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INNOVATORS SERIES
Educating the educators:
Sameer Jha
One student's mission to make schools more
nurturing for LGBTQIA+ students.
When he was 16, Sameer Jha sought to host the first Pride event in his hometown of Fremont, California.
Although the city lies in the liberal Bay Area, 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, approval for the event wasn’t a done deal. Jha had previously advocated to have the local elementary curriculum include sex education that normalized LGBTQIA+ orientations. That didn’t pass, and to get approval for Fremont’s Pride event, Jha had to reach out to some of the people who voted against his curriculum measure.
He wasn’t daunted.
“For me, what has always worked best is coming at it from the human angle,” says Jha, 19, who identifies as queer trans. “It’s very hard for people to come at you with all these different tactics when you’re face to face with someone who maybe understands you in some way—except for this one part. Then it just becomes about, ‘Is this one part really that important to you? Does it really matter that much when you’re face to face with another human being?’”
Jha won approval for the event, continuing a mission he began at 14, when he created the Empathy Alliance, an organization to help make schools safer for LGBTQIA+ youth. The name reflects his “human angle” approach.


“All of us have empathy. All of us care about each other and care about human beings,” says Jha, who has won a Congressional Silver Medal for his work. “I think all of us are trying to do what we see as best.”
Doing what’s best has propelled anti-bullying campaigns that have gathered momentum the past decade. But those policies are imperfect, as Jha knows firsthand. He experienced intense bullying in elementary and middle school.
“It was very clear to all the adults around that this kind of homophobic bullying was happening in the hallways and classrooms on a daily basis,” Jha says. “People would constantly say, ‘That’s so gay.’ ‘You’re so gay.’ Yet none of the teachers ever said anything about it.
“We would have all these anti-bullying talks, and yet when it came down to the actual, very real bullying that was happening, they all kind of turned a blind eye. And so it made me feel like, ‘Okay, is this really bullying, or is this just normal?’”
So began the Empathy Alliance, with Jha returning to his old middle school and working with administrators to address LGBTQIA+ needs. They formed a Gay Student Alliance (GSA) club, designated classrooms as safe spaces, and put queer-friendly books in the library. The entire school district would later adopt the approach for more than 42 schools and 35,000 students.
As its reach grew, the Empathy Alliance’s mission began to focus on “educating the educators,” as the organization puts it, to help them understand and address the needs of LGBTQIA+ students.
“As kids, we look to adults to tell us what’s right and wrong, to tell us what’s okay and what’s not,” Jha says. “In the same environment where they’re teaching us all these things in classes, they’re also teaching us how to behave. If they don’t teach us that certain things are wrong, then it really just furthers that cycle.”
To help stop it, and scale the Empathy Alliance’s work, Jha wrote a book called “Read This, Save Lives,” drawing from his own story and assistance from organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, the Tyler Clementi Foundation, and GLSEN (formerly the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Student Education Network).
“It’s just about giving them the right tools and the right information,” Jha says. “A lot of information out there is so outdated, or it’s from a different generation. It’s from educators who might have been in schools a decade or two decades ago.”
In the grand scheme of things, that may not sound especially long. But considering same-sex marriage has been legal for only six years, and acceptance of pronoun preferences remains spotty, it’s clear that things change quickly. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“A lot of youth in schools today are already so sure of who they are because they have the resources now,” Jha says. “It’s been amazing seeing how students who never really had to go through the bullying that I went through, and never really were told that being themselves is wrong, how amazingly open and free and honest they can be.”
Even Jha, now a student at Stanford, is still learning. He’s aged out of the population he initially sought to help with the Empathy Alliance—at some point he’ll be an educator in need of an education.
“I don’t really have the voice of a student in school who can really understand what’s going on, and so I’ve been trying to figure out where to go from here,” he says. A big part of his mission now is visibility as a queer person of South Asian descent.
“The representation that you see is still predominantly white gay men,” Jha says. “So I think it is really important for me not only to do the work that I’m doing, but to be just out there as an openly queer South Asian person. Just to show people, ‘You’re not the only one like this. People like us do exist. People like us deserve to exist, and anyone else who says otherwise is wrong.’”


As part of our mission to celebrate and support the LGBTQIA+ community, Cole Haan is making a donation to GLSEN. GLSEN’s mission is to ensure that every member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or gender expression.

Who inspires the innovators?

Our Innovators Series isn’t just about highlighting the people we select; it’s also about making connections to the larger world they inhabit. We want to give our innovators the chance to champion others whose work is important and/or inspires them.
Vincent Pompei, @vincent.pompei
“Vinnie, the director of the Youth Well-Being Program at the Human Rights Campaign, has been my mentor since I was 14. It was actually his encouragement that led me to believe I could make a difference at such a young age! His work has had an impact on so many kids like me, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without his guidance and support!”
Bridey Thelen Heidel
“Bridey is my go-to example of an educator who’s doing right by LGBTQ+ youth. The sponsor of South Tahoe High School’s ALLY Club, Bridey cares deeply about each of her students, and she has so many incredible stories that showcase how necessary a supportive educator can be. I dedicated a whole chapter to an in-depth interview with her in my book, ‘Read This, Save Lives.’”
Ross Murray, @InLayTerms @DeaconRossMurray
“Ross is the senior director of education & training at the GLAAD Media Institute, where he trains advocates to accelerate acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community. I learned so much from him when I attended his course, and since then I’ve only been more and more inspired by his work. As a consecrated deacon, he’s been outspoken about merging faith and identity, including in his recent book, ‘Made, Known, Loved: Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Youth Ministry.’”
Charmaine Hussain, @charmainehussain
“My mom is not just my biggest supporter; she also serves on the board of Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an organization dedicated to helping increase LGBTQ+ acceptance in the South Asian community. She’s become like a mom to so many queer people who don’t have supportive families. She’s also an incredible artist—my favorite piece of hers depicts a Hindu deity who is canonically half male and half female, proving that South Asia has been queer for centuries.”
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