Gathering busy folks like state Rep. Greg Harris, Circuit Court Judge Mike McHale and Illinois Assistant Attorney General Colleen Bisher together to speak out against anti-gay bullying is no easy feat—especially if you’re an eighth grader. But that’s exactly what soon-to-be-freshmen Elizabeth Adebiyi, Jacques Agbobly and Diamond Lenoir did last December as part of an LGBTQ awareness and anti-bullying assembly at Stockton Middle School in Uptown. It’s also why these three youngsters will be among the 12 individuals and groups honored in Upstanders: Portraits of Courage, a component of the multimedia exhibition “Choosing to Participate” kicking off Monday 27 at the Harold Washington Public Library.
“Choosing to Participate” is an initiative created by Facing History and Ourselves, a nationwide educational nonprofit that combats racism, anti-Semitism and prejudice through professional development for teachers. The exhibition portion of the initiative, of which Mayor Emanuel is an honorary chair, includes five installations that will be put in place in two galleries that surround the Winter Garden at the library. In the galleries, visitors will see Upstanders, the collection of photographs and narratives honoring Chicagoans who dared to make a difference in their local communities.
According to Lenoir, eighth graders are required to participate in three service-learning projects that focus on people, animals and the environment, respectively. With Agbobly as a fellow team leader and Lenoir co-organizing, they homed in on people first. “The three of us organized an assembly because we found that there was a lot of bullying in our school against people of the LGBTQ community,” Lenoir says. “We wanted to advocate to the younger children about it so that the bullying could stop and the use of the word gay wouldn’t be used as offensive in the school.” Agbobly agrees. “Not a lot of students are out, but a couple are and we see that some get bullied every day and we wanted to change that.”
The assembly happened December 22, 2011, and included both a live panel featuring LGBTQ members of the community like Harris, McHale, Bisher, police officer Jose Rios, attorney Bradley Trowbridge, Howard Brown Disease Intervention Specialist Mark Pineda and others speaking out against bullying and a taped segment that co-starred Adebiyi. “We did a [recorded] play about how gay people were being harassed and made fun of,” she says. “Some of the panelists were crying. I was amazed.”
Surprisingly, there was little resistance from either students or faculty. The trio organized the event with the help of a program coordinator and a social studies teacher. “We asked our classmates if they’d be interested in helping us and they all said yeah,” Lenoir says. “We only had to ask the principal one time and she thought it was a great idea.”
The trio, who plan to continue to advocate for LGBTQ awareness in high school, say they saw an immediate decrease in bullying. “After the assembly, I haven’t heard the word gay used too carelessly in our school,” says Agbobly. Hand in hand with that, they say, was an increased feeling of safety regarding issues of sexual orientation. “I saw so many people who came out and weren’t scared anymore,” Adebiyi says. “We really made a change.”
Upstanders: Portraits of Courage opens Monday 27.