The Huffington Post has chosen Rachael Stein of Birmingham, MI as its "Greatest Person of the Day" — an honor recognizing people who confront issues in their community with creativity and passion.
Birmingham Groves High School junior Rachael Stein is no ordinary 16-year-old.
Like many Birmingham high school students, Stein juggles classes like Advanced Placement economics and Algebra 2, working evenings on her applications to Yale and Stanford.
Unlike many students, however, Stein is also working to defend the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) youth throughout southeast Michigan.
Stein is president of Groves' Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), leading a group of about 20 students of all sexual orientations to educate their fellow students about LGBT issues.
Stein is also the the youth coordinator for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in southeast Michigan, a job that involves: coordinating training and workshops for other GLSEN youth leaders; serving as an advocate for gay and lesbian youth; and, this fall, helping co-write a grant that earned GLSEN $28,000.
On Oct. 29, Stein and GLSEN also led an anti-bullying summit at Groves, a day of workshops geared toward helping keep southeast Michigan's classrooms and hallways safe for students of all genders and sexual orientation.
Bullying rampant, Stein says
Stein, who also goes by the first name Chase, began working with Groves’ GSA as a freshman because, she said, she wanted to “make a difference.” Soon after, she helped relaunch GLSEN with various other student and adult leaders in the LGBT community at the request of several parents.
Stein has grown up in Birmingham and fully came out as gay at the end of her eighth-grade year.
"Some of my friends in middle school freaked out a bit, mainly because they had never interacted with an LGBT person before, but I found support and even affirmation in surprising places, which actually led to new friendships," she said.
Now Stein is one of GLSEN’s few youth leaders, helping to coordinate GSA groups and youth volunteers out of the GLSEN's offices in Ferndale.
On top of her role in organizing Saturday’s summit at Groves, Stein said she also works at developing anti-bullying presentations for middle and high schools, writing public service announcements and helping to launch the group’s social media campaign on Facebook, Tumblr and YouTube — all efforts made toward connecting and educating young people.
“Creating these connections among youth is really important,” she said.
Fighting against ignorance and negative perceptions about LGBT students, Stein said, can be an uphill battle at times. Michigan is one of the only states without an anti-bullying law, about which Stein testified at hearings in Lansing in the spring.
Some people still think LGBT students are a “fad,” Stein said, and bullying is rampant.
Finding support in 'an exceptional climate'
Although she has spoken to dozens of teens who have been bullied, Stein said she’s been lucky to have escaped much of that while at Groves and, before that, Birmingham Covington School.
“I don’t see (that kind of bullying) at Groves. I think Groves has an exceptional climate," she said, though noting she did face some social exclusion and taunting in middle school.
Stein also credits her teachers at Groves and mentors in GLSEN for bringing her to where she is today.
"(Stein) is an incredible student leader," said Michael Reese, a Groves business instructor, faculty adviser for Groves' GSA and a board member for GLSEN. "Whenever you have a volunteer organization like GLSEN, you have to find people who will step up and take the lead ... (Stein) has done an outstanding job with that."
Reese began working with Groves' GSA 11 years ago when he started working for the high school. With a transgendered son, Reese said he could identify with the students already being led by his co-adviser Amy Voigt, an English teacher.
"I think that the (LGBT) population could use help and representation," he said. "I figured that whatever help I could contribute, I would."
Reese believes Groves, and Birmingham Public Schools, is proactive in embracing diversity and has been supportive of GSA groups. Still, with a new group of ninth-graders entering the building every year, it's important to reinforce anti-bullying lessons each fall.
"We are a really diverse high school," Reese said. "But what I've found is there are a lot of other schools that aren't on the same level as we are. And they look to us."
However, Stein emphasized that despite the support she's discovered at Groves, she doesn't like to place her personal experiences at the focus of her work.
"I actually was led to GLSEN through a lifelong interest in activism, strong values rooted in equality for all people, an interest in LGBT issues and a desire to provide voice to students who don't have one due to bullying," she said. "I was led to my niche by my interests, not necessarily my experiences."
Moving forward to break the silence
The latest project for GLSEN is Breaking the Silence, a concerted effort to bring anti-bullying workshops into K-12 schools throughout southeast Michigan.
Now, with the $28,000 grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory, Stein and her fellow GLSEN leaders will begin the process of choosing 12 high school-age students to serve in leadership roles. These youth leaders will then lead teams and tailor anti-bullying workshops to schools throughout the region. Stein's role will be to coordinate the students as well as train the leaders.
All of this will be on top of final exams and preparing applications to colleges. Stein said she is thinking of studying biochemistry. Whatever she does, however, she plans on staying involved in LGBT initiatives for as long as she can.
“I think every student deserves a safe space,” she said.
Fast facts: Breaking the Silence Initiative
What is it?
According to GSA of Southeast Michigan's website, Breaking the Silence is a "service learning project that will target the reduction of bullying and the improvement of school climate for K-12 students by training a core of youth representatives to develop and implement experiential anti-bullying lessons."
Breaking the Silence was inspired by the Day of Silence, a nationwide student protest event sponsored by GLSEN.
Whose idea was it?
The project was designed entirely by students in GLSEN and GSAs at high schools throughout southeast Michigan.
What are the statistics on bullying?
According to a 2009 GLSEN study, 80 percent of LGBT students are verbally harassed due to their sexual orientation. Sixty percent of LGBT stuents reported harassment due to their gender identity, and 70 percent of LGBT students heard homophobic remarks in school. Forty percent of LGBT students reported physical harassment.
How does Breaking the Silence work?
GLSEN sends youth representatives to K-12 schools throughout Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties to give anti-bullying presentations to students. The group also creates public service announcements related to LBGT bullying and uses social media messages on Facebook, YouTube and Tumblr.