Continuing the Fight for Human Rights

Melissa Zarda receives College of Arts and Sciences Alumni Award
Melissa Zarda

Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association recognizes the achievements of outstanding alumni with an awards celebration. The UMKC College of Arts and Sciences is honoring Melissa Zarda (B.A. '02, M.A. '07) with its Class of 2022 Alumni Achievement Award.

Melissa Zarda owns and runs a successful small business as a freelance graphic and web designer, all while still taking the time to fight for human rights all the way to the Supreme Court. After the death of her brother, Don, she led the cause to prevent people from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity in his honor. Zarda sought help from the ACLU, a trusted attorney and the Director of the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.

What made you choose to continue your brother’s mission after his passing?

We never considered not continuing the case. In order to pursue the case, we had to make a decision in a short window of time after his passing. Bill, my brother’s boyfriend, and I were on the same page from the beginning. We had both spent so much time consoling Don over the years, since this case impacted him so heavily, that we knew there was no other option. We also knew there were so many others who were discriminated against in the workplace, just like Don was, we wanted to do whatever we could to help them fight, too.

What advice would you have for someone taking on such a monumental case?

Surround yourself with experienced and trustworthy people. I relied on our teams from the ACLU and the Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, as well as other nonprofits such as Freedom for All Americans. I can’t thank these groups enough. Reach out to friends and family for support, and try to take care of your mental and physical health. The ups and downs can be emotionally draining.

How did UMKC prepare you for your success?

All of my instructors were genuinely interested in my well-being. They would offer encouragement and ideas to further my study in whatever I was passionate about. After going to school in the suburbs, it was exciting to be on an urban campus and to hear different perspectives. I applied the skills I learned at UMKC to every job I’ve ever had post-graduation.

Zarda is a graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s in Studio Art and a master’s in Sociology. She enjoys spending her spare time volunteering with various animal welfare nonprofits.

About Alumni Awards

Join us in honoring Zarda and the other Class of 2022 awardees at an in-person celebration at 6 p.m. April 29, at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center. To register, visit UMKC's Alumni Association website. If you are unable to attend the event but would like to donate to student scholarships, contributions can be made online.

Learn more about College of Arts and Sciences

Published: Feb 18, 2022

Top Stories