Underground youth activist Jia Ching Chen has rappelled off buildings, been tear-gassed, and led throngs of multiracial youth in the first “hip-hop sit-in” at the San Francisco Hilton.
Yet, the winner of this year’s Mario Savio Memorial Free Speech Award stumbled on his words while receiving his prize earlier this week.
“I was nervous,” said the 27-year-old activist. “Maybe because it had a feeling of being mainstream.”
He received $1,000 as part of the award from Lynne Hollander Savio, widow of Mario Savio, the famed Berkeley free speech activist in whose the honor the award is given.
Chen was recognized for leading a new generation of activists in the fight for human rights and social justice with integrity, said Savio.
He has led youth of all colors across the Bay Area in campaigns against police brutality. Last year, he organized a group that protested the World Trade Organization in Seattle.
Although honored by his award, Chen later said he is more accustomed to addressing multiracial teenage groups and felt slightly awkward in front of the ceremony’s crowd.
More than 200 activists and academics, many middle-aged and white, came to Pauley Ballroom Tuesday to see feminist authors Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild speak for the Savio Memorial lecture.
“It’s a demographic that made me uncomfortable in my past,” he said.
Growing up among few people of color in Salt Lake City, Chen, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, said he experienced racism.
“It took me a long time to figure out what democracy really was,” he said. “That the government can provide checks and balances isn’t really true.”
After getting his architecture and interdisciplinary arts degrees from the UC Berkeley, Chen became politically active.
In 1998, he founded the East Bay chapter of the Third Eye Movement, a youth of color group that fights against police brutality. He has also worked with the Berkeley-based Ruckus Society, which trains people for the rigors of public demonstrations.
A highlight in his short but vivid activist career was shutting down the WTO ministerial last year, he said.
Seven months ago, Chen joined JustAct: Youth Action for Global Justice. This group educates other youth groups on how their individual issues, like gay and lesbian rights or environmentalism, tie in with global ones.
“We’re trying to build a grassroots solidarity. To meet people engaged in similar struggles all over the world,” he said.
The group often teaches workshops on world trade and banking to minority youth organizations.
“We want to bring an understanding of global economics to traditionally marginalized constituents, explain its effects on their fights,” he said.
Despite leading many in their struggles, Chen initially had doubts about how rallies with youth groups could change the world.
“It can be really stressful and difficult,” he said. “It took me a while to feel empowered by working collectively,” he said.
“In the beginning, I felt some discomfort at demonstrations,” he said. “But the need to act overcame that.”