Native Youth: We aren’t the leaders of the future; we are the leaders of now

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Kate Snyder

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Concerns over the political climate and the need to address inequities for American Indian and Alaskan Native students permeated the conversations of the more than 2,000 Native youth attending the 2017 National UNITY conference in Denver, Colorado — the largest gathering of Native youth in the country.

NEA edJustice followed up with two participants Sottiye Sarah Scott of the Lummi Nation and Halona Benjamin of the Lumbee Tribe to get their perspective on confronting institutional racism and the importance of education in empowering young leaders.
Both Sarah and Halona emphasized the importance of creating an Ethnic Studies curriculum to empower and educate Native and non-Native youth about the rich culture and history of Native people.

NEA: What were your key takeaways from the Racial Justice and Cultural Awareness in Education discussion?

Sarah: The discussion really made me reflect on how important education is and how important it is to find people who believe in you.  Although the youth that participated in this discussion came from different parts of the U.S., they have all faced similar barriers or issues throughout their educational journeys and because of that I walked away from this discussion empowered to use my voice.

Native youth leader Halona Benjamin

Halona: For me the discussion really pushed us to acknowledge that the history books used to teach in schools often showcase little of the true history of Indigenous people and the differences amongst the tribes. For example, not all Natives were a part of the Trail of Tears, some tribes survived. We need an accurate reflection of our history and culture reflected in schools for Native and non-Native students.

NEA: What is a key way institutional racism impacts Native American education?

Halona: It is important to increase the number of Native American educators in schools and teaching in our own communities so that we can be represented and heard within the education system; so there is someone to whom the students can relate; and so students know it is possible to earn an education and return to their communities.

Sarah: We need to change the way that history is taught. We feel like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place—this history is told from the colonial perspective. But in fact, we have many nations within the United States, each with its own rich culture and history, but when and if people are taught anything it’s as if we are one monolithic group.

NEA: How might Native youth take steps to make change?

Halona: I am empowered to make change because I have a voice that I use not only for myself but for my people. I volunteer within my community and I am a leader within different clubs, committees and organizations. I know how it feels to overcome barriers that some are not even aware Native people must face.

Sarah: One of the most prominent themes of this conference for me was unity and that is how we will make change –coming together, standing together, and rising together. Knowing that we have these issues in Indian country and the only way we can break the cycle of dropping out of school, school to prison pipeline, alcoholism, drugs and suicide is to join together. It starts with us. We aren’t the leaders of the future; we are the leaders of now.

The NEA’s Community Advocacy and Partnership Engagement Department, for a second year in a row, hosted two Youth Roundtables at the conference to discuss Racial Justice and Cultural Awareness in Education and Recruiting Native Educators.

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