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Highlighting the Resiliency of Native Youth Through Champions for Change

Recently in Washington, D.C. the 2015 class of Champions for Change were recognized for their efforts in tackling tough issues head on.

Most adults might be uncomfortable talking about sexual abuse or suicide or even the loss of culture and language but there are some Native youth who are tackling these tough issues head on. Recently in Washington, D.C. the 2015 class of Champions for Change were recognized for their efforts. The Center for Native American Youth took over this White House initiative three years ago to promote youth who are making a difference in their communities.

“On a national advocacy, policy level, the Champions for Change program is about celebrating good news. There are young people like the Champions across Indian country,” says Erin Bailey, the executive director of CNAY. “We have met many inspiring youth through our outreach to more than 3,800 youth in our four years. While it is true that Native youth are the most vulnerable population in the country, it is also the case that Indian country is home to some of the most resilient, powerful, and impactful leaders, including Native youth.”

Consider 15-year-old Hamilton Seymour, from Bellingham, Washington, the youngest CFC. He's Nooksack and his initiative is the “Native War Canoe.” When he was 12, his father committed suicide. After dealing with that tragedy he found a way to get other youth involved in the culture. By carving traditional canoes and then learning how to paddle and how to sing traditional songs he says it promotes the culture and a healthy lifestyle for his peers. It also gives the youth a chance to address their grief and heal.

He's thrilled to be a CFC and also thankful for all the support. “It's definitely a life changing experience. I'm really blessed to be here. I have to give a shoutout to my tribe for supporting me 110 percent! Thank you guys!”

It takes 11 people to paddle his canoe and they participate in races. Seymour says he's excited to report back to his crew. “I'm going to tell them that people are inspired by what we do and we can be leaders not just on the water and for our own community but for Indian country.”

Jazmyn Espinoza easily describes herself as being a survivor of sexual abuse and multiple attempts at suicide following the abuse. She's an 18-year-old Stockbridge Munsee Band of Mohican from Bowler, Wisconsin. Her experience led her to create, “The Warrior Circle Project.” It's a safe space at the community center where youth can talk about challenges they face including bullying. They also address health and wellness and offer each other peer support.

For her, being selected as a CFC reinforced her own belief that she is making a difference. “This is even more proof that if you keep trying you can succeed at amazing things and you can impact people everywhere.” Espinoza also learned about the hardships her peers have overcome. “I really just liked meeting other kids like me who are doing things. I'm not alone in that sense.”

“The 2015 CFC class is extraordinary,” says Bailey. “In addition to their powerful personal stories and the remarkable programs they have built, I think what impressed me the most was their commitment to building on success. These young people came into the CFC recognition week with an eagerness to learn from each other, network with and across resources, and build connections with each other. From the second I walked in the room and met them for the first time, I felt like I had the privilege to meet genuine people, who were already changing lives but not afraid of using our new, broad platform to expand their impact.”

For 18-year-old Rory Taylor that means telling the world the low high school graduation rates in Indian country is unacceptable. He's Pawnee and from Minneapolis, Minnesota. As a college freshman at Pomona College in California, Taylor is also the executive director of the Claremont College IndigeNATION Scholars program. There he and his college peers mentor local high school students. They talk to them about going to college, how to enroll and everything else they need to be ready for college. They also include cultural education to help the Native students stay connected to their tribal communities.

“Being here and being with the Center for Native American Youth, I really felt like they told us that we matter. The told us the programs we are generating matter.” He says it's a good start and not the end. “We're going to go home and continue our programs. I'm only 18 but I think this is a really wonderful time for Indigenous Youth.”

How can a huge water balloon fight help victims of sexual abuse? Twenty-two year old Carin Young figured out a way to connect the two and she's established her “Break the Silence” annual event. Young is Native Hawaiian from Ewa Beach, Hawaii. In the Hawaiian culture water is healing and as she explains when the balloon is broken, that symbolizes the breaking of the silence around sexual abuse. When the water hits the ground it nourishes and promotes growth, much like talking about the abuse will help the person heal. So in this non-threatening and fun way she gets people to talk about the abuse and helps them and their families heal, like her own family had to heal when they found out her older brother had been abused.

