Four Wisconsin high-school students will be honored at GSA for Safe Schools’ annual Leadership Award Celebration in Madison on May 8. The awards come with a $1,000 scholarship for each recipient as well as a chance to be recognized by the LGBT community for youth activism.
“Celebrating sexual minority youth and their allies at our annual banquet really gets at the values of our organization and work,” says G-Safe executive director Cindy Crane. “We assist students to find their own power to not only survive but thrive.”
When the organization began offering the Leadership Award in 1997, it was a chapter of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
“Our first scholarship reception was held on a Sunday afternoon in May at the First Unitarian reception hall, and there were probably 20 to 30 people in attendance, including (then) Assemblywoman Tammy Baldwin,” says founding member Vicki Shaffer.
Since then, the event has grown to attract 350 to 400 people annually.
“Our purpose in creating the GLSEN scholarship program was to acknowledge the work of students as activists in their school and community as well as increase the visibility of the needs of LGBT students in schools,” Shaffer says.
Tim Michael, who now works as a program assistant for G-Safe, received an award in 1998. He says it was a validating experience.
“To have an organization say, ‘We recognize your struggle, and we thank you for what you have done,’” was much more meaningful to him than the scholarships he received for his academic achievements, Michael says. “The certificate that I received when I won the scholarship is framed above my desk at work.”
The award continues to motivate Michael today. “It’s really incredible that I now have the opportunity to play a support role to students who are experiencing what I went through more than ten years ago,” he says. “I think it helps me connect better with them.”
In addition to the annual awards ceremony and the scholarship, G-Safe holds a yearly Leadership Training Institute during the summer. Thirty-five Wisconsin students are trained to take on leadership roles in their schools and GSAs.
It was through this training workshop that Cassie Williamson of Hartford became familiar with G-Safe. She first met Brian Juchems, G-Safe’s program director, at a school board meeting when she was a high school freshman.
“I was only at the school because I was supposed to be at a softball game that was canceled, so I went to the meeting just to see what they were talking about,” Williamson remembers. Her school board was debating whether to allow students to observe the Day of Silence, a national LGBT anti-violence protest.
“I ended up getting so mad (at the school board) that I had to get up and say something,” she remembers. “Afterward, Brian introduced himself and told me about LTI, suggesting that I apply.”
Williamson attended LTI that same year. In addition to becoming the student facilitator in her school’s GSA, she took up the fight with the school board for the Day of Silence. She coordinated her school’s participation and even organized and led a community forum in her hometown to raise awareness about violence against LGBT people.
“I had to work so hard to get it,” she says. “We even had to bring lawyers from the ACLU.”
But with the help of the ACLU and support from her mother and the school’s GSA staff facilitator, Williamson helped to make it happen.
In 2008, Williamson was one of the students honored at the Celebration of Leadership.