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Change begins with love

Meet the Future: Siena Ramirez

Name: Siena Ramirez
School/grade level: Senior, Northview High School
Passions: Love and change 

Northview — From a young age, Siena Ramirez was known by school officials, her peers and the media for her involvement in social and environmental justice, immigrant rights, climate crisis action and even public education. But she is uneasy being labeled as an activist.

“I think it’s more about loving everyone all the time, and I guess you could say that’s a form of action,” said the Northview High senior over a coffee at Lotus Brew/Dry Bar in Northeast Grand Rapids. “I like to use ‘love’ more than ‘activism’ because I feel like I always get labeled as that, and I would rather be about compassion and love, because that is what I am doing is about.”

Counselor Sarah Gammans is effusive in her praise of Siena and her accomplishments. In her 16 years as a high school counselor, she said, Siena stands out.

“Her maturity and expansive thinking from a young age has been really intriguing,” Gammans said. “She has her own thoughts, and she takes action on them. She is self-driven … has incredible employability skills, written and verbal, and is very collaborative, always willing to take a leap of faith into something she thinks might be interesting.”

“And she really is a big thinker. She doesn’t look for the spotlight; she gets it because of what she does.”

Siena grabs a coffee at Lotus Brew/Dry Bar during the Diatribe’s most recent board and staff gathering (Luis Fernandez)

When and how did this become such a big part of your life? Siena remembers writing letters on various issues she felt strongly about to district administrators and local, state and national lawmakers as early as fifth or sixth grade. She traveled to Dearborn in seventh grade to participate in her first protest: against the federal government’s plan for mass deportations of undocumented immigrants and their children. “That’s when I knew I wanted to start organizing these, instead of just going.”

Siena also discovered The Diatribe in seventh grade, when the arts and community-building group visited her school for a writing event. She has worked part time for that organization for the past two years and currently is their “buzz ambassador.” As such, she is responsible for social media, newsletters, maintaining branding and best practices documents, email administration and serving as the communications lead for the group’s 49507 Project, among other duties.

“They are all about bringing access to education, and education is the key to compassion,” she said. “That’s what I find so compelling about (The Diatribe): We are an education nonprofit, but at the heart of it is we’re trying to bring love to the community … and honoring the wants and the needs of the communities we’re going into is what’s so powerful.”

As a result of her involvement with The Diatribe, Siena worked for a time  with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political organization that advocates for climate action. As the Grand Rapids hub coordinator while a freshman, she organized two climate marches and led workshops at the national level. 

Siena presents on how youth can get involved in environmental justice during a ‘We Are Water’ program at Blandford Nature Center in summer 2021 (courtesy)

Do you plan to pursue this professionally? “Ideally, I would love to work in education, especially early education,” she said. Siena has been a tutor to younger students and a member of the school’s SEAL program since junior year, “and I love it so much, but I just don’t see that as a pathway I could realistically take if I, like, wanted to buy a house or live somewhere sustainably.”

She said she will likely major in sociology and “do what I am doing now, in another nonprofit or back here (with The Diatribe) … I really don’t have a straight answer of what my job is going to be, but even if I was going to be a teacher I would like to go to school for sociology. I like studying the psychology of the group.”

‘You have to have faith in the people around you. That’s why it’s about love, loving the people around you and wanting better for them. That’s the first step.’

— senior Siena Ramirez

Where that likely came from: an only child and Northview student since kindergarten, Siena remembers her father reading a picture book version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” when she was little. It’s a classic book about a group of barnyard animals who chase off their exploitative human masters and set up their own egalitarian society.

When Siena took a race and ethnicity course at GRCC her sophomore year, she recalled terms from that book and others, and “I realized I have a knack for this.”

Siena Ramirez, right, blocks a goal against Northview at a home lacrosse game in May (Tom Reynolds)

A few other accomplishments and interests: At school, the National Honor Society member has played tenor saxophone, basketball and is a goalie on the varsity lacrosse team. She is a member of SEALS, the school’s teacher cadet program, and has been a leader in the City of East Grand Rapids’ summer mermaid and fairy camps for children. 

She’s been to Hungary, Austria and the Netherlands, and would love to travel more.

Is there a teacher or teachers who have had a big impact? Siena first credits her father’s early literary, art and media influence — especially weekly trips to the Grand Rapids Art Museum for family programming — and her mother’s open-mindedness with fostering her drive to speak out on issues about which she feels passionate.

“My dad helps me see a bigger picture of how things have been, and my mom helps me see how things are changing,” Siena said. “I kind of got the best of both worlds with that.”

On high school teacher Erin Berryhill: “I really did not like science until I took accelerated physics. She made me like the science part of environmental justice.”

On high school teacher Charissa Kashian: “I’ve never seen someone so excited to talk about chlorofluorocarbons or nitrogen oxides. She’s definitely one of the smartest people I know.”

Siena and substitute teacher Norm Williams work together on their bullet journals (courtesy)

She said substitute teacher Norm Williams, whom she convinced to join the after-school bullet journaling club with her, has made a big impression in a short time. “He carries around a ‘feelings wheel’ and will ask students where they are, and he has this thing called SKI club where he’s like, ‘You’re all smart, kind and intelligent,’ … He’s just taught me a lot about community, love and all that kind of stuff.”

Siena also credits Marcel “Fable” Price, The Diatribe founder, for being a mentor, for his reassurance in her job performance and for the value he places on her talents.

Read about Siena Ramirez’s efforts to impact environmental activism 
Watch Siena explain her involvement in climate action 
Listen to Siena advocating for The Diatribe

On optimism in the face of so many contemporary challenges: Siena is well aware that the causes she champions are huge, and sometimes seem insurmountable. 

“But I think that instead of being stuck in that, I’d rather voice love and acceptance, and be a voice for that,” she said. “I mean, it’s a choice.”

She has first-hand experience of being dismissed by decision-makers, including a controversial decision in December by the Kent County Board of Commissioners to leave The Diatribe out of recent COVID relief funding. 

“It was hurtful, but not unexpected,” Siena said. “This kind of stuff keeps happening and it’s going to (continue) if we keep the same systems in place. That’s what I like about The Diatribe; it’s not about electing new people or reform; it’s about changing the institution itself. Because that’s what’s flawed. I guess that’s what could be my passion too: changing institutions.” 

She said that what keeps her hopeful is knowing she isn’t alone in addressing those challenges and surrounding herself with like minds.

“It never feels lonely. You have to have faith in the people around you. That’s why it’s about love, loving the people around you and wanting better for them. That’s the first step.”

Read more from Northview: 
This leader is always learning
Plant whisperer, reptile rescuer, amphibian aficionado

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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