Nathan Balk King remembers his first United Nations experience. He attended the United Nations Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues with his mom when he was 8.
It was a memory that stayed with him when he attended the 2018 National High School Model United Nations conference, a conference where high school students from around the world can meet prestigious leaders and gain firsthand experience of international relations. The conference also allows students to go through educational simulations as if they are part of the United Nations.
During the high-school conference, King observed that he was the only Native American student. “I was kind of lonely because at the conference people [are] from like 50 different countries. People from all around the world and I’m the only Indigenous kid,” he said.
He also noticed that most of the student delegates were rich and upper-middle class, and they spoke on issues that they may not have necessarily experienced.
“They’re coming up with legislation, talking about problems that oppressed peoples, marginalized peoples experience everyday, but there’s no actual oppressed peoples in the conversation,” he said.
The experience inspired the 19-year-old from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe to bring Natives directly to the table. He founded the program, Model United Nations: Indigenous, in July 2018 to get Native youth involved in their communities, learn about public policy and human rights advocacy.
“It’s going to give them a lot of encouragement, a lot of educational benefits from the essay writing, debate and from the knowledge of how the world makes international policy,” King said.
Soon after it was established, King’s program was endorsed by International Model United Nations Association, the same not-for-profit organization that hosts the high-school conference. Chris Talamo, executive director of the organization, also informed King that the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous issues would be included in the high school conference for the first time in its 45-year history.
King remembered the moment as surprising. “I was just walking home from school and I got an email from this guy and I was like oh my god.”
On June 17, King became one the 15 recipients to receive $36,000 from the Diller Teen Tikkum Olam Awards, an award supported by the Helen Diller Family Foundation that assists Jewish teen leaders, to continue his project.
“In the spirit of tikkun olam (to repair the world), these teens are being recognized for their extraordinary efforts,” said Phyllis Cook, the foundation’s Chief Philanthropic Consultant. “The Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award recipients exhibit courage, commitment, and compassion, bringing hope for the future. These young leaders inspire all of us to do our part to repair the world.”
King credits the accomplishment due to his family’s unconditional support.
“My project has been made possible by the loving support of my parents, especially my mother who has helped me throughout the entire process,” he said. “She's taught me a bit about how to run a non-profit and execute a successful fundraising and media campaign, and I wanted to add this to honor and recognize her help.”
King plans to use some of the money for his college tuition so he can take courses that will benefit the project and for future program delegates who may need financial assistance to go to the 2021 National High School Model United Nations conference in New York City.
“It’s important for Natives to know how to participate in these conferences, in these committees and know how to participate in the United Nations as a whole so they can effectively advocate for those human rights,” King said.
He said it’s an educational experience, from just learning how the United Nations General Assembly operates, that many Native youth don’t even get the opportunity to attend at all. And having Indigenous student delegates to come and engage in the discussions in person would impact people’s perception of Indigenous issues.
“They get to realize that they’re talking about real people. That the things they come up with have real consequences on these people that are there with them, sitting with them in the same room,” King said.
He recruited 12 program delegates from more than 13 tribes in 2019. King successfully raised enough money to help them attend the conference in New York City.
Organizing the initiative was “very similar to stepping into that conference and realizing how big everything is and how influential you can be,” he said.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic affected their plans to attend the conference this year, King wants to host a free virtual conference for the entire program from July 13 to Aug. 14 by fundraising again for Zoom fees and stipends for mentors.
“Because all education is going online, there’s definitely an opportunity to continue,” he said. “Everyone can benefit.”
King aspires to eventually integrate the program’s initiatives to all Native communities and envisions everyone will know about the project.
“We’re gonna go from making sure kids can attend these conferences to making sure that kids can start their own MUN (Model United Nations) clubs.”
Model United Nations: Indigenous is currently accepting delegate applications for their summer program. The deadline is July 15. Applicants do not need experience to participate, just an interest in the subject matter. More details are available on its website.
This story has been updated to show the deadline to apply has been extended to July 15.