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Center for Native American Youth Debuts 'Champions for Change', Youth Leadership Program Aims to Affect Policy

Top officials from the White House and the Interior Department were among those in attendance on November 19, as former North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan announced a new awards program from the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY). He founded the nonprofit two years ago to advocate for Indian child health and youth-suicide prevention. Called Champions for Change, CNAY’s new program is a spinoff of a White House initiative that has highlighted good works by Americans from many population groups nationwide.

“Like many of the things the center does, this will improve and save lives,” said Dorgan during the kickoff event in the Washington D.C. offices of the Aspen Institute, where CNAY is housed.

Each year going forward, CNAY will invite applications and choose five Native youngsters 14–24 to sit on its youth advisory panel. Applications are available on the group’s website. Categories include health, cultural preservation, community development, arts and crafts and more. CNAY will announce the winners this spring; each will receive an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, along with a chaperone, to attend the recognition event (date to be announced).

In his opening remarks on November 19, Senator Dorgan criticized much mainstream newspaper and television coverage, which typically highlights what’s wrong in Indian country, but doesn’t mitigate this with the many examples of inspiration and resilience that can be found. Over the past 18 months, CNAY has held approximately 50 youth roundtables throughout Indian country to find just such tales of courage, Dorgan said. After each one, he recalled, he has come home eager to tell his wife about wonderful youngsters he’s met and achievements he’s learned of. Through the Champions program, CNAY will encourage Native children and tell them “you can do this, too,” Dorgan said.

Dorgan was joined on the 19th by Hopi newswoman Patty Talahongva, Ramah Navajo Whitesun Yazzie, 17, and Alaska Native Teressa Baldwin, 18, who told personal stories of triumph over adversity to a crowd that included White House official Charlie Galbraith; Interior Department Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, Chickasaw; Interior Department Solicitor General Hilary Tompkins, Navajo; Administration for Native Americans Commissioner Lillian Sparks, Lakota; and Indian Health Service Director Yvette Roubideaux, Lakota.

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Talahongva, who is on the CNAY board of advisors, described her mother’s courage and her family’s sacrifices after her father’s death by suicide when she was 16. Yazzie described his culture as his anchor—the reason he was able to leave behind bad influences and choose a good path in life. The student council president of his high school in Pine Hill, New Mexico, he plans to go to college to major in environmental studies. This, he said, will give him the skills to protect the landscape that is so important to his culture. While still in high school, Baldwin founded a suicide-awareness and prevention organization, Hope4Alaska. A survivor of suicides by several people close to her, she traveled by small plane to visit communities throughout her state and work with fellow Alaska Native students, who are all too familiar with this tragedy. She’s now a freshman at the University of California, San Diego.

Erin Bailey, CNAY’s director, said that the organization’s incoming cadre of youth advisors will be able to do much good. “In addition being inspirational examples for other kids and promoting hope, they’ll provide us with information about needs in their communities,” Bailey said.

The Obama administration is eager to work on Indian children’s issues, so the time is right for this effort, according to Bailey. “You saw how many administration people were present at the event,” she said.

Children’s voices can be very powerful, Bailey added, noting that youngsters had great impact when they testified before Congress on issues she and Senator Dorgan worked on before his retirement. “We saw that young witnesses caught the attention of policymakers and made clear the real effect of their decisions on people’s lives,” said Bailey.

Once the 2013 Champions for Change are chosen, Bailey and her fellow CNAY staffers—Jennie Duran, White Mountain Apache/Mexican, and Josie Raphaelito, Ramah Navajo—must make sure their message is heard. Said Bailey: “It will be our job to get their moving stories and exciting ideas to decisionmakers.”