Young people are often labeled as lazy and unmotivated, and that couldn’t be further from the truth for 15-year-old Chiqui Diaz. She is only a sophomore in high school but she already has a couple of titles under belt. She currently works as a teen board member with Beyond Differences and is a youth advocate with The Spahr Center. Her most recent honor: a 2020 Youth Award for her work as a peer educator and activist for the LGBTQ+ community in California.
A worldwide pandemic and online learning can be tough on one’s mental health. That is why Diaz believes it’s more important now than ever to reach out to youth and ask: how are you doing?
YR Media’s Denise Tejada spoke to Diaz about the work she is doing to reach out to kids during the pandemic and to ensure the needs of LGBTQ+ students are folded into school curriculums.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Denise Tejada: I know you're pretty involved in a lot of projects, but in a nutshell can you tell me about the work that you do and what inspired it?
Chiquis Diaz: Yeah, so Beyond Differences, we fight social isolation and we do a lot of work at the middle school level. We provide free curriculum to schools all over the country. A lot of it is geared towards teaching middle schoolers how to build connections and create an inclusive community.
I got involved in high school because I experienced my own social isolation in eighth grade. I was kind of coming out and coming to terms with my identity and didn't really know where I belonged. It was just a really hard period because I didn't know where I fit. And so I think that really inspired me to kind of go and join Beyond Differences and work to make more inclusive spaces and more inclusive people.
DT: Why do you think it's important to provide support and resources to kids as early as middle school?
CD: I think middle school is honestly the key time. That's when people are really starting to get that sense of independence and start to discover their identity and figure out, “Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be?” And that's a really complicated thing. I think also in middle school, people are really starting to explore social dynamics. It's when a lot of social isolation happens, I think, especially because a lot of kids transfer from being in a small elementary school to a bigger school with more people. It's really easy to kind of find yourself feeling excluded or kind of on the outside. And it's very easy to feel lonely. I think, and especially with COVID, everyone's very isolated now. I think we're all kind of feeling what that's like. And it's more important now than ever to really connect people, I think.
DT: You've been working on bringing LGBTQ curriculum into the schools. Can you talk about that work and why it's important for you?
CQ: Yeah, so that has a lot to do with the work I do with The Spahr Center. We do a lot of working in schools and in local communities around LGBTQ+ issues and how can we best support queer and trans students. One of our big initiatives is working on getting a more diverse curriculum, because I know in my own experience, I don't think I've ever really been taught about the LGBTQ community in a very meaningful way in class. We don't really learn at all about Stonewall or read a book that was about a queer or trans character. And it comes up a lot in sex ed, too. It is usually very lacking in terms of sexuality and gender kind of education. I think if seventh grade me had gotten more of that, it would have been so helpful in my questioning and trying to figure out who I was. I basically had to rely on the internet to learn about my identity. If we can get a more inclusive curriculum in schools, LGBTQ+ students will be able to see themselves positively reflected and have that be so influential. Exposure helps create understanding, empathy and compassion and it can be really influential in preventing homophobia and transphobia. It's really important to see yourself positively represented and to see what you are capable of and to not see yourself limited by your identity. Having, you know, an inclusive and representative curriculum is so key to that.
DT: How are you doing your outreach work during quarantine?
CD: It's really important in terms of social isolation that we reach out even more. I know that I've gotten through a lot of this by being able to call friends — FaceTime friends and have that conversation and that connection. It is really important that our curriculums are online compatible. I know we've been trying to kind of get into online classrooms, although it's difficult because there's a lot less time and teachers are a little bit more pressed to teach material. We've been adapting a lot by using video and social media has been really big and getting involved in reaching people.
DT: Congratulations on winning the California Youth Award. How do you feel about that?
CD: I didn't believe it. It was really wild. It's incredible. I'm very honored to receive that award and mostly to know that the work I've been doing is impactful and is really making a difference. It has really inspired me to keep recommitting myself to my community and to continue on with this work, because I know it's making a difference. Quarantine has been hard in a lot of ways, but it's also really given me the opportunity to dive into social justice and really get involved in activism. I'm just very, very grateful and humbled and honored. The other thing that it shows for me is that you shouldn't have to feel like because you're so young or because you're a teenager, you're not capable of making change.