Young Leaders Series Part 2: Advocating for Cultural Education for High School Students

Young Leaders Series Part 2: Advocating for Cultural Education for High School Students

Earlier this summer, Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) launched the Young Leaders Series to highlight three outstanding young people from diverse backgrounds on how they have challenged the status quo with business and education. Though we were sidetracked for three months by the Ebola crisis in West Africa, UDS is ready to return to this intriguing series. In June, Part 1 featured Gradieh Wreh on her rise as a highly successful young entrepreneur. Now for Part 2, we are elated to introduce Wenonah (aka Winona) Vizenor, who emerged as a STAR leader in 2013 during her senior year at Minneapolis South High School in Minnesota.

Wenonah successfully led a peaceful walk-out when her high school’s beloved All Nation’s program had been slowly dismantled due to lack of support. This program promoted the Native American culture, such as smudging and drumming. These are vital rituals for cleansing and uplifting one’s spirit. Moreover, this act of civil disobedience was equally organized to learn and appreciate other cultures within their school. In the last few decades, Minnesota is home to a growing immigrant and refugee community that has led to greater diversity within its schools.

Wenonah talk during the Student assembly during the peaceful demonstration to restore the All Nations Program.

Wenonah, a proud member of the Ojibwe and Oneida Nations, is actively involved in volunteering and community service. She is currently designing a program through Youthprise that focuses on out-of-school programs to improve academic performance “inside” the classroom for Native youth within her community. She is a mentor and also running workshops at an event called “Sacred Voices” for Native youth in middle and high schools.

Wenonah at the left with her Youthprise group.

Her passion is improving the opportunities for young people. Her ultimate goal is to work with Native Youth to guide them in reaching their unique potential. She is currently attending Minneapolis Community Technical College to complete a degree in Human Services and Native Studies. She plans to continue her education at the University of Minnesota.

I was introduced to Wenonah through her mom, Lynette, via Facebook. Lynette and I had worked together for a few years at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel. It was exciting to connect with Wenonah through Facebook, because I witnessed her organize this walk-out from the start to finish. It was quite inspiring to watch this young woman follow her heart and accomplish something that mattered to the well-being of her fellow Native students. This event spotlighted how Native American culture had been systematically stripped away by the forces of colonialism and religious assimilation for over four centuries–when the first European settlers arrived in North America.

She held a clear vision for this demonstration that restoring the All Nation’s Program became the primary objective. As she organized the day’s activities on Monday, March 11, she had the opportunity to meet with her Principal Cecilia Saddler, who allowed them to have an assembly in the auditorium and a round dance in the main commons area. Based on this effort of good faith, Wenonah called off the walk-out and commenced with the peaceful demonstration within the allotted area of the school. Approximately 1,000 students participated from various cultures and backgrounds.

Wenonah spoke at the assembly as cited by the Twin Cities Daily Planet: “Over the years, we have not been able to smudge, not be able to drum.
We are segregated from the rest of the school. You guys don’t hear about
us unless it’s something negative.  We want stability in our program.
We want teachers that respect us. We are not the only culture at our
school that feels judged or discriminated.  I am sick of being ignorant
of other cultures. I’m sick of others of being ignorant of my culture.”

Later on, Wenonah started receiving texts from fellow students stating they were not able to leave class to attend the assembly and this precipitated the walkout. About 300 students ventured outside for the walk-out to show their solidarity. They were later informed they would not be allowed back in the school if they participated. This is when local advocates intervened to offer their service. Most notably was Mysnikol Miller, who negotiated with the administration that the students’ would be able to collect their personal belongings before returning home.

KFAI Radio interview with the students on their activism at South High School. Wenonah is seated second from the left.

Since this courageous act of leadership, Wenonah had other opportunities come her way. She was interviewed by the well-known Native activist Winona LaDuke for her success with her peaceful demonstration. She also participated in the Circle of Healing with Diane Wilson, an author of Spirit Car:  Journey to a Dakota Past. Both of the opportunities allowed Wenonah to share her experience in leading a movement that promoted the positive aspects of culture and cultivated harmony among a diverse community.

The success of this civil disobedience moved the All Nation’s program in the forefront of issues facing the students at South High School. Though there were ideas in the works to revitalize this program, this student activism prompted a quicker implementation. Wenonah’s leadership in bringing voice to her and her fellow students forced the decision makers to pay attention. It was through her work and others who assisted in organizing this demonstration that showed that the voices and views of young people equally matter.

UDS is very grateful to learn more of Wenonah’s pursuits in life. She is a young person who leads by example and a strong role model for her peers in her community and around the world. We asked her
four questions that would encourage other young people to become advocates by
sharing her experience and insight that has guided her journey as a change-maker. 

When did you first discover your desire to advocate for Native Youth and
realized that this was a path you wanted to take and why?

I have always wanted to work in my Native community. I come from a
family who was heavily involved with AIM (American Indian Movement),
and in the Native community. It wasn’t until I had enough of the
dysfunction and institutional racism that “we the students” faced in our
school that I realized I needed to make a change. I loved organizing and making sure there was change for students who come into the
All Nations program. That is when I realized what exactly I wanted to
do in my community; this passion to serve is what I fell in love with.

