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by: Meaghan Trewin, Communications Coordinator

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Dr. Kris Wells, Assistant Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Director of Programs & Services at the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies and Services (iSMSS), University of Alberta

As a champion for diversity, equity and human rights in schools, Dr. Wells is a true advocate for bringing research to practice to build more vibrant, respectful and caring schools and communities. He is a celebrated researcher, a founding member of and special advisor for Safe and Caring, co-founder of Camp fYrefly and author of the Government of Alberta’s new resources on homophobic and transphobic bullying and GSAs (Gay Straight Student Alliances).

Dr. Wells is a particularly passionate proponent for GSAs in schools. GSAs are school clubs that provide a safe place for students to meet, support each other, talk about issues related to sexual and gender identity, and work together with teachers to combat homophobia and transphobia in schools. Although GSAs can take many forms, they are all intended as “a critical space where it is okay to be different and where students can reach out to trusted adults and peers to find support.”

What’s so interesting about GSAs is how they work to actively change school cultures and attitudes from within, so that all students, staff members and teachers can feel safe, welcomed and respected in their work and learning environments. The value of a positive and diverse school culture is incalculable. Research shows that belonging and attachment to school has a direct impact on students’ feelings of safety and academic achievement, and improves high school completion rates. Schools with GSAs also have better education, health and safety outcomes for students. According to Dr. Wells, “We all need to step forward and become part of the solution. We need to look within to examine our own personal beliefs and values. We need to reflect not only on the purpose of GSAs, but also on education. Education should ultimately be about personal and social transformation. That happens through the kinds of relationships and connections we build in our schools.” By fostering a space and respectful school culture where students can reach their full potential, GSAs not only transform important relationships; they also save lives.

In partnership with the ATA and Safe and Caring, Dr. Wells is hosting the 3rd Annual Gay-Straight Student Alliance Conference on November 22 at the University of Alberta. The conference is free for students, teachers, trustees, superintendents and parents who are involved in a GSA or are interested in learning how to start one at their school. Beginning as a small gathering of about 50 people in 2012, it has since expanded to draw over 250 participants from across Alberta. This year, Dr. Wells and his team at iSMSS “hope the conference will be a call to action. Ultimately, the lives of our students may be at stake. The option of silence no longer exists. We need to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes and break this long held silence. We cannot afford to lose another life.”

To learn more about GSAs and other iSMSS programs, please visit www.ismss.ualberta.ca and discover how Dr. Kris Wells, Dr. Andre Grace and the rest of the iSMSS team are working to inspire social change and improve the lives of all students in our schools and communities.

“We all need to step forward and become part of the solution. We need to look within to examine our own personal beliefs and values. We need to reflect not only on the purpose of GSAs, but also on education. Education should ultimately be about personal and social transformation. That happens through the kinds of relationships and connections we build in our schools.” – Dr. Kris Wells

This article appeared in our November 2014 News Bulletin. Click here to read the rest of the bulletin!

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