Dear Campus Speak & Sara Lowery: Are We on ‘Punk’d’?

[UPDATE: “Am I a Jerk for Critiquing CAMPUSPEAK and Their Speaker?“]

[UPDATE 2: “Follow Up with Campus Speak“]

I think Ashton Kutcher works for Campus Speak, the business that brokers speakers for college campuses and is often a major sponsor for most student affairs conferences.

I mean, what else could I think when I opened up my email to see the following advertisement for a speaker?

campus speak333-comments

All problematic things have been noted upon in red. Oh look, that’s everything.

Are you…are you kidding me?

I mean, we have to be on Punk’d, right? This is obviously a joke. Or someone from Reddit hacked Campus Speak and proceeded to troll us all?

Please don’t tell me that a business affiliated closely with student affairs & higher education and a woman who, according to her LinkedIn Profile, has 5 years of student affairs professional experience, honestly believe this is okay to promote?

Do you realize that you are using the experiences of people experiencing homelessness in order to educate college students on leadership skills?

…I’m sorry. That’s a lot of question marks. It’s because I literally can’t even at the moment and my brain is broke.

cant envet

Let’s step back a moment.

Before I jump to any conclusions, I should check the website for more information!

campus speak22220000000000000000000000000000

Which brings us to the second segment of this blog post:

Dear Campus Speak & Sara Lowery: Top 8 Reasons Why This Idea is the Worst

1. It’s people experiencing homelessness. Not “the homeless”. Their current housing status does not define them. Homelessness is often a temporary status. People first language, please.

2. People who are experiencing homelessness are not animals at a zoo.  If you think that  “…lessons about leadership can be gained from watching the homeless“, then you are gravely mistaken. How dare you try to exploit their life situation in order to teach college students how to be leaders? Laughable, truly, the degree of privilege there.

3. There are college students in America right now who are experiencing homelessness. For example, almost 60,000 students indicated they were experiencing homelessness on the 2012-2013 FAFSA. Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said ‘that number is likely understated, however, since some people may be staying in a car or motel and don’t realize they are technically homeless, or don’t want to admit to it’.

4. One in forty-five children experience homelessness; or  1.6 million children in America each year. In the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, on one night shelters across America counted guests and found 610,042 people staying in shelters. We know that homelessness is temporary so that number is not static. Additionally, that count does not count the “hidden” population – people living with friends, family, motels, domestic violence shelters, etc. So even if the college students you’re speaking to may not be currently homeless, that does not mean the issue has not personally affected them.

5. People experiencing homelessness are NOT YOUR INSPIRATIONAL STORY. This isn’t a Lifetime movie, it’s real life. The audacity to say things like “…even in the worst of times, their spirits often remain bright and they carry on with great humility and determination“. Do you even know anyone experiencing homelessness? Real life isn’t about hugs and puppies and giving you an “inspiring message” that you can make $3,000-$6,000 on and go about your merry way.

alan rickman angry gif

Snape gets it

6. Related to the latter point, have you spoken to many people experiencing homelessness? Ms. Lowery, you said “They have a need and are often not ashamed to tell you that need, in spite of being hungry or cold.” Umm…the issue is much more complicated than this. First, hungry and cold? This isn’t a Dickens novel. Not everyone experiences that. Not everyone does ask for help. And when they do, it is a survival thing and not really applicable to student leaders trying to put on a programming night. For that matter, not everyone can get help. Those who experience chronic homelessness often have a disability (such as physical and/or mental illness) which makes housing options difficult, according the US Dept of Housing & Urban Development (HUD). Short term reasons can range. For example, in my home city of Indianapolis, factors contributing to homelessness include abuse/domestic violence and felony convictions.

And…your website quote of “Or will you be the one who will be hungry and cold because you refuse to ask or work for what you need?” in regards to training students to ask for help…do you believe that people experience homelessness because they refuse to ask for help or work for what they need?

7. Following on that, this marketing is incredibly infantilizing. Campus Speak’s website is double trouble for its trite description of daily life ‘insight’ into the lives of “homeless people”.  Do you think it is appropriate to describe any group facing oppression and reduced resources in America by saying they “can be seen standing on street corners, watching the traffic pass, and the world spin around them”  ??!!

kanye are you serious right now

8. Campus Speak core values: “We Will be Advocates for Students and the Professionals Who Work with Them”. Just wanted to check, are you just trying to advocate for just the privileged identities of students and professionals, or marginalized identities too?

Recommendations to the Higher Education Community

I know there are some folks out there who saw that email and thought “Ooh, that sounds like a good idea. Very inspirational. I bet our students would enjoy it!” And then they would throw down several thousand bucks and their students would hear a presentation about how awesome “homeless people” are and how they ask for what they need, which helps them be successful (??) and golly gee, that’s what they should all do within their student organizations! The students exit the presentation with the idea reaffirmed (planted there originally by society and the media, cuz systematic issues and all that) that “homeless people” are other and they exist to make us feel better about ourselves.

I do not want that to happen.

This blog post isn’t about burning Campus Speak or Sara Lowery. Quite honestly, I want more women speaking on the circuit (the current CS speakers are mostly men; 26 men to 16 women). But I do not want this presentation performed for any human out there (aliens are fine, I guess).

1. Do not hire Sara Lowery to give the “Will Work For Leadership Presentation” as long as it is based on the crude observations of people experiencing homelessness.

2. Really, truly critically analyze Campus Speak speakers and reconsider if contracting with them is your best choice. Clearly several someones in management had to think “Yeah! Homeless People! Leadership! Good message!” to green-light this presentation and thereafter market in such a vile and offensive manner. I am not that familiar with Campus Speak or their speakers, but I will critically assess any proposals to partner at my campus. There are many other speaking agencies out there and many messages can be modified for the college audience.

3. Sara Lowery: Please stop delivering a presentation that exploits the lives of people experiencing homelessness. If you want to speak on how student leaders need to improve their communication skills, please modify your approach. It’s a great topic, but it’s your approach that is problematic In addition, I think this is a great opportunity to become better educated on the topic of homelessness. In Salisbury, MA there are some local shelters and several organizations accepting volunteers that work with homelessness and affordable housing.

4. Campus Speak: I would strongly advise you to work on educating all staff members on the topic of homelessness in order to abide by your Core Values. A company that was founded in 1999 and works closely within higher education, likely is aware that social justice is a core component of student affairs. Since you are based in Aurora, CO, here is a list of “Homelessness Assistance Programs“; they even have a pdf “Aurora Homeless Resource Guide”. There are a good number of organizations, which likely indicates that homelessness is a issue in your city. Better yet, I encourage you to spend some time volunteering! There are 106 opportunities to volunteer for organizations supporting homelessness in Aurora.

Overall, I’m offended. Those I’ve shared the initial email with have been offended. Presentations and marketing like this only contribute to the ills of society and reinforce systemic oppression.

Do better.



  1. I feel this post is inappropriate and bashing to the speaker. You took the topic and the meaning behind the message and made it completely negative. You took the time to down play every POSITIVE aspect of the speakers message. Not once did she mock homeless people. You have no idea who this individual is or the life that she lives. So it’s not about the check, Niki is it? It’s about making a difference and changing lives. How about you sit in one of the seminars, you could learn a thing or two. I know plenty of young people who have heard the same message, grasped the right things from it and learned. Not trying to bash you, and freedom of speech is the American way. However, I just think that your word choice and delivery could have been a little more respectful.


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