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Dr. Eileen Yellin: An Educator to Remember

Dr. Eileen Yellin (1956-2016) 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 and advocates, and other stakeholders to determine whether establishing a chapter in the greater Phoenix region was a viable option. Turns out, it was. When we were accredited in October 2002, Eileen already had been a high school teacher at Tempe High School for about a dozen 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 LGBT students as a public school teacher was a courageous act. It still is in many places within our chapter’s “territory.” Over time, Eileen shared with the nascent chapter her years-long accumulation of insider knowledge: how systems work, how to get things done, how to maneuver around institutional barriers. 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 GSA became the host of a signature annual “Breaking the Silence” dance, which marked the end of the GLSEN Day of Silence. Soon, the Tempe High GSA invited GSA members from other schools to join them in the celebration. GLSEN Phoenix proudly partnered with the GSA on the event. 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 our inaugural Safe Schools Award in November 2015. To further her legacy after her untimely death, we have named the award in her honor.  The Dr. Eileen Yellin Safe Schools Award will be presented to its next recipient during our annual Sparkle, Glitter, GLSEN event in November 2016. 

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. Up until the day she retired in May 2016, Eileen advocated for the GSA, while also serving as a resource for GSA sponsors around the region. She embodied the findings from research conducted by GLSEN and others that supportive adults, the presence of a GSA, and inclusive policies make LGBT students safer in their schools. Eileen 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.

Dr. Eileen Yellin Obituary (1956-2016) 

Sparkle, Glitter, GLSEN

Jane Aiken. 2001. Provocateurs for Justice. Clinical Law Review 7: 287-306.
Gray Cavender and Nancy Jurik. 2012. Justice Provocateur: Jane Tennison and Policing in Prime Suspect. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.