Eagle Valley High School Senior recognized for racial equity and social justice work
Zaira Najera received the 2021 Princeton Prize in Race Relations for her work in creating a regional diversity conference, a club for local Dreamers and much more
While this past year has been a historic one for social justice and equity work, there are individuals who long before this year have dedicated themselves to creating equity, diversity and inclusion. And some of the most impactful and meaningful work in this realm is being initiated by students, including Eagle Valley High School senior Zaira Najera.
Najera was recently recognized for her work forming new programs and organizations that inspired positive and equitable engagement within the community. Last month, she was awarded the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, which recognizes 28 high school students each year for their efforts to advance racial equity and understanding in their schools and their communities. As part of the prize, Najera will receive $1,000 and will participate in a virtual symposium with other awardees later this year.
Najera’s passion for serving her community and for social justice came from her own personal experience growing up in Eagle County.
“Growing up in the valley has its ups and downs,” Najera said. “I am a daughter of immigrants and I’m also a first-generation college student and first-generation American. There were times when I was with my family, or even just me, and you could feel that invisible line between the people of color and the white people. There were always little things that I wanted to fix.”
While she saw the disparities and experienced this “invisible line” growing up, she didn’t necessarily have the tools to address these issues. That is, however, until she attended the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference — which is now the Colorado Youth Diversity Conference and a part of Youth Celebrate Diversity — in Denver her freshman year of high school.
“I learned so much from that experience,” Najera said. “Since then, I feel like I’ve had this passion for helping other people and a social justice passion as well.”
This event served as a catalyst for much of the work that Najera is being recognized for by the Princeton Award.
Immediately following the Cherry Creek Diversity Conference, Najera was inspired to bring new diversity and inclusion efforts as well as civic engagement to her own high school. So she, alongside some of her fellow students that attended the conference, started a club called SPICE — Students Promoting Inclusion and Civic Engagement.
Serving as one of the co-chairs of SPICE, Najera has helped to bring awareness to mental health in schools through the creation of Wellness Weeks — which promote student wellness and mental health through workshops, activities and events — to encourage students to take action on issues they care about, and to create safe spaces for students to have conversations that move the needle on social justice.
Najera also worked with Youth Celebrate Diversity to bring a conference, like the one that inspired her, to the mountain region. She co-chaired this conference, called Mountain West Diversity Conference, her junior year. Through panels, workshops, keynote speakers and entertainment, the conference provided education and awareness to high school students and teachers from the whole region.
Najera has continued her work with Youth Celebrate Diversity, even as the mountain conference went virtual this year, serving on its Student Virtual Board. She’s now working with SPICE to create two podcast episodes on immigration and the U.S. policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, more commonly referred to as DACA, for the organization.
Another group that Najera has played a major role in is the Valley Dreamers club. Najera — as well as her peers, Alexis Hermosillo and Victoria Aragon — were approached by Brittany Kinney, the program manager for PwrOn by YouthPower365, to start a club, inspired by Summit County’s Mountain Dreamers organization. Valley Dreamers was built to create a safe space and support for students who are undocumented or have family members who are.
Najera helped the group launch this year and host its first event, Destigmatizing Labels, in April. The event focused on educating students on the best ways to talk about immigration, DACA and undocumented persons. The group is still new, but has big plans to continue education on these issues and create a safe space for all students.
“With the Valley Dreamers, it was something that was personal to me, just because I have loved ones who I have seen struggle through with their immigration process and everything,” Najera said. “I just really love helping the Hispanic community.”
Reaching beyond high school
Throughout her experience in building and growing these clubs and organizations, Najera has been bolstered by the support of her parents, her teachers, such as Hannah Shapiro, and mentors, like Kinney from Youth Power 365. Shapiro, a language arts teacher at Eagle Valley High School and the sponsor of SPICE, was the one who nominated Najera for the Princeton Award. Kinney has supported and helped Najera build her confidence through some of YouthPower365’s programs and aided her in her endeavors, like the Valley Dreamers club.
“When you have adults that support and listen to what students are experiencing, what’s happening in their communities, it begins to empower students to take action,” Kinney said. “It allows them to lead in their community. Too often, we have adults who assume they know what’s best or they assume what’s going on but really youth are the heart of our community, they see it all.”
All of the work that Najera has done to build a more inclusive and empathetic community is not done yet. While she hasn’t officially committed, Najera has been accepted and is leaning toward attending Washington University in St. Louis next fall. There, she hopes to study political science and work toward possibly becoming either an immigration lawyer or a social worker. No matter what she does, she hopes to continue her social justice and equity work.
And as she leaves for her next adventure, Najera is leaving behind a legacy she knows other Eagle County students will continue to grow.
“Zaira has really created a legacy of wellness and equity that will stay in the school and the community, after she moves on to college. That long-lasting change is something that all of us can just be so grateful for and that can really prove to be a model for how we can allow students to continue making meaningful change in our community,” Kinney said.
And her legacy, hopefully, is something that extends beyond schools and into the greater Eagle County community.
“I understand that we’re teenagers and we don’t know how life works exactly, yet, but I think that we know, when it comes to these types of things, we know what’s best for us and we don’t want this invisible line to separate us anymore, we just want this safe space for everybody,” Najera said. “I also want to encourage adults or mentors to have these conversations. I understand they’re uncomfortable, but they are necessary to have.”
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.