Charlie Diaz ’22: ‘Speaking Up for Everyone Around Me’
When Charlie Diaz ’22 was looking at colleges, he knew he wanted “a place with an activist scene—people who wanted to be movers and shakers in the wider world.”
During his time at Smith, Diaz says he has learned more about what it means to be a changemaker—both on campus and in the broader community.
“Smith taught me to speak up for myself, but also that when I do that, I’m speaking up for everyone around me,” Diaz says.
A double major in the study of women and gender and American studies, Diaz was selected as one of 14 inaugural Smith Alliance for Justice and Equity Fellows. The program, founded with a gift to Smith’s Jandon Center for Community Engagement from Caren Byrd ’68 and Elizabeth Borland ’97, provides students with training and mentorship for research projects focused on social change.
Diaz’ project involves interviewing campus community members who identify as “disabled” about their unique life experiences.
“We will emphasize the way that disability is compounded by race and class, as well as other social markers,” Diaz’ project description reads. “The purpose of this work is to bring disability justice into the mainstream conversation.”
In reviewing applications for the fellowship, Nancy Zigler, Jandon’s director of programs and partnerships, noted Diaz’ capacity for thinking strategically. “His commitment to making a difference in the world came through loud and clear,” she says.
Becca Jacobson, community engagement organizer for the Jandon Center, says Diaz has played a “central” role, both as a justice fellow and as a community engagement and social change concentrator.
“Charlie cultivates joy just by who he is as a person,” she adds.
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Diaz was aware of racial segregation and other barriers facing family and friends. A high school job as a teen advocacy council member for The Contemporary Austin museum sparked his interest in community organizing—and led to his first trip to New England for a museum conference in Boston.
At Smith, Diaz connected early on with classmates in the Bridge Program for first-year and transfer students of color. (“I was in good hands from the start,” he says). When the pandemic made study abroad impossible, Diaz pursued other learning experiences, including a Praxis Program internship last summer at the immigrant-led Riquezas Del Campo farm in Hatfield.
In addition to his work at the Jandon Center, Diaz is a project fellow for “Democracies Redux” a year-long Kahn Institute initiative aimed at expanding conceptions of democracy. His project involves the creation of a “collective care” website, where campus community members can share stories and seek solutions to injustices.
“We have a responsibility to care for one another by listening to personal stories, educating ourselves on social issues and creating change,” Diaz wrote, in a project description. “This project seeks to fulfill that responsibility by tying together the histories of past student protests with the current stories of marginalized Smith students.”
Diaz has been accepted to the graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh for the fall, where he plans to continue researching ways to make higher education a more “equitable and democratic experience for an increasingly diverse student population.”
Learning about Smith’s legacy of social change activism has been “comforting,” Diaz says, as has encouragement he’s received from classmates and professors—in particular professors of color.
“I have one professor who always says, ‘Oh! Write that down,’ after someone shares a comment,” Diaz notes. “It’s a beautiful message and makes you feel so supported.”
What keeps Diaz hopeful? Movies, music and a belief in the value of working with others.
“We all want to be good people and listen to each other,” he says. “I start from, ‘This is my community. How do we fix things now?’”
When he needs inspiration, Diaz thinks about his younger sister, Cat, who has just started college.
“I want to build a better world for her,” he says.
Photograph by Jeff Baker