What are the top three influences that supported your drive to be a change
agent and why?

Seeing students who were younger than me struggle to achieve in
school. It was frustrating to witness so many kids being transferred and
mistreated. I couldn’t watch it happen anymore or contribute to
the dysfunction by not doing anything. I had Native women in my
community who fully supported me, especially one of importance–Missy
Whiteman. I vented to her my frustrations. I told her that I wanted to be a change, and she fully supported and encouraged me to do it! She
was the first person I spoke to on organizing this protest.

3) In dealing with the barriers of age and race, what are some strategies you have applied to overcome them? 

Age was a huge barrier. I was organizing to promote change, and put some
heat under the seats of “professional” adults. They thought they could
deter my efforts from following through with the protest; they tried “negotiating”
with me to save face. They were not doing their job, and they were
intimidated by a high school student who did not take “no” for an
answer. I just had to keep on with my plan…be firm, be smart, and
be strong.

As someone who successfully led a group of people to promote positive change,
what would be your five top recommendations that you would give a rising star
that may feel hindered by any social biases?

1: Connect and start conversations with those who feel the same way as you do–people who also seek the same change.
2: Try to ask questions of the right people about certain problems that you observe happening. Push for answers. Push for change.
3: Don’t hold back; don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make a change. Be strong.
4: Be peaceful; violence can influence negative reactions and sometimes the
opposite outcome occurs of what was originally intended. As a minority myself, I
understand the frustration and even the anger at times, but it is truly
important to stay peaceful
5: Know your resources and who the right people are to talk with that can help or support the change that is needed. 

UDS Thanks Wenonah for sharing her incredible story to inspire
others to realize their true potential and taking action to create positive changes in this world. Also, we wish her all the best as she
continues with her passion to engage and guide her fellow Native youth in becoming shining Stars!!!

Discovering Cultural Connections

Discovering Cultural Connections

It is amazing when you break free from your “comfort” zone and take a moment to talk with someone from a different culture or nation. This is an opportunity to learn more about another person’s life and how they view the world. It is during these conversations that you can discover the beauty of their culture and how it relates to your own. This is why Uniting Distant Stars (UDS) is more than just an organization. We are also a global community connecting people from different cultures and backgrounds to share ideas and join hands in making this a better world. 

This past March was a time that UDS experienced many cultural connections. As we had shared in an early post, we connected youth in Liberia to their peers in Minnesota via Google Hangout at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum on March 7.  That same day our executive director–Heather Cannon-Winkelman–was invited to co-present at the Dakota County Technical College (DCTC) Multicultural Student Leadership Association (MSLA) Event about U.S. and Liberia Relations. 

Event Flyer

Plus in conjunction with the MSLA event, we did a 9-day Facebook promotion from March 1 to 9 called Uniting Distant Stars Jeopardy. This promo provided one question per day about the History, Geography, Famous People, and other fun facts showing the relationship between the U.S and Liberia (and West Africa). Whoever answered the most questions right, would be featured in our blog. So this post will conclude with some background of our winner–Joyce Mallery–and her thoughts about some questions we asked her.  

MSLA Leadership Team. Joyce is the third from the left with Branko third from the right.

First here is a quick highlight of the March 7 event at the DCTC. Heather had the honor of co-presenting with Branko Saah Tambah, a Liberian student and current MSLA President. Branko and Heather shared their knowledge, experience, research and photos of the “Complex Historical Relationship: Liberia and the United States” (click here to view their presentation). Throughout their presentation they interwove “Test Your Knowledge” questions to see what their audience knew about what links these two nations together. The presentation opened their eyes to a part of U.S. history that is often not taught within schools.  The students afterwards shared their feedback on the information they gained from this intriguing presentation about the historical ties between Liberia and the U.S.

Pictured are MSLA members along with Heather and Branko who are holding Certificates of Appreciation.

Now to our Uniting Distant Stars Jeopardy winner Joyce Mallery, who is another a DCTC student and MSLA member. Joyce has also known Heather from when they worked together for many years at Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, Minnesota. When Joyce learned that Heather had returned from her second year living in Liberia in 2010, she invited her to present at their Multicultural event that spring. Joyce was first in the line-up of presenters where she shared her discovery of her Native American heritage and her quest to find her tribal roots. 

Joyce was the one that connected Branko with Heather, who met for the first time last year. She again played an active role in this year’s MSLA event with the planning some of the logistics and designing Branko and Heather’s certificates. It was through her discussions with Branko that she became more interested in the Liberian culture and wanted to learn more. This why she was very eager to play our Jeopardy game and answered 8 out of the 9 questions right.

In getting to know Joyce better we asked her to share something about her educational background along with her MSLA involvement. 

