Diller Family Foundation
The Diller Tikkun Olam Awards recognize 15 Jewish teens each year for their extraordinary community service work. Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the world, is exactly what these teens are doing - showing incredible innovation, creativity, and leadership in their communities and around the world. Kveller is proud to partner with the Diller Foundation to share their amazing stories.
Michaela Weinstein, 16, loved her hometown of Albany, California. It was small enough that she could walk to her friends’ homes and recognize all her neighbors, yet large enough that she could always discover something new.
But then, two years ago, Albany became the epicenter of a civil rights storm.
Michaela was just a first-year at Albany High School when a series of racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist incidents happened. Like many of her classmates, Michaela was shocked and horrified — and knew that things had to change.
So Michaela, along with some friends, started an organization, SPEAK, to teach students of all ages about empathy and activism. Today, SPEAK has its own curriculum, and they make presentations to 5th graders throughout her school district. (Their social justice curriculum is available online as well.)
Michaela is a 2018 recipient of the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards for her noble and eye-opening work
What’s your favorite thing to do with a free afternoon?
I really like exploring new places and restaurants with my friends. I love experiencing new things and knowing that there are endless possibilities.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
I think Barcelona is a wonderful city because it’s right on the water and it has all this beautiful architecture, art, and museums. I’m learning Spanish in school so being able to practice that would be amazing.
What’s your favorite subject in school?
At the moment, English is my favorite subject. I’ve really loved my English teachers throughout my time at Albany. Also, it’s not so much about the language itself, it is about the deep conversations we have based on what we’re reading.
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned OUTSIDE the classroom?
I’ve had a lot of experiences where education, or the lack of education, has been a really important factor. I was talking — with the core group of people running SPEAK now — we were saying if we could fix one thing in the world right now, it would be education.
Can you tell me about some of the conversations that led to you developing SPEAK?
It was developed two years ago, after this really horrible series of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic events at my school. After talking for hours and hours, my friends and I decided that there was something that needed to be done, and there was something about our education that was not doing it. We knew we wouldn’t have the exact answers right away, but gathering a group of passionate students was a good place to start. So, we started these conversations about realizing the importance of social awareness in the history of our world. I think a lot of the things perpetrated at our school were out of sheer ignorance, and education is the biggest way to cure ignorance.
And how did you decide you were going to focus on a fifth-grade curriculum?
We wanted to focus on one grade so we could really develop a relationship with those kids. We chose fifth grade because they’re in this really sweet spot where they’re so intelligent but they are still open to hearing other people’s experiences and opinions. But they’re also about to be confronted with these really hard topics in middle school. So, we want to get them before they get to middle school.
How do you recruit your leadership team?
It really formed organically. At the very beginning, we really had no clue exactly what we wanted to do besides the fact that we knew it had something to do with education. It was a very ad hoc situation. My friend Melia and I, we gathered a group of activists from our school at lunchtime and said, “Hey, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. We know that each of you has contributed in one or more ways to this work and we want to know if you’d be interested in joining us in some sort of education-oriented social justice awareness group.” And so out of that came a group that formed and created a vision together.
What’s the most rewarding part of running SPEAK?
The most rewarding part is the unity and love that I share with the other members, and the passion we all share in making this world a better place — in tikkun olam. Together, we can actually make a difference. We already have made a difference. And it brings hope to all of us.
If you could sit down with anyone alive or dead and talk about SPEAK, who would it be and why?
I would actually want to talk to our president, Donald Trump. Because I’d like to understand where he’s coming from and I think he could gain a lot from the work that I’m doing. And I think he has such an influence on the world that I would really love to be able to understand the decisions he’s making and to talk to him about the wisdom I’ve gained through SPEAK.