San Rafael’s Chiqui Diaz has something important to say, and she wants to make sure the world hears her words.
Diaz, a member of the Spahr Center’s Social Justice Fellowship, was one of six people from across the state to win the California Endowment’s Voices for Change Award in 2020. Awards are granted in six categories, including LGBTQ and Gender Justice, a cause which Diaz has been championing for years.
The Youth Awards honor youth who engage civically, volunteer locally, advocate for important causes, or encourage engagement among their peers. The award seeks to recognize youth who take brave action when faced with deep-rooted systemic barriers and injustice, have shown up in their community as agents of change, have made a positive impact on their community at large, and will continue to evolve as leaders in the years ahead. Other winners were Mya Edwards-Pena (Education), Peter Elias (Ending Mass Incarceration), Kimberly Amaya (Environmental Justice), Jennifer Lico (Immigration) and Bernadette Lim (Inclusive Community Development).
Diaz, 15, is a teen board member of Beyond Differences, a youth-led social justice movement working to end social isolation. She is also a member of the San Rafael High School chapter of SLAM!, working to promote anti-racism on campus.
In an interview on the Spahr Center website, Diaz said, “I have always had a really strong moral compass. When I was five or six, I sat at the kitchen counter and very avidly explained to my aunt how life was very unfair because my twin sister had already lost two teeth, and I had lost none. In 4th grade, my mom took me to Book Passage to see Bryan Stevenson read from his book, Just Mercy. I was blown away by his speech and the issues that he talked about in our justice system. That moment left a strong mark on me.”
She continued, “In fifth grade, the teacher who ran the school Safety Patrol believed strongly in student empowerment. Every time I told him that we should organize an activity or put together a schedule for the group, he would tell me to do it. I think that really kicked off my career in community organizing.”
Now a sophomore at San Rafael High School, Diaz began championing for social causes while still a student at Davidson Middle School. She joined student government and school groups like WEB (Where Everyone Belongs), TUPE (Tobacco Use Prevention and Education), Peer Court, and the GSA (Gender Sexuality Alliance).
Reflecting on her early start, Diaz said, “I was able to build a lot of my own personal skills, and I really got to see how I could make positive change in my community. Inspired by a presentation made by the Beyond Differences Teen Board members in 6th grade, I saw an opportunity to advocate for social justice by promoting inclusive school culture. I have been involved ever since, eventually joining the teen board when I got to high school.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has not stalled Diaz’s efforts. During the summer, she worked with other teens from the Community Youth Center in San Francisco on the Stand Up for AAPI Youth campaign to combat COVID-inspired fear, bias and hate toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Most recently, she and fellow student activist Harita Kalvai started the Speak Out San Rafael initiative to “create a student-led platform for middle and high school students in the city to share their voices.”
Diaz said, “We believe that every student deserves a safe space to have their voice heard, no matter who they are. We are going to work to hold monthly panel discussions, as well as other more casual platforms for discussion, to give the youth who are so often spoken over the chance to speak up and share their voices about the issues that are important to them.”
So, why does she do all this? What inspires Diaz to try to change the world?
Her answer: “It is impossible for me to see the injustice and systemic oppression that occurs in our society and not do something about it. Despite all the awful things that we have done as a human race, I still fundamentally believe in humanity. I believe that those with privilege and systemic power can do and be better, and I believe that those of us that have been repeatedly hurt by this society deserve better. When my faith waivers, I turn my community and they restore it. All of the incredible people around me inspire me to dream and fight for change.
I do think it is important to mention, however, that I also do this work because I have to. My basic human rights are on the line every single day. I want to be able to marry the person I love if I so choose, and to not have to live in fear of being fired from my job or hurt because of who I am. I want to have the freedom to be able to go wherever I choose without having to worry about whether or not the people there will be accepting of my core identity.”
She continued, “Queerness is a very complex thing for me. Being queer means that I have this very unique and incredibly beautiful experience and perspective on life. I love and exist in a way that feels expansive and special. It also means that I am constantly very actively and acutely aware of all the ways that I am excluded in the spaces that I function in, of all the ways that the system was built to work directly against me. I fight for social justice in honor of the queer folks that came before me and for those that will come after me. I want to see a world where queer joy, and the joy of all marginalized and under-represented folks, outweighs our suffering.”