President Barack Obama named the American Indian College Fund’s Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz, Diné, to a major administrative post on the Board of Directors of the National Board for Education Sciences just days before he left office.
Yazzie-Mintz, who holds a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a B.S. and M.Ed. from Arizona State University, said, “I look forward to working with the dedicated and highly regarded education professionals on this board to serve my country, while sharing my knowledge and experience gained through working with Native communities, families, teachers, and children.”
Yazzie-Mintz taught for two years in the Boston Public Schools, then served as an assistant professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, before joining the American Indian College Fund in 2011. She talked with ICMN about her work at the College Fund and her unique approach to developing educational research projects in Native communities.
What brought you to the American Indian College Fund?
I was recruited to design and launch the College Fund’s Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” early childhood education initiative, a $5-million, five-year project funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to strengthen teacher education programs at tribal colleges and universities. We focused on documenting children’s learning, increasing learning opportunities for teachers, family engagement, incorporating Native language and culture into both curriculum and the ways in which teachers are trained, and thinking about how early learning centers contribute to school readiness. This was a new area for the American Indian College Fund and eventually we grew that project into a number of different initiatives that still exist today.
What have you been doing since that project ended in 2016?
As a senior program officer I oversee all of our early childhood initiatives with tribal colleges. My other role is as the co-director of the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, where I oversee staff members who administer grants to tribal colleges in women’s leadership, restoration of traditional Native arts, environmental sustainability and a number of other smaller projects that focus on building capacity at tribal colleges. In April I am going to be promoted to VP of Program Initiatives at the American Indian College Fund.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I grew up in Ganado Arizona, the daughter of Navajo educators Albert A. Yazzie and Bessi B. Yazzie. My parents served in public education for over 35 years and both served as tribal leaders in the community, so I’m familiar with tribal life and what it means to serve your community. I serve on the technical advisory committee for the National Indian Education Study and on another tribal research advisory committee for a research center on the campus of the University of Colorado Anschutz. My leadership has extended to other organizations, including the American Educational Research Association, and of course, my most recent appointment.
After attending a Quaker high school on the east coast, I returned to Arizona for college. That’s where I connected with Native scholars and it was there that I started to really solidify my interest in Native teachers and the work that they do around language revitalization.
As a scholar, how do you approach your work?
I have never been really comfortable talking about myself. I am very focused on prioritizing the voices of Native communities and the work there. There’s a lot of risk-taking involved when you’re a scholar in the field and you prioritize tribal and community needs over your own.
You figure out how to provide opportunities for communities and the teachers in communities to write their own stories. That’s something that’s very important to me and I place a priority on teaching faculty and their teams how to engage in doing their own research and develop that research into publications that others can access and cite.
Is there an analogy here with community-based participatory research in the medical field?
I think so. The medical field has sort of caught on. In the field of education, we’ve been talking about this kind of community-based work since the first training of Native teachers through Teacher Corps. That was in the 60s and my parents were a part of that. I’ve heard stories from my parents about how they were referred to as revolutionaries—to engage the community in envisioning what they want for education was a revolutionary and rebellious act. To me, teachers that serve Native communities are there, they’re in contact everyday with families and children, so why not be thinking about how to incorporate their voices and their vision into the purposes of education?
You said there was risk involved in working the way you do. Could you explain?
If you work in a university, you’re only viable if you publish and it must be in a way that is particularly defined as research. There are only some kinds of research that the academy recognizes. But when you’re engaged in community-based research sometimes it’s collaborative. It’s not just one author engaging in knowledge creation or theorizing or developing a study that looks at particular kinds of impact. The research is not just based on an individual’s agenda. It’s based on what the community needs and wants to happen. So they’re very different approaches and in terms of timeline it’s a very different way of approaching working with communities as opposed to conducting research on communities.
If we look at what researchers usually do, we see a particular kind of culture of abstracting information and publishing on it and not returning to communities. There is a risk if you don’t do that kind of work because you obviously don’t fit into the definition of what researchers do.
What do you see in your future?
I’m going to be taking a larger role at the American Indian College Fund. I look forward to reviewing the past six years of our early childhood education initiative and thinking about how to expand this work. When we started this project we only had four grants available and we had 16 tribal colleges apply for them, so we know there’s a need, not just in early childhood education but in developing tribal colleges into premier higher education institutions. So that’s a big vision.
I think the American Indian College Fund has a role to play in supporting tribal colleges. When we are able to support them in revitalizing lost art forms that are connected to cultural ways of life, that are connected to environmental sustainability, these are all holistic solutions to some of the issues tribes face today. I look forward to having a role in supporting communities to enact the knowledge that they have to find solutions to the issues they face.
Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz has received many professional awards and honors, including the 2016 Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni Council Award for outstanding contributions. She will be presenting at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in April, sharing information about the Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” early childhood education initiative.