“Sexual abuse is one of the most unreported crimes. It's hard for a young boy to come forward. It dampens the victims ability to start their healing journey,” she says. Her brother, she says, has been an awesome supporter of her initiative. “He does not have to feel ashamed around our family. What happened to him wasn't his fault and does not define him. He doesn't have to hide his secret from us anymore.” Her effort also validates victims who may be afraid they won't be believed if they do tell. This makes her even more committed to breaking the silence. “I'm never stopping. I'm never going to stop being an advocate and I'm never going to be silent about sexual abuse.”

In Anchorage, Alaska 16-year-old Tatiana Ticknor, Yup'ik, Tlingit, and Dena'ina, is a “Community Doer.” It's part of the First Alaskans Institute and she gets to engage and motivate her peers to participate in the culture and learn the languages of their people. Plus they find ways to involve the elders in their activities.

The CNAY staff set up meetings for the young champions with their U.S. Senators and some Representatives. Ticknor was able to meet with both Senator Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young.

“It's been amazing! Like going to Capitol Hill and talking to my senator. It taught me how they don't have a lot of time to speak, so now I know how to speak fast and tell my story as fast as I can cause I'm talking to my congressman, wow! He (Young) was really interested in what I had to say.

She also had a lesson in social media and how fast word can spread. When the champions were announced to the world at a news conference and steamed live on line, she saw a spike on her FB page. “After we did that panel and the press release, my FB went crazy! Everyone tagging me and posting and commenting, even on my Instagram. It was crazy!”

Besides meeting with lawmakers, the youth had a chance to speak with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Cabinet members have been instructed by President Barack Obama to reach out to youth in Indian country and find ways to improve the grim statistics.

“The future of Indian country is going to rest with the next generation,” said Jewell. “We want to make sure we're setting up the youth on a path for success.”

She added this was, “an opportunity to honor the work Byron Dorgan has done,” by founding CNAY.

She especially liked seeing Native Youth engaging with the White House, taking action and engaging more youth. “What we will see in the first year is the beginning of a movement that connects Indian kids with their government.” That will lead to, she says more collaboration, more kids stepping up into leadership rolls.

Considering the young age of these champions, the secretary says at 15 she herself wasn't as aware or involved with politics. “Well, nothing in terms of engaging with government. I was in my student government and I was an organizer, but all within the context of my school, girl scouts, camp fire girls, but I had no awareness of government. I mean a mayor would probably be a big deal and I think the mayor came to our school once,” she recalled. But as to how government worked, “I had no idea.”

But she says in her high school government class she read about current events and that influenced her. “For me it was Watergate, the president of the United States lying. It was a scandal and a change of presidency. One of the reasons I got my citizenship was to be able to vote. All my friends were voting!”

“So I think those current events that happened at that time got me to pay attention but not nearly the kind of attention these young people are paying.”

“I didn't know how any of this stuff knitted together. These young people are showing us what can be done by 15-year-olds, 17 and 23.”

“What a lot of the young people have in common is they had to grow up a lot faster than I did.” In her travels around Indian country she's meeting kids who have been forced to grow up. But she says they also recognize they have control over their future.

She said the president approached her directly with his concern after meeting youth on the Standing Rock reservation. “He took me by both arms and he said, 'I really need you to make this happen. And I need you to do it while we're here. And you let me know what I can do to help you.' So he is deeply personally committed and that is very, very helpful to me. It is why we have movement across the entire cabinet. It is why we have a budget that has requested a 12 percent increase.”

“I'm going to need the support from the people who work for me and that will require change, which is hard to do for people.”

The youth will spend the next year engaging with the CNAY staff and having access to other events nationwide. But once their year is up that doesn't mean the relationship ends. Past CNAY Champions have continued to make a mark on policy. “In addition to keeping their initiatives alive, collectively, the CFC program has created nearly 150 leadership opportunities of the Native youth leaders. This includes speaking at the White House Tribal Nations Conference with President Obama, Cabinet Secretaries, and hundreds of tribal leaders from across the country,” says Bailey. They also participate in the My Brother's Keeper Initiative Town Hall, public events with the Center for American Progress, state Indian child welfare conferences, foundation events and more. One former champion also raised financial resources to underwrite his Native youth tutoring program as well as a 100 youth summit in northern California. Overall past Champions say the program has helped them develop their public speaking and leadership skills which also helps them serve more Native youth.

That motivates Taylor. “I'm going to continue to fight for youth,” he says. He wants them to know they are not alone and adds his ambitions include being a U.S. senator, “because we're few and far between.” He wants Native youth to know they can be whatever they want to be. “Those words aren't hollow,” he says.

Patty Talahongva is on the advisory board for Center for Native American Youth.