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Documentary earns NIU professor honor

DeKALB – In addition to practical things taught in the classroom, Laura Vazquez hopes her passion for drawing attention to issues such as homelessness and sexual assault is something her students pick up.

“I go and say, ‘Let’s put a light on this,’ ” said Vazquez, a communication professor at Northern Illinois University and documentary filmmaker. “... I believe in activism, and I want to pass that on to my students.”

Vazquez was honored recently by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth with its Distinguished Service and Leadership Award for her work documenting the plight of homeless women and children.

Vazquez, who said she was honored and humbled by the award, has produced documentaries “My Own Four Walls,” “on the edge” and “The Littlest Nomads” with Diane Nilan, president of HEAR US Inc. The two have spent countless hours talking with and filming women and children in homeless shelters around the country.

“What we’re trying to do is not keep these things secret,” Vazquez said.

Nilan, whose HEAR US organization works to give voice and visibility to homeless youth, said there are many misconceptions surrounding homelessness. She credited Vazquez with drawing attention to an issue that she said is “not a one-size-fits-all crisis.”

“She has enabled the stories of women and kids in homeless situations to be told,” Nilan said. “They’re stories that otherwise wouldn’t be heard.”

Spending time in homeless shelters has been life-changing for Vazquez. At one shelter, she spoke with a woman who had seven children, which “turned this room into a dormitory,” she said.

It can be a challenge to get people to care about the homeless, Vazquez said, but the country’s economic crisis has drawn more attention to it. People are hesitant to talk about class.

“And I think homelessness is part of class,” she said. “We see people who are homeless as inferior, right? And I think after this crisis, we see it differently. That’s my kid, that’s my sister. You take it much more personally.”

The intergenerational nature of homelessness in America is something Vazquez wants to see addressed. There tends to be a pattern of instability: If a mother raises her children in a homeless shelter, those children often grow up and do the same.

“This country needs to stop that,” she said.

When she and Nilan set up a camera at one shelter and asked women to talk about their lives, Vazquez noticed many were victims of sexual assault as children.

“That was the bottom of every story,” she said. “It became clear to me that this was the pattern.”

Her next focus is sexual assault on college campuses. With $15,000 in grant money, Vazquez and a group of NIU students are working to produce a film or films about the culture of rape and sexual assault on college campuses.

Student Nick Fleming is a communication major who is part of the group working on that project. He called Vazquez an “advocate for everybody” and said she empowers and motivates students.

“It’s heavy stuff, but when you’ve got somebody that’s as driven as her, it’s that much easier,” he said of the sexual assault project.

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