Meet Toby Klein

Apr 1, 2020 | In the News, Spotlight

Toby Klein, Lavender Graduation

When it came time for her final project in a queer theory course at the University of Arkansas, senior graduate assistant Toby Klein knew exactly what she wanted to tackle.

She created a Registered Student Organization focused on implementing a Lavender Graduation ceremony for queer and LGBTQ+ students. These events are held at many college and university campuses across the nation, and Toby thought it was time the U of A offered one, too. The inaugural Lavender Graduation event was held at the University of Michigan in 1995.

“Our students deserve a chance to celebrate their unique journeys to graduation,” Toby said. “Many of them have experienced financial, social and emotional distress as a result of a lack of acceptance by family members and peers. We wanted to create a space to celebrate their journey to graduation.”

Lavender Graduation group shotThe first U of A Lavender Graduation was held on December 14, 2019, and a spring graduation was scheduled for April 5. It has been put on hold amid the COVID-19 crisis. (Always one to help, Toby has jumped in during the pandemic to mentor LGBTQ+ students, create content for Sunday schools and teach workouts for University Recreation online.)

Toby will graduate from the U of A next month with a master’s degree in Community Health Promotion in the College of Education and Health Professions and will immediately begin work on her doctorate degree. She’s been accepted to the U of A’s new Social Justice track in the Public Policy program. Toby came to the university as a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow to study reproductive justice, with a focus on marginalized communities.

Toby said her passion for social justice largely originates from her religious identity as a Jew.

“Growing up, I learned about the Holocaust and how so much of my lineage was decimated by such horror,” she said. “Our community has always been small, so it felt important for me to fulfill the religious obligation of Tikkun Olam, which means ‘repairing the world.’ My parents instilled a love of social justice in me, and it’s been the guiding force for me in my pursuits of equity and justice.”

Toby said an example is that on Passover Jewish people are commanded to remember the centuries they spent in slavery in Egypt.

“We’re then asked to ensure that this doesn’t happen to others in a modern context, which is why so many Jews were involved in the Civil Rights movement and things like that,” she said. “My social justice is an extension of a minority identity I take very seriously.”

Toby was recently in Little Rock to receive a Tikkum Olam award from the Jewish Federation of Arkansas.

As another example of her commitment to social justice, Toby was the only student on a campus panel a few months ago that focused on helping women to navigate power structures. The panel also included Margaret Clark, professor emerita; Gloria Flores Passmore, director of Sponsored Student Programs; and Jeannie Whayne, university professor of history. 

“I specifically spoke to my experiences as an underrepresented, young woman in science and social justice,” Toby said.

Has Toby’s story inspired you to check out a master’s degree in Community Health Promotion? The program is designed to train skilled practitioners and researchers to design, implement and evaluate interventions that promote health and prevent disease.