Riot Youth is an Ann Arbor-based group that supports and advocates for LGBTQ teens. For those who don't know, that's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning.
Four years ago the group surveyed students in Ann Arbor schools about bullying and sexual orientation. Using the results of that survey, and drawing on their own experiences, the teens wrote a play about bullying that they perform in schools across the state.
Michigan Radio's Christina Shockley spoke with Laura Wernick, an advisor with the group, and Leo Thornton, a 10th grade student and Riot Youth board member.
Thornton, who identifies as transgender, said the group has been a life-saver. "I found Riot Youth and I realized there were not just other transgender people—there's a spectrum of other identities within the queer community, and that we all can come together and just be ourselves."
Thornton performs in Riot Youth's theater troupe, and said it's an empowering way to open up to students and adults about bullying experiences.
"When you turn around and you can see the adults' faces, they're really tuned in and they're really listening," said Thornton. "With students we have, now, small group discussions afterwards where we split up. And people share. They are really telling us their own experiences, and it's eye opening for both sides."
Wernick said the only requirement for performers is that they attend one rehearsal. "We find that it's an incredibly empowering experience for the youth. It really builds their self-confidence, self-esteem, their sense of self-efficacy in the world. So we try to give as many opportunities as possible for as many youth to participate in the troupe."
It is important, too, that the performances and discussions are student-led.
According to the survey results, youth are more likely to speak out against bullying when they see other youth intervening.
"They know what needs to happen in the schools, they know what's wrong, they know that things need to be changed, they know effective ways of intervening. And so what we need to do is support them," said Wernick.
Riot Youth aims to create an inclusive space for teens, regardless of their differences.
"A lot of youth have really found a safe space in Riot Youth, another family, and I think that's one of the biggest rewards we can have is just having so many youth here, who feel they can talk to us and be themselves and they don't have to be afraid of anything. That is just amazing to see every Friday," said Thornton.
- By Meg Cramer