This summer, 25 New Mexico high school students gathered for four weeks of intensive study and discussion of issues important to them and their communities—issues like health care, violence, governmental policy, drug abuse, suicide, education and community—and each of them viewed through the lens of traditional tribal values.
“The Summer Policy Academy examines the challenges of today via the deep roots of our past,” says Regis Pecos, Cochiti Pueblo, a co-founder and co-director of the Summer Policy Academy (SPA), a program of the Santa Fe Indian School Leadership Institute that was started six years ago. “The goal is to create a critical mass of people who understand the issues at a deep level.… When we understand the causes of how things are today, we can begin to engage solutions.”
To educate students on the underlying causes of issues, the SPA brings lecturers and subject-matter experts in for talking circles and research—doctors, attorneys, legislators and others come in to talk about health care, education, legal cases and government policy pertaining to American Indians. This intergenerational networking—exposure to role models and professional mentors from the American Indian community—complements the communal nature of the students’ SPA experience: They live, eat and study together.
After the SPA session, students returned to their communities around New Mexico, where they implemented the service projects envisioned during the session that respond to the complicated issues they explored. “Their critical thinking and writing capabilities increase,” says Pecos, “and we know SPA participants are more engaged in their schools and their communities.”
The projects run by SPA students have influenced local communities in ways as diverse as creating playgrounds, developing children’s books that teach traditional language skills, learning pottery skills as a way to preserve family connections, and creating a community garden to encourage healthy eating habits.
Fionna Walters, a 21-year-old Navajo and SPA graduate, coordinated the purchase and installation of a new playground for her home community of Mexican Springs, New Mexico. “My community is so rural,” she explains. “There’s not a lot there. I thought I could replace the playground, but didn’t realize how much time and work it would take.” Her idea was to provide a safe place for children to be more active together and thus combat issues of childhood obesity while playing together as a community.
With Pecos acting as her advisor, Walters met with her local chapter house, talked with community leaders and convinced them that the existing playground was unusable and dangerous. Pecos, who works for the New Mexico state legislature, submitted a bill to the state senator for Walters’s area. She flew back to Santa Fe from her boarding school in Pennsylvania to lobby for the $75,000 needed to plan, purchase and install the new equipment. The new playground was completed two years later, in October 2009.
“The playground now has two bays of swings for the younger kids and other swings and tire swings for the older ones, plus other equipment to slide, climb, jump and ride on. It even has monkey bars. We also got money donated for the food and an opening ceremony,” she says. “I’m now a junior at Arizona State University studying American Indian Studies, mainly because the process of lobbying the legislature was a lot of fun—I really got into the legislative process and state and tribal relations during SPA. It made me more aware of keeping up with Native American politics and issues.”
SPA is currently a three-year program, but they’re adding a fourth year; students must be recommended by a teacher or mentor, and then apply. This summer, second-year students spent a week in New Jersey at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, continuing their study and discussion of policy issues related to American Indian education, language, environment and health. Not only does the change of venue expand the perspective of the students, many of whom have never been outside their state or ridden on an airplane, it exposes them to leaders and thinkers whose names they may only have read or heard on television. For instance, Cornel West, a prominent author on issues of race and social justice and a Harvard University professor, has spoken to SPA II students. In 2009, SPA II students met Joe Garcia, then-president of the National Congress of American Indians, and Jodi Archambault Gillette, then-deputy associate director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the White House.
“Being in New Jersey and D.C. brings the kids to an environment where what they know is not relevant anymore. Prepared or not, they become teachers of Native culture to everyone they meet. SPA II focuses on a wider perspective on issues, and then they present position papers on key issues to their congressional delegation,” says Pecos, a Princeton alumnus. “Always, though, the issues, dialogue, roundtable discussions and position papers are developed with traditional values in mind. We ask them to consider how our rich tradition and history shapes our views and problems, and what solutions exist that harmonize with our traditional values.”
Seventeen-year-old Rachel Riley, Acoma Pueblo, was in SPA II this summer. “Overall, it was really great,” she says. “Our week at Princeton, we took classes from our team leaders on Indian policy on the national level, and spent another week in Washington, D.C. presenting projects to our state representatives.” Her project group focused on health concerns among Native peoples: diabetes, youth suicide, substance abuse and obesity. “Those were the four with the highest statistics in Indian communities, and we put a personal, New Mexico spin on it so that when presented, it would give a clearer focus to the issue,” she says.
Now a senior at St. Pius X High School in Albuquerque, Riley says it was interesting to meet people who had never met a Native before. “It gave us a chance to teach them, give them a taste of our lives.”
Students in their third SPA year do internships in their local communities with SPA program partners—companies and individuals that have participated in Leadership Institute sessions in the past. Mario Ortega, Santa Clara Pueblo/Pojoaque Pueblo, is a student at Central New Mexico Community College working toward a degree in business and earning his emergency medical technician certificate. This summer he was an intern at the Native American Community Academy at Albuquerque’s Wilson Middle School, where he worked with Native children using a program of core traditional values. “I wrote lesson plans to implement with the kids, to show them the core values,” Ortega says. “One of the lessons was a volcano project. The main idea was to help them understand that their feelings are like a volcano. If they don’t release them, they’ll build and eventually explode.”
He says his goals include developing a teen center staffed by young people who understand the issues that are a struggle for teens. He says SPA helped him by putting him in the room with Native leaders and professionals to talk about American Indian core values. “Putting us together with mentors, and learning about Indian policy changed my whole way of thinking,” he says. “I never thought about Indian policy before. SPA helped me to understand the Native world and community, and pushed me toward what I want to do—work with kids.”