Earlier this year, Kiera Kaiser took the podium at a Fresno Unified School District board meeting to encourage the board to pass a sanctuary resolution to protect undocumented students.
“I’m here to urge you to ensure that the students of FUSD have a safe and secure learning environment,” she told the standing-room-only crowd. She added, “I would also like to invite you guys to a rally I’ve been organizing.” That's the Kids Rally for Equality, which took place in Fresno in March.
Kiera is finishing up fifth grade. But at 11 years old, she’s more politically engaged than many adults. She follows the news and goes to a regular meeting of local activists.
I heard about Kiera through high school student Angel Vargas, who met her at an LGBTQ activists meetup. “We were just talking about resistance in the community,” said Vargas, “and she mentioned that she had a rally coming up.”
Vargas works with The Know Youth Media in Fresno. She’s new to journalism, but she knows how to spot a good story — and Kiera's was a story she wanted to tell. We teamed up, and after a crash course in radio basics, I handed Vargas my mic.
First, we met up with Kiera at the open house at her elementary school, Manchester GATE. She was showing her parents around her packed classroom, pointing out her work. For one project Kiera had to choose a U.S. state to study. She showed us the finished product: a colorful cutout in the shape of Alabama dangling from the ceiling.
Kiera says she chose Alabama because it’s the birthplace of Rosa Parks, an African-American civil rights activist who in 1955, in the segregated South, refused to give a white man her seat on the bus. Kiera read about Parks in a book and she was impressed that one person could spark such big change.
After she came home from the Women’s March in Sacramento this January, Kiera started thinking about how she could make a change of her own.
“I was just inspired,” she said, "because all these people were coming together for a cause they believed in, and it was truly amazing and inspiring. So I wanted to create that opportunity for other kids in Fresno.”
Her mission was to give kids a platform to talk about why equality is important to them. So Kiera planned a demonstration in front of City Hall. She made a website for her rally by herself and contacted City Council members, who helped her get the permit she needed and took care of the permit fees.
“Did you get any threats, stuff like that?” asked Vargas.
"Yeah," said Kiera’s mom, Nasreen Riahizadeh. “We got a lot of name-calling, and I wouldn’t call them threats of violence, but it didn’t feel very nice."
“It didn’t really hurt me, because I knew that was going to happen,” said Kiera. “There are people on both sides of politics and equality.”
Almost 200 people showed up for the Kids Rally for Equality. One group even drove in from Sacramento. Some kids took the mic to talk about bullying, others about LGBT rights.
Kiera says it had an impact. “I think people understood that since a kid has to step up and explain to people that it’s important and give other kids a chance to say how they feel,” she said. “People realize it’s a big matter and subject.”
Kiera has done more public speaking — and more media interviews -- than most adults. But that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten how to be a kid.
When Kiera’s not organizing public events, she’s practicing the guitar. Or she’s looking at stuff she finds around the house under her microscope. “This is my science desk,” she told Vargas and me, as she showed us around her bedroom. “So I do all these kinds of experiments.”
Kiera’s independence and determination have left her parents torn between protecting her and supporting her activism, including the rally that put her in the media spotlight.
“It was such a fire within her that it was kind of a turning point,” said Riahizadeh. "We let her do something and we help keep her safe and do it appropriately, or we don’t let her do something and then she’s kind of on the cusp of being a teenager and then what’s next?”
Kiera and her friend, Aliya Purnell, are trying to decide what is next after the successful rally. “Maybe this time we can do it on something that’s really bad and stuff,” Aliya suggested, “like maybe girls not getting treated fairly and stuff.”
But Kiera wants to tackle all forms of discrimination. “I want to stick to the topic of inequality and equality, and how it’s important in our lives,” she said. “I want to take it a step further. I haven’t really figured out how, though. I’m brainstorming.”
For now she’ll worry about starting sixth grade.