The first time Coralie Maldonado led a protest, she was only in kindergarten.
I want to provide resources for students who are interested in becoming active within their communities be [don’t know] how. –Coralie Maldonado
“I found myself one day laying in the middle of the floor during circle time,” Maldonado said. “[I was] protesting because I firmly believed we needed more playtime.”
Fast forward 12 years. Maldonado, a senior at North High School in North St. Paul, is now an avid youth activist. But these days, she is fighting for more than simply extended playtime.
“I’m most passionate about creating spaces in school where all students feel represented,” Maldonado said. “It’s really empowering to … raise the voices of young people in marginalized communities.”
Maldonado has been a featured keynote speaker for EDTalks, a series of talks about public education issues, has started her own student advocacy group and has led a walk-in at her school. Her peers, she said, call her “Social Justice Girl.”
Now, Maldonado wants other youth to join her mission. Through her student advocacy group, her peers say, she is inspiring other teenagers to get involved.
GROWING AS AN ACTIVIST
Maldonado has championed social justice in education since her freshman year, when her mother signed her up for her school’s Youth Leadership Council, which trains students to lead discussions about microaggressions in the classroom.
“(At first), I did not want to join stuff like the student council,” Maldonado said. “I was 14 and I didn’t trust the student council as far as I could throw them.”
The council immediately accepted her and invited her to a retreat. What happened next, she said, changed her life.
A game they played at the retreat, the Human Race, in which students step forward or backward based on their socioeconomic statuses, shocked 14-year-old Maldonado.
“It was like a slap in the face from privilege,” she said. “I had one of my best friends all the way out front while I was at the back.”
This revelation drove her to learn more about disadvantaged communities at school and in society.
Along the way, Maldonado chose to drop out of certain clubs, classes and friend groups at her school after realizing that “their overall people and mindsets were pretty ignorant,” she said.
She began taking on more active roles in the community, mentoring elementary school students through Project SWAG (Students Working on the Achievement Gap) and participating in events that empower youth to make change, such as WE Day, the Facing Race Ambassador Awards, the Youth Activists Summit and the Global Youth Service Day.
She also joined Solutions Not Suspensions, a campaign dedicated to ending disproportionate school discipline, which opened a new world of opportunities for her.
After Maldonado was invited to speak at EDTalks about what she calls “voluntary racial segregation” at her school and the creation of her student advocacy group, she attended the annual Solutions Not Suspensions meeting in Los Angeles, where she became the only high school student on the national coordinating committee. From there, Maldonado brought the concepts she learned back to her own school, North High School.
To encourage administrators to work on finding alternatives to suspensions, Maldonado organized a walk-in at her school to demand changes in discipline policy. To pull off the walk-in, she had to muster the fiery spirit and willingness to challenge authority from her kindergarten protest days, she said.
“I was shaking the first time I met with my principal [to organize the walk-in],” she said. “I couldn’t finish my sentences because I was that nervous.”
According to Maldonado, the principal told her to come back when she had “done [her] homework.” Indignant, she returned at the next meeting with a thick file, telling the principal, “I did my homework.”
“My sister’s a very headstrong person,” said Maldonado’s older sister, Jonashka. “She is very confrontational; there’s no walking all over her. She can definitely hold her own in an argument.”
SETTING EXAMPLES FOR OTHER YOUTH
While Maldonado uses protests to create change, she prefers reading and reviewing bills, a process she became familiar with through her work with Solutions Not Suspensions, she said.
“We can’t do just protesting all the time,” Maldonado said. “Working within the government is just as important, and we really need more youth in that way.”
Maldonado hopes she can set an example for other Twin Cities youth to get involved with their local governments and state legislature. In her opinion, learning to make change through written laws is not only necessary, but also beneficial for those with hasty temperaments. “I was very passionate and very bad at controlling my emotions [before],” she said. “I’ve come a long, long way.”
Many of Maldonado’s peers say that seeing her development has inspired them to take action as well. Classmate Triniti Thao said that before meeting Maldonado, she was interested in politics but lacked the resources and motivation to get involved.
“After meeting [Coralie] and seeing how much she knew, I was just so – wow,” Thao said. “Like, ‘Why haven’t I looked up all this stuff, too?’ She just really opened my eyes.”
To help other teenagers find the resources to participate in the legislation-making process, Maldonado founded a student advocacy group at her school called “Solidarity Through the Annihilation of the Normality of Discrimination,” or STAND.
“I want to provide resources for students who are interested in becoming active within their communities but [don’t know] how,” she said. “I just wanted to … give them the resources to reach out more on bigger levels rather than just the school.”
Through STAND, Maldonado is working on a photography project that shows the stories behind suspended students’ lives. She hopes to see larger STAND membership and more of her peers working to affect change.
Yet even if other teenagers do not join her right away, Maldonado said, she will not stop pushing for social justice.
“I refuse to do something generic just because what I’m doing is controversial and upsets people,” she said. “For the people who don’t like me, tough luck. I’m Social Justice Girl.”