Building a Foundation for Change

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Here, two young writers examine how they moved away from fear, anger and shame to gain pride in their culture and participate in positive social change. They emphasize the important role that cultural pride plays in the lives of young people, and how valuable it is to have people and programs that affirm their identities and focus their energies.

Preserving My Culture on Graduation Day
By Lyn Bluehouse-Wilson, 19

I am a Dine Indian from Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., and a community organizer with the SAGE Council (Sacred Alliances for Grassroots Equality), formerly known as the Petroglyph National Monument Protection Coalition. We formed in 1996 to protect these sacred rock etchings from a six-lane commuter highway.

As the youngest member of the group, I have come a long way since my beginnings as a rebellious teenage activist who grew up in a racist reservation border town. Before my involvement with the SAGE Council, much of my activism was fueled by anger and rage. However, it was one specific issue that opened my eyes to what I was really fighting for and gave my fire direction.

The city of Albuquerque was buzzing about the school board not allowing Native American students to wear their traditional dress during graduation. According to the school board, it wasn’t fair for Native American students to get special treatment. They said that all students should abide by the dress code.

Civil rights lawyers countered that the dress code – long black pants and knee-length skirts with black shoes – had a European influence. They also argued that there were special exceptions for other ethnicities and religions, but none for Native Americans.

The local newspapers and television stations flooded the school board chambers the night the issue was to be heard. Young people dressed in their traditional regalia emotionally took the podium, while their elders looked on and small ones squirmed impatiently in their seats. I remember sitting there and glaring at the members of the school board.

Finally, the time came to vote. Spectators sat in silence as, one by one, the board voted. The room filled with screams of relief and victory as the final vote of 4-3 in favor of traditional dress was announced. It seemed that the Albuquerque public schools had finally sided with the Indians. Everyone filed outside to celebrate. For me, though, it was just the beginning.

Graduation time rolled around and my mom had just finished making the Navajo dress that I would proudly wear as I walked up to get my diploma. She told me to quickly slip it on to make sure that it fit.

Somehow, though, I ended up in my full regalia. I think my mom tricked me into putting everything on so she could take pictures. I took a look in the mirror. What I saw would drastically change my way of thinking for the rest of my life.

Staring back at me was a traditional Dine woman whose dress her mother had labored for hours to create. Her father had given her the beautiful bracelets that adorned her wrists. Her uncle had used traditional silversmithing methods to make her a squash blossom necklace. Her concho belt was the one her grandfather had used to buy his very first head of cattle. An aunt contributed the sash that was tightly wrapped around her waist. She would walk into a new chapter of her life wearing the moccasins that were meant to fit only her.

In that instant, I suddenly remembered what the final vote really was. The school board had voted 4-3 to allow Native students to wear traditional outfits, but they were also required to wear their caps and gowns. In other words, the Albuquerque public schools wanted to cover up something that my ancestors had fought for and died to preserve with mass-produced polyester.

Suddenly I realized that I had been so busy blaming and accusing others that I had become a silent voice in my own community, not realizing that the cloth had once again been pulled over my eyes. Instead of acknowledging that my peers went home to abuse, alcoholism and poverty every day, I blamed the system for their problems and never really took any solid action.

Just as they did drugs to block out reality, I blocked out reality with such heavy doses of undirected anger and rage that I had forgotten what I was really fighting for.

Only when I looked in the mirror did I remember who I was and where I really came from. I realized that it had taken a strong community – my family – to come together and help me graduate as a proud Native American woman.

They were the reason why I didn’t do drugs, they were the reason why I was college-bound, they were the reason why I was a leader. It was that understanding of my accountability to my ancestors that has defined my vision as a community organizer. It has helped me clearly see that a solid foundation is the most powerful vehicle to build a strong community.

That kind of community cannot be built on anger and rage. It must be built on respect and love. This is what I carry with me as I continue my work with SAGE Council, for my elders, for my peers and for my children. And it was with respect, humility and dignity that my fellow students and I removed our gowns on graduation day.

Believe In Who You Are
By Mario, 18

My parents were born in Zacatecas, Mexico. Along with my sister, Mirna, and my two brothers, Alex and Adrian, I was born in the United States. We are the first generation of our family born here.Our parents cannot read or speak English. We live in a low-income, dangerous neighborhood in Long Beach, Calif. It has a pretty bad reputation from gang warfare. I used to crawl into my mother’s room every time I heard gunshots. I never knew if a bullet was going to come through our window.

Like any child, I wanted to go outside to play, but I knew it was too dangerous. Ever since I was small, I wanted to move away from the neighborhood. But we couldn’t afford to move.

My stepbrother, who’s 10 years older than me, lived with us. He was a former gang member and spent time in and out of jail. I didn’t see him very much, but when he was home he treated me very badly. He called me names and said hurtful things to me.

As I got older, things got worse. I was ashamed of my parents because of their background. I cried all the time, wishing they could speak English. I was in middle school and I wanted to be like the other kids. Their parents spoke English, and they participated in school activities and did things together as a family.

I started to claim I was half-Italian and half-Mexican. My sister found out and lectured me about my pride. She told me I should be proud of the struggles our parents went through for us.

At the time, though, all I wanted to feel was like I belonged. I knew I didn’t want to join a gang. After experiencing the pain my stepbrother brought to my parents and me, I vowed to myself that no matter how I lonely I felt, I would find acceptance in a positive way.

Then my cousin Dorina invited me to a meeting of an organization she belonged to in school, called M.E.Ch.A (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanos de Aztlan). The president of the club said we would visit three local universities and meet with Chicanos attending those schools. She reminded us that political involvement and education were the best avenues for change in Chicano society.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had wanted to find a positive direction in my life. I had wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere, and suddenly here was a group for me. This was like a dream coming true.

When we went to the universities, the Chicano students told us we should be the best we can be. We attended workshops motivating us, as first-generation kids, to go to college. I started going to all of the M.E.Ch.A meetings. Latino or Chicano speakers came to discuss their occupations.

A city employee from Long Beach told us about a program she had just started, which needed peer educators to teach middle school youth about drugs and alcohol. I immediately volunteered. After a year I wasn’t a volunteer anymore because I was hired part-time.

The following year, as a 10th-grader, I became president of M.E.Ch.A. I heard about a youth program called Youth Leadership Long Beach (YLLB), designed to help develop leadership skills. I applied. Only 30 students were chosen, and I was one of them.

Before I could graduate I had to complete a project. Our group chose to conduct a teen forum to make the youth of Long Beach aware of organizations that they could get involved with. I was excited about the project, because I knew how life-changing good information could be.

We passed out flyers, called people and got donations for food. Lots of students came. Watching them sign up to join different organizations made me wonder if they were feeling like I used to. Maybe I had given them the gift my cousin had given me – an awareness of a new direction in life.

I am now a senior in high school. I’ve worked in an HIV/AIDS prevention program called TLC (Teens Living Carefully). I was elected student body president at my school. I had to campaign for the position, and I won. I oversee the freshman, sophomore, junior and senior classes, and their class officers.

When I look back at the scared and confused middle school boy who was embarrassed to admit he was Chicano, I barely recognize him. When I’m working with teens who are looking for direction in their lives, I always say to them, “Get involved. Join a club or join an organization that interests you. Don’t let anything or anyone stop you from believing in yourself. The only way for you to believe in others and to make our world a better place is to first believe in yourself.”

© 2002

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