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2021 Young Changemaker: Rahi Shah

August 4, 2021

How 2021 Young Changemaker Rahi Shah organized the first-ever LGBTQ+ Pride Parade in her hometown of Rochester

By Claire Zulkey

Photography by Darrel Ellis

A few weeks before the most recent school year ended, Rahi Shah, a rising senior at Rochester High, couldn’t help noticing that neighboring cities were hosting events that acknowledged LGBTQ pride, but not her hometown. So she decided to organize her own.

Rahi, a self-described activist who has organized events supporting Black Lives Matter and the Equal Rights Amendment and who has worked as an intern on political campaigns, does not identify as queer. But as June — also known as LGBTQ+ Pride Month — approached, the 17-year-old felt compelled to step up in support of her LGBTQ friends but also because of her experience as a woman of color. “I know the struggle of being a part of a minority community,” she says, “and the impact of others outside the community stepping up to show they care.”

So, she reached out to three schoolmates to ask if they’d be willing to help organize a Pride event for Rochester. The timing was a bit tight, but, Rahi says, “The way I work, and anything I do, I just act on it.” She even scored speakers, including Jody LaMacchia, the Oakland County Democratic Party Chair.

There were a few tiny hiccups. When the organizers arrived, the reserved site at Rochester Municipal Park was unintentionally occupied by another group. Then, once the group relocated, there was no audio equipment on hand. Meanwhile, attendees had trouble finding parking. But on that sunny afternoon, the spirit of understanding and acceptance prevailed. “The community there supporting us told us, ‘It’s totally fine; we can start a little later. We understand,’” says Rahi. People eventually found parking. Police officers present helped locate a new site — and loaned the speakers a bullhorn in place of a microphone. Volunteers handed out all 150 Pride flags purchased for the day to event goers.

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“It’s not surprising that this was the first Pride event [here],” says Brendan Johnson, an activist and Rochester native who spoke at the event. “It just took somebody actually doing it.” It was almost as if the city had been waiting for this moment. “I expected maybe 20 people to come,” he says. “But the line of marchers was about four blocks long, pretty much the length of downtown.” Rahi estimates anywhere from 175 to 250 attendees showed up.

“Young people are doing the work that us older people should have done a long time ago,” says LaMacchia, who says it was meaningful to speak with other attendees about their coming-out experiences. (Now 49, she didn’t come out until she was 40 and after she had already started a family.) “Having these types of events that young people hosted, for no reason other than to make other people feel supported … that’s so huge for people who are afraid to come out, afraid to be themselves. Rahi and and all these young people that are stepping up are going to save the planet at some point. They’re very passionate about ensuring that everyone has representation and feels supported.”

“For quite a few people, this was the first Pride [event] they had been to, and they loved the community support they saw,” says Rahi, adding that one of her favorite memories is the noisy horn salutes the group received during the march. “There is a feeling, when you are marching down Main Street, holding up flags and posters celebrating your identity, when it’s not only people in the [LGBTQ] community but also allies marching, that there is an even greater sense of support. I know that my queer friends and others from the community who couldn’t attend the event still felt amazing hearing about it or seeing pictures because it was the first time our city had an event like this.”

And, she adds, the event was the first of more to come. “This was a successful event and it was a step forward, but we still have a lot of work to do.”

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