By KJ Philp, November 2016 Issue. Meet the rest of the Class of 2016 here.
With more than 20 years of teaching experience, Tempe High School’s Eileen Yellin has become one of the strongest proponents among local Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) sponsors.
Yellin recalls the time she learned one particular student was being harassed, and that was the moment she knew she had to make a change. “I decided to start up our school’s GSA because I simply did not want to see this happen again,” she explained.
In 2000, her goal of developing a safe place for LGBTQ students and straight allies became a reality. And, with about 35 active members in Tempe High School’s GSA during the 2013–2014 school year, this club has grown into a “model” GSA for other schools to emulate.
“The club is really what the members make it,” Yellin said. “We provide a place where they can meet, ask questions or find resources, ‘try on’ an identity or orientation, come out to staff, peers, or allies first — if they want — report incidents of disrespect or danger, and just be themselves without fear of ridicule or other consequences.
Eileen Yellin was a founding board member of GLSEN Phoenix, part of the original steering committee that spent a year meeting monthly with local educators, students, parents, activists, advocates and other stakeholders to determine whether establishing a chapter in the Valley was a viable option. Turns out, it was.
When the chapter was accredited in October 2002, Eileen already had been a high school teacher at Tempe High School for about 12 years, an established and well-respected educator, who had completed her Ph.D. in education and justice studies at Arizona State University.
At that time, getting involved with GLSEN to champion LGBTQ students as a public school teacher was a courageous act. It still is in many places within our chapter’s “territory” … Because of her moral courage and generous leveraging of expertise, we think about her as a “justice provocateur” (Aiken 2001, Cavender & Jurik 2012), someone who pursued a vision of fairness for all, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, ability, race/ethnicity, religion, you name it, and in doing so, inspired her students to join the safe schools movement.
Eileen was that teacher whom students trusted, sought out, relied on, and remembered long after graduation.
With Eileen’s guidance, the Tempe High School’s GSA became the host of a signature annual “Breaking the Silence” dance, which marked the end of the GLSEN Day of Silence. Soon, the group invited GSA members from other schools to join them in the celebration, which GLSEN Phoenix proudly partnered on.
In recognition of her innovative engagement with the Tempe High GSA, and enduring dedication to her students and colleagues to create a safe and affirming environment at school, the chapter presented Eileen with its inaugural Safe Schools Award in November 2015. To further her legacy after her untimely death, the award has been named in her honor. The Dr. Eileen Yellin Safe Schools Award will be presented to its next recipient during its annual Sparkle, Glitter, GLSEN each November.
Not surprisingly, Eileen lived her values inside and outside of her classroom. One way she did that was to agree, when asked by students, to be the sponsor for Tempe High’s Gay/Straight Alliance student club. She knew, too, that students who feel safe in school, and feel a sense of belonging within a school, are more able to come to school and learn.
Anyone who knew Eileen was in awe of her optimism and constant embrace of new adventures, whether cultural, physical, or intellectual. We are not sure how she packed it all into a 24-hour day, staying grounded all the while.
Eileen’s friends and family have said that she smiled with her whole body and hugged with her heart. GLSEN Phoenix was a grateful beneficiary of Eileen’s wit and intellect, persistent advocacy and welcoming embrace.
– Maddie Adelman, GLSEN Phoenix co-founder and current board member