WINNIPEG — On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, representatives of the Gray Academy of Jewish Education Student Gay Straight Alliance group proudly approached the podium at the Union Centre in Winnipeg to accept the Sybil Shack Human Rights Youth award for 2013.
The annual award recognizes the work of a person or group of people under 25 years old who have had an impact on the advancement of human rights. It’s named for the late Sybil Shack, a life-long Jewish educator and administrator in the public school system and a leading human rights advocate, and presented jointly each year by the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Manitoba Human Rights Commission.
“It was a bit of a surprise to have our students presented with this award,” said Gray Academy English teacher Barbera Buffie. “It was also a triumphal moment. The award indicates that our student-led gay-straight alliance [GSA] is having an impact and that others are taking notice.”
Head of school Rory Paul added that the awards evening was well attended by members of the two-year-old GSA, along with their families and teachers.
“This is something for all of our students to celebrate,” he said.
Gray Academy Hebrew and Judaic studies department head Anat Ekhoiz said that among the positive responses have been emails and tweets from former students expressing pride in the school.
GSA groups have been accepted in the Winnipeg school system for some time, Buffie said, but faith-based schools, however, are another matter.
School vice-principal Lori Binder noted that the Gray Academy’s GSA group has become a role model for other faith-based schools.
She noted that while the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto and the Gann Academy near Boston also have GSA groups, there’s only one other faith-based school in Manitoba with a GSA group.
Gray Academy high school English and debating teacher Andrew Kaplan said there had been interest on the part of students in having a GSA at the school for a number of years.
“It’s a scary step to take,” Kaplan said. “While the administration and staff are fully supportive, the feeling was that this had to be student-initiated.”
He said some students approached the administration two years ago about starting a GSA group.
“We spoke to the student body about being a school where gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students can feel safe,” he said “The first meeting was very well attended.”
The group meets weekly over lunchtime and plans activities that include outreach to the larger student body.
“Last year, some of our students attended a safe school leadership conference where they met with representatives from other schools, “ Ekhoiz said.
Some of the students also attended the Rainbow Resource Centre’s third annual Manitoba GSA Conference on Nov. 25.
“Our GSA group has had its successes,” Ekhoiz said, “but it is still a challenge. There is still a stigma associated with the group that we are all working to overcome. We believe that the Sybil Shack Award will help fight that stigma.”