Meet Diana Chaves

Defining Resilience

Diana Chaves

Steppingstone 2005 / The Park School 2009 / Brimmer and May 2012 / College of the Holy Cross 2016

2018 Boston Marathon

“You are not alone.”

In 2018, when Diana Chaves ‘05 did her final training run on the Boston Marathon course, those four words of motivation pushed her through the last miles.

She was running on behalf of, and in gratitude for, Steppingstone. Yet she realized as she ran that she carried with her its belief in her dreams. She always has.

As Diana gets set to begin a new chapter in life this January, pursuing her M.P.H. at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, she feels the same unshakeable sense of support. Whatever she does, “I know Steppingstone is there, cheering me on,” she says.

While interest in public health has surged, she’d actually applied to graduate school before the pandemic, inspired by her work on the violence prevention team at the Boston Public Health Commission. The idea had been with her ever since her days as a sociology and women’s studies major at the College of the Holy Cross. One of her professors had suggested the potential path as a great fit for her passions and how her mind works.

Ready for a new challenge

Before the onset of COVID-19, she felt that public health wasn’t particularly valued or understood by people. In a world focused on immediate results, it focused on root causes and prevention.

The pandemic has spurred a clearer understanding of the value of public health. The events that followed the murder of George Floyd also deepened the understanding of systemic racism as a pervasive public health problem. As Diana explains, “in public health, we know racism kills people.” The year’s trials have provided validation and legitimacy to the power of public health professionals as agents for change. “I’m excited to build off that momentum,” she says.

The year has also meant a deeper intensity to her daily work. At BPHC, she has mostly worked with organizations dedicated to serving youth, clients in recovery, survivors of domestic violence, and others among those made most vulnerable. In the wake of the pandemic, she pivoted from training to providing direct service, addressing the most pressing needs in the community.

The work can be emotionally heavy. “What keeps me going?” she asks aloud. For one, the support of her empathetic and passionate teammates. And, even more, knowing she’s making a difference. She works with individuals who are often unseen by society, who are made to feel voiceless and powerless by systems and institutions

Diana and a colleague with Mayor Walsh

. “It’s incredible to see that, amidst the hardship and painful experiences that people are going through, they are resiliently surviving and doing everything they can to thrive,” she says.

As part of her role, Diana also provides capacity building for organizations, training staff and working with leadership teams. Much of her work is around developing a “trauma-informed perspective,” helping staff to be able to recognize trauma, understand what it is, and prevent retraumatization.

“In simple terms, I’m training people to have empathy,” she explains.

As she contemplated grad school, she felt that “to really make change, you need to understand structure.” She wants to make a difference at the organizational and system level. To do so, she also knows she needs to keep adding to her toolkit, including the skills to lead and bring people together to make change.

“I’m ready to expand my understanding,” she says, “and I’m excited about learning in a classroom setting again.”

Looking to the future, she holds to “a hope that the world can change,” she says. “I hope for a world where everyone is able to be their most authentic self, with equitable access to human rights.”

As her own future took shape, “getting into Harvard was huge for me,“ she says. “Now I’m seeing the rewards for all of my perseverance,” she says.

From an early age, her life has taught her about persevering. She had fled with her family from Colombia to Boston to escape threats, and they still coped with anguish and fear as they settled into an unknown new world here. At times, she realizes, “I haven’t always given myself enough credit for overcoming things and pushing through difficult times.”

As much as it’s important to acknowledge, “that’s not what I want to define me,” she reflects. What does define her? “A balance of both the strength and resilience that I bring.”

To Diana, “it’s important that the narrative that I tell is not just about the struggles.” As difficult as experiences may have been, “all of those experiences were also filled with moments of happiness and strength.”

With fellow Scholars in 2005

Steppingstone is “100 percent” an ongoing part of her story, “I didn’t realize the impact it would have,” she adds. “What I’ve come to appreciate is its consistency. They always were there in the background.”

In a sense, “it’s similar to the work I do now,” she reflects. Even if someone may not be ready to engage, “we meet people where they’re at and are consistently there for when they’re ready.”

Thinking back to her days as a young Scholar, she remembers the special bond with Steppingstone staff, like Ms. Conrad, “whom I know wanted the best for me.”

“It was unimaginable at the time,” she says, “that being accepted to this program meant my parents and I would become part of a lifelong family.”

Diana and Megumi

Since college, she’s reconnected with Steppingstone in new ways. At the beginning, invited by friend Megumi Milla ‘06 to an alumni event, “it felt like going home.” Now, Diana brings her perspective to the Board of Young Professionals, which she co-chairs. It’s been fulfilling in every sense, letting her work with others who are equally passionate about Steppingstone.

In doing so, “I can give back to a program that gave me so much,” she says. And it’s given her an inside look at the organization and its future, including its focus on equity.

From her own experience, she realizes that Scholars today may feel isolated at times. “I hope they know how many people are cheering them on to achieve their dreams and goals,” she says.

She knows firsthand the value of a vast network of support. Steppingstone was only the beginning. In her own case, it led to becoming part of the wider networks of The Park School, Brimmer and May, and Holy Cross as well.

Boston Marathon finish line!

Back in 2018, as she prepared to run Boston, she pitched her personal case for supporting Scholars and the “life-transforming” work of Steppingstone. Her appeal inspired an outpouring of generosity from her ever-widening circle, raising $13,593 and more than doubling her goal!

As she wrote on her fundraising webpage, “My true hope is that this is not only a story of me, but a story of us all and what we can do for the children of Boston and beyond.”