Over the past five years, I have been a full-time college student at DCTC working on several degrees and certificates, and participating in several clubs on campus while working full-time at Mystic Lake. In May 2012, I graduated with honors and earned three AAS Degrees in Graphic Design Technology, Multimedia/Web Design, and Electronic Publishing. After graduating I made the decision to start my own business, but still had a hunger to learn. So, I chose to remain a student at DCTC and for the second and final time time, I will be graduating this May with honors and earning a AAS in Social Media Marketing Specialist along with certificates in Entrepreneurship, Small Business Management, Digital Imaging and Social Media Marketing Specialist. 
While at DCTC, I have been involved in several student clubs. One of my favorite ones has been the MSLA. I was initially drawn to this club, because of my curiosity and the desire to learn more about other cultures. As a seasoned employee at Mystic Lake Casino, I had the opportunity to work with a very culturally diverse population and found that my MSLA membership helped me to better communicate with my fellow team members. This is why I have been actively involved with this diverse student group for over four years along with serving as the President, Vice President and Secretary. I have also played a strategic role in planning our annual celebrations as well as as many different events throughout the school year including the recent Liberian/American Connection event. 

Very impressive Joyce! From reading her background, she has clearly demonstrated the importance of education both in her academia and everyday life. She also represents someone who discovered her Star potential and what it takes to meet and exceed her own goals. Through Joyce’s example, it is reminder to everyone that it is never too late to realize one’s dream. We would like to extend our Congratulations to Joyce for all her outstanding accomplishments at DCTC!

Next, we wanted to gain some insight from Joyce by asking her seven questions as follows:

1) What does it mean to be a global citizen; how do you see yourself in this role and why?

To me, being a global citizen means identifying with being a part of an emerging world community. I see myself as wanting to learn and being involved in helping to build a “beloved global community.” By sharing my culture while learning about others, we can open our minds on what we have discovered about each person we interact with. This knowledge can then be passed on to the people in our own networks.

2) What is your cultural background and how does this help you relate with your MSLA team and our global community?

My cultural background began with my earliest memories of being taken to the reservation to visit with the elders. Although I do not know of my tribal origin, I do know I have Native American decent in my family heritage. I have always wanted to know more and have sought out learning about the Native American ways. For example, the ceramics that I have created and painted have been of eagles, bears and wolves that came to me from my heart and dreams instead of pictures. My knowledge of Native American beliefs and crafts have helped me relate with others in my MSLA team; as our current Vice President is also Native American. By being a member of this group, we are equally curious of each others backgrounds and quite comfortable with asking questions to gain more knowledge of each one’s culture. It has also allowed me to feel that I am part of the global community and want to seek more and more information as I expand my network.

3) As a MSLA member, how does one’s leadership skills improve by learning about other cultures and how has it enhanced yours? 

My leadership skills have improved greatly by being immersed with other cultures, because I’m stronger and more confident. Before I was shy and afraid to ask other people about their cultures. By taking the time to learn and understand another
person’s background, I have found that there are similarities within my
culture and theirs. This has helped me better connect with my fellow members and also earn their respect as a leader, because I acknowledge their unique experience and how it better enhances our community.

4) In playing the jeopardy game about the historical connections between Liberia and the U.S., what was the most profound thing you learned and why? 

I would have to say it was the question from day 6: “What wealthy mariner from Massachusetts, who was half Wampanoag Native American and half African American (decedent from the Ashanti tribe in Ghana), was the first to transport freed and free-born African Americans to West Africa (landed at Sierra Leone)?” Although the search was difficult, I finally did find the answer which was Paul Cuffee (or Cuffe). This question made me discover several things that I had no idea from our history. During this research, I found myself reading various articles that increased my knowledge of what happened and a bit of history about the experiences of free-born African Americans.

5) As a student who is realizing your Star potential and pursuing your dreams, what advice would you give young people who are facing various obstacles and adversaries in continuing their education or obtaining a job? 

My advice would be to never be afraid to learn and keep doing it! If you face an obstacle, never give up! With a lot of thought, hard work, and help from others, these challenges can be overcome and you will be able to advance forward with much more knowledge and confidence than you when you were first confronted with them. Never be afraid to ask for help, because it will always be there! Sometimes it is not there right away, but help will be eventually come to you. This holds true with your education and job search. Also what you learn along the way can be applied in discovering a solution to your problem. Remember to hold your head high and walk with confidence always! Again have faith and never give up!

6) In following and advocating for Uniting Distant Stars, what do you think is its greatest strength and why? 

The greatest strength I have seen so far has been the leadership and the willingness of the people involved to push forward the various programs. They do everything possible to ensure the young students at Russ Wood will have the best chance of getting an education and strengthen their knowledge.  This will allow these students someday to go forward with their own dreams and share what they have learned with others.

7) As you look to the future, what would you like to do to make a difference in the lives of others? 

As I look towards my future, I would like to help others by passing on my knowledge, sharing my skills, volunteering my time and talent, and giving financial support when I can. I am who I am today, because of what others have done for me by supporting, encouraging and guiding me throughout my life. So, that is why I can’t think of a better thing to do than to pay it forward. 

Thank you Joyce for your sharing your thoughts with us today! We are grateful for your support and increasing involvement with Uniting Distant Stars!