.

Mostly, though, stressful interruptions were infrequent and easy to push aside.

Week-ends were spent at big family pot lucks and traveling the neighborhood with a gaggle of friends. Belonging and community in this northern Maine town shaped me.

Where was the care?

Life wasn’t so easy for Alvin, already well into his short unhappy life, nor for Liza Thomas,* then a class or two ahead of me in school.

She lived somewhere poor. Without noticeable care. Maybe in a cabin without running water and sufficient heat, and surely without someone keeping her safe.

Things only got worse for Liza the day she brought beer
in her lunch box.

And similar to Alvin, misery at home followed her to school.

Where was the care?

What I remember of Liza is pain and rage — her face twisted in defiance and her fists raised like shields against the cruelty she faced daily.

She was taunted then isolated for being poor, for standing up for herself and for not fitting in. Collective kindness was withheld.

Overt cruelty came from the boys, but girls had their ways, too.

Liza’s screaming was a raspy, hoarse voice cussing those who hurt her. These outbursts led to shame and punishment while the guilty and complicit walked free.

Things only got worse for Liza the day she brought beer in her lunch box.

She was chided by adults then mocked by her peers, and for the first time her temper receded into tears.

I have no memory of Liza Thomas after that day, yet decades later I still wonder what social justice might have looked like through my 3rd grade eyes.

*names changed

•   •   •

Posts and resources of interest

•  Wyoming Social Justice in Action: Witnessing Childhood Injustices Part 2

•  Connecting: When needs are met in a simple thank you

•  Bullying in the ’60s

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”1 – Cornell West


Wyoming Social Justice in Action: What, exactly, does love look like in public?

Cornel West said, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

This blog is a celebration of justice as Professor West defines it.

Here’s what I know to be true: What we give attention to reflects what we care deeply about. Being new to Wyoming I want to understand life here and what people are passionate about.

•   In what ways do Wyomingites bring important issues to life, whether their endeavors impact Wyoming exclusively or have a wider reach?

•   How do human needs such as empathy, compassion, contribution and belonging show up with concerns that crisscross the state?

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”

Big intentions as well as small acts of kindness will be explored. Likewise, well publicized state programs and surreptitious ones all have a place in this forum.

And when helpful, resistance to justice — or conflicting tenets about justice — will respectfully be considered with an eye to understanding versus judging.

What connects us and motivates action will always be the focus.

Along the way I’ll interview people, and I’ll ask them to explain in their own words what this concept means.

And I’ll share the wisdom I hear and what I learn.

•  •  •

Other posts and links of interest

•  Why I care: Witnessing childhood injustices

•  Cornel West talk on youtube

Ellen Webster Synakowski lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Her website is:  EllenSynakowski.com

Please send ideas for inclusion in this blog to:  ellen@ellensynakowski.com

“Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.”1   – Cornel West


Connecting: When needs are met in a simple thank you

connecting with self and othersConnecting is a strong need in my life.

Someone I’m close to called today.*  He said he’d been thinking about a comment I made  earlier this week when I  asked him if keeping part of his life secret was necessary.

“You really got me thinking,” he said. He wondered what life might be like if he didn’t focus as much on hiding from others part of who he is.

Then he thanked me.

With his simple words of gratitude my heart opened. Connecting was present that hadn’t been there before.

Receiving this from him felt so good that I decided to look through the lens of The Connection Practice to see what this conversation might be offering me on a deeper level.

With his simple words of gratitude my heart opened.

When he said, “Hey, thanks for saying what you did,” I gave myself empathy by identifying all the feelings that came up:


From there I could see that many of my needs – basic human needs – were being met, perhaps especially:

my need for communication
to matter
to have my intentions understood
shared reality

Connecting to needs

Pausing a moment my need for shared reality rose to the surface as most important. In the conversation we’d had, we were viewing the situation similarly, and proof of that was his thank you.

Then I turned my thoughts to him. Though he wasn’t there, I gave him empathy by guessing that during today’s talk he might have been feeling:


And that these feelings might be reflecting some of his own met needs. Perhaps:

his need for understanding
shared reality
to be seen for who he is
to belong

This past year has been confusing and a little disappointing for him, and keeping part of himself separate from others may have contributed to that. I imagined that his  greatest met needs today were for progress and to be seen for who he is.

Then I prepared for a heart-brain insight to learn more about the celebration I was feeling. I brought my attention to the heart for heart focus. I imagined I could breathe in and out of the heart for heart breathing. After several breaths  I brought into my heart a feeling of appreciation for something easy – heart appreciation.

I take my time when I get to this part because it feels so good. Once I start feeling appreciation, I stay with it and let it fill me. When I felt ready I asked an open-ended question, “What do I need to understand about this conversation and my met need for shared reality.”

