At the age of 14, Zaira Najera Rodriguez realized there were issues in the world, some close to home, that she cared about deeply. She felt she had the ambition to do something about them, but she didn’t exactly know what or how.
Rodriguez had traveled three hours from her hometown of Gypsum to Greenwood Village to attend a Youth Celebrate Diversity (YCD) conference. A freshman then, she found the workshops and keynote speakers’ messages life-changing.
“It made me think that my school isn’t as perfect as I thought it was,” Rodriguez, now 18 and attending Washington University in St. Louis, says. “[YCD] made me realize that I can actually talk about the issues that are happening around me.”
After the conference, she and a group of schoolmates created a club: S.P.I.C.E. (Students Promoting Inclusion and Civic Engagement). They hosted events centered around mental health and students with disabilities.
YCD, a Denver-based organization that supports middle and high school students in their diversity and inclusion activism efforts, recently launched a podcast that helps students further amplify their voices and expand their perspectives.
“These are students at different schools, different communities around the country that are all passionate about diversity and inclusion, looking for ways to make a difference,” Caleb Munro, executive director of YCD, says. “But maybe they don’t have programs or organizations locally that they can access, especially during a pandemic.”
In the spring, students from eight states, including Rodriguez and Eaglecrest High School student Etsub Worku, gathered virtually to choose topics and invite guests for recordings. Munro notes the participants’ skills in research, recruiting experts, and interviewing expanded in the process. So far, Teens Talk has eight episodes, one already released and the other seven set to come out weekly this fall. Episode topics include parenting an autistic child, being deaf in a hearing world, and intergenerational trauma from Native American boarding school experiences.
“I was kind of nervous when I first joined just because I felt like I don’t really know what I’m talking about,” Worku says. “Immediately, I felt like I belonged there. It was like the perfect time, perfect place type of thing. We all have the same goal… we’re always respectful of one another even if we don’t necessarily agree on the same things.”
Worku, who also sits on YCD’s executive committee, wants the podcast to widen YCD’s network and message; she hopes it could get as big as NPR’s “Code Switch” one day. The episode she and her partner worked on covered the Black Lives Matter movement, and involved two guest speakers; all four of them are Black women.
“We talked a lot about our struggles, [how we] often feel like we don’t really have anybody who can defend us, whenever we’re faced with experiences we can’t control by ourselves,” Worku says. “The message that I would want people to take away from our episode is, specifically for Black women: You matter. Even if you don’t feel like you have someone to defend you, a lot of people can defend you. It’s just, you know, sometimes it’s hard and some people just aren’t willing to be as brave as you.”
Holding immigration and DACA up to the light is Rodriguez’s focus. She interviewed a fellow Gypsum resident about his life experiences—the small and large moments that are made complicated by his undocumented status. To make connections with peers during the production process, and inform an audience, means Rodriguez has an outlet for what she’s processing about the world. The podcast has even enriched her whole family’s conversations.
“My relationship with my parents is a lot stronger than it was last year, or the year before,” Rodriguez says, “because I’m able to have these conversations with my parents and get support.”
Find more information about the student virtual board, their podcast, and other YCD programs and school club-building resources at ycdiversity.org.