A Chance to Change: Jacob Diaz, '17, Gives Back with Outreach to Gun Violence Victims
By Lia Kizilbash Gillet
Jacob Diaz, ’17, is a College of Education alumnus and graduate of the NIU CHANCE Program, which offers a comprehensive and personalized approach to help students succeed in college. Now, Diaz is the one providing resources, support, and second chances to victims of gun violence in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
Serving the Puerto Rican Cultural Center as an outreach specialist, Diaz plays a vital role in the violence prevention and intervention program. He works tirelessly to reach out to those affected by gun violence and connect them with essential support services like housing, education and transportation. If the service isn’t offered through the center, Diaz will help to find it.
“I am the 'boots on the ground' of the violence prevention and intervention program—connecting with individuals, business owners, and other local organizations to ensure that our center’s resources are widely known,” said Diaz. “I try to respond to any gun violence within 24 to 48 hours and reach out to those involved to offer our support.”
Diaz takes pride in his outreach efforts. One of his most rewarding experiences has been watching a former program participant turn his life around and is now Diaz’s coworker at the center.
“Interacting with program participants that have benefited from my support and the center’s resources make it all worth it,” said Diaz. “This participant went from needing help to now offering it. It’s truly rewarding to witness this change.”
Diaz sees his work as a critical link between the community and its available resources and said there is more work to be done to spread the word about the center’s programs.
The Puerto Rican Cultural Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary, a testament to its commitment to community empowerment and advocacy. Originally established to advocate for the rights of Puerto Ricans and offer a place to come together, the center extended its outreach to the entire Humboldt Park community with initiatives supporting LGBTQ+ rights, resident housing, and youth employment programs, to name a few.
Diaz, who is 100% Puerto Rican, grew up in the adjacent neighborhood and always felt this kind of work was needed in his community, but he didn’t know it existed until he began working there. In his youth, Diaz lost friends to gun violence and had other friends who had connections to gangs.
Sports played an instrumental role in keeping Diaz out of trouble. From age 11 to 18 he spent all his free time at Humboldt Park playing sports. With his father as his coach, and his mother on the sidelines with her camera, Diaz learned to set goals and enjoyed the structure and camaraderie of being on sports teams. But with athletics at the center of his youth, Diaz’s path to higher education wasn't always clear.
“I hadn’t really thought about college, I was focused on sports, but when my high school was passing out permission slips for an NIU campus visit, I figured it would be a way to get out of class and went,” he said.
During the campus visit, Diaz learned about the CHANCE program. When it was his turn to graduate high school, the CHANCE program offered the encouragement and resources Diaz needed to attend Northern and ultimately achieve his general studies degree with an emphasis in community relations and program coordinating.
Diaz started NIU with aspirations of becoming a physical education teacher, taking after his parents, both physical education teachers. His father, David Diaz, '87, is also an NIU College of Education graduate. Uncertain about his choice, Diaz considered studying kinesiology for a short time where he met Dr. Jenn Jacobs. With Jacobs’ guidance and oversight, he transformed his major into one that aligned with his passion for serving and making a difference.
“NIU didn’t have a sports marketing degree,” said Diaz. “With the help of Dr. Jacobs, my general studies degree was designed for a career in coordinating and facilitating athletic programs.”
While a student, Diaz actively participated in various student organizations, including his fraternity, where he served as vice president, focusing on recruitment and dabbling in graphic design. This multifaceted experience shaped his outreach skills and laid the foundation for his future creative work.
After graduation, Diaz worked for the Boys and Girls Club. With this experience he realized youth sports programs were not his true passion. He then spent time working as an apprentice at a t-shirt company, reigniting his creativity for graphic design and photography, two interests he spent limited time on in the past.
In addition to taking photos for marketing t-shirts, Diaz began capturing moments for friends through his camera lens. After a friend asked him to photograph a peaceful “put down the guns” march, his friend received a job at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and brought Diaz on board.
Diaz works at the center full-time while nurturing his passion for photography in his free time. His photography business, Jaay Diaz Photography, captures weddings, sports, events and portraits. Diaz’s photography has been featured in local news.
Reflecting on his journey, Diaz underscores the importance of community involvement and service. He believes it's a two-way street – giving to your community when you can and seeking help when needed.
Diaz's work goes beyond mere outreach; it is about facilitating change, being a bridge to the community, and sharing the stories that shape it. Through his lens, he documents the experiences, struggles, and triumphs of his community while promoting the center's mission.
Diaz hopes to grow his photography business and continue his work at the center and in his community, emphasizing that we can all make a difference.