Not much time passed before the insight came. In addition to all that I had identified, there was another met need tucked in that short conversation, and it was a big one – intimacy .

That was exactly what I needed to understand!  In this world where disconnection often prevails, today’s phone call was a wondrous moment of intimacy between two human beings. I marveled at how simple the gift of a “thank you” can be to both offer and receive.

Connecting to insight

To complete the process I thought how I would act on this insight.

Writing this out has already helped deepen the experience. I better understand the compassion I have for my friend and his willingness to be vulnerable with me and in his own life. I’ll also keep celebrating the intimacy and connecting that came so unexpectedly with a simple thank you.

The process now feels complete.

Note to those of you wondering why it’s good to do this practice daily: Writing this was quick and easy and reminded me of the value of working with issues that are fully alive, like connecting.

*To retain privacy I’m leaving my friend’s name out of this story.

connecting through connection practice    

Related posts and resources

•  Wyoming Social Justice in Action: What exactly does look like in public?

•  The Connection Practice – training offered by the Rasur Foundation International

•  Connect with the Center for Nonviolent Communication

Ellen Synakowski, MA, RCST, is a certified Connections Practice Trainer, Coach and Presenter; a HeartMath coach, and a registered biodynamic craniosacral therapist.

Connection amid political chaos: Impossible, you say?

Connection in plitical calls in Tucson, AZ to urge early voting.
Finding connection with political calls in Tucson to urge early voting.

Connection amid political chaos: Impossible, you say?

Last Wednesday I volunteered at a political phone bank in Arizona.

It was the day of the last Presidential debate and 20 days before the election.

My only job was to urge citizens of Tucson to vote early.

Simple enough.

My workspace was sparse: ear buds, cell phone, call sheets, and a written script.

John, the 20 something manager-on-duty, offered three minutes of instructions including the mandate not to leave messages.

As a swing state, Arizona voters are flooded with calls like mine. One message I heard confirmed it: “If you’re calling about politics, hang up now.”

About an hour into my shift after I’d had a couple of angry responses to my suggestion that folks vote early, an idea came to mind.

If I put more emphasis on the tools of The Connection Practice I’d have a better chance of empathizing with whomever and whatever I encountered.

I started with self-care by focusing on my own emotions and why I was making these calls.

I’d been feeling powerless, agitated, frustrated and worried. My needs for peace, balance, and progress were high, but no satisfaction was in sight.

I asked for wisdom about the calls I was making. And then I paused.

I waited until a truth came forward in the form of reassurance.

Confirmation that because I care deeply about the outcome of this election, any small contribution I make will move me toward my own power and could even help create the progress I’m desiring.

With my own motives clear, I turned attention to the people on my list.

Might they be feeling fear and confusion?

Could it be some were distressed because their needs for ease and safety seemed far from where we were?

Considering strangers’ needs as well as my own changed the nature of my calls.

Instead of selling people on voting early, I listened, empathized, and if an opening presented itself, I encouraged early participation in the voting process.

Connecting with Voters

Then Dan, 41 years old, a registered independent, answered my call.

“Hi. This is Ellen. . . . I’m calling to ask if we can count on you to vote early this year?”

“No ma’am, you can’t. It’s disgusting what’s going on.”

“Sounds like you’re really disappointed. What’s bothering you most about the election?”

He told me, ending with, “I just can’t bring myself to vote for either one.

“I know that’s not what you want to hear. I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Yet I was oddly energized.

In that short exchange two people with different mindsets had expressed empathy for one another.

Here was a guy telling me exactly what I didn’t want to hear and yet the call felt like a success.

The next person who answered was an 80-year-old woman, Angeleine.

She said for the first time in her adult life she’s refusing to vote for a President.

“One’s a Nazi and the other should be jailed,” she said.

I asked if she felt discouraged.

Her voice softened. “Yes,” she said. “I’ve never felt like this before. It’s just awful. There’s so much fighting. I’m so angry. This isn’t right . . . ”

“I can understand why you don’t want to vote,” I said,

“If you change your mind, would you like to know where the closest early voting is?”

She declined.

I knew she was hurting; so was I.

Nonetheless I was grateful that that the two of us had, if only for a moment, found common ground.

With both Dan and Angeleine I experienced connection amid chaos.

What else might be possible if more of us knew and practiced these skills?

Could family divides be mended? What about gender equality? Might bullying be reduced?

Today I’m off to volunteer at a local nonprofit.

If you asked me what the likelihood is I’ll need empathy for myself or someone else in such a friendly place, I’d say the chances are right around 100%.

They usually are.

I’ll keep you posted.

Connections in more posts

•  Wyoming Social Justice in Action: What exactly does love look like in public?

•  Why I care: Witnessing Childhood Injustices