Youth leaders from Shinnecock Nation received a warm welcome at the 20th Annual International Young Leaders Assembly (IYLA) at the United Nations for their advocacy of indigenous rights. Among the more than 100 countries that participated in the August 18 event, Shinnecock was the only American Indian community in attendance.
“We want to extend our experience as a call-to-action for all Native youth to align with young leaders from across the globe to advocate for indigenous rights and civic justice on an international level,” said Preston Brown, a volunteer advisor for Shinnecock Nation Youth Council.
Seven members of the youth council attended the IYLA as well as the Nation’s Council of Trustees Chairman, Bryan Polite, the tribal administrator, Sienna Hunter-Cujet, and two other tribal leaders who met IYLA’s 34-year-old age limitation. The Shinnecock are based in Long Island, New York.
The theme for this year’s assembly was “Moral and Innovative Leadership: Vision, Service and Entrepreneurship.” Political agents and social entrepreneurs from across the world shared their experience of the qualities that make for good and bad leadership.
Shinnecock youth learned about the importance of networking, taking initiative in challenging the status quo, and making alliances with groups that support similar values. Youth council members left with empowering messages to strive for their potential as leaders of today.
“I wanted to broaden our youth’s horizons and show them there is more than just the ‘Rez’ out there,” said Weyhan Smith, 34, director of the youth council. “The event was very inspirational not only to the youth, but also to myself.”
IYLA is an initiative of the International Youth Leadership Institute, which promotes its institute as “a model for African American and Latino Self-Help in the 21st Century.” For more than 25 years the institute has been working with these two minority groups to empower youth to cultivate their talents and develop solutions that benefit their communities.
However, it is no secret that Native communities face many of the same challenges and are in dire a need for creative solutions to their problems.
“Many Native youth come from broken families and are suffering depression or anxiety stemming from historical and modern-day traumas. It’s important not to dwell on trauma, but to expose our Native youth to something greater and what they can do with the opportunities they have,” said Brown.
The White House Tribal Youth Gathering held in Washington, D.C. in July in collaboration with the Center for Native American Youth and the United National Indian Tribal Youth was a testament to Native youth’s eagerness to confront social issues. Global organizations such as IYLI and the NGO Committee on Children’s Rights are trendsetters when it comes to empowering youth as a catalyst for social change.
Shinnecock youth at the UN in New York City.
“It’s a wonder to think of the challenges Native communities could surmount with these resources combined,” said Brown.
Brown said it’s important for Native youth to understand their rights in order to effectively challenge the status quo, but more important is engaging in alliances outside of Native communities.
“When you have youth from all over the world coming and standing as one and advocating with you for your civil justices, that’s power, that’s strength and that’s global exposure,” said Brown.
Dyáni Brown, Shinnecock, is a senior at American University, in Washington, D.C. She is a Udall Scholar and a Truman Finalist and has served as chair of the Shinnecock Tribal Council board. She also is a 2015-2016 Native American Journalism Fellow who participated in the NAJF news intensive at this year’s National Native Media Conference in Alexandria, Virginia.