If resiliency, optimism, and hope for the future could be bottled and sold, its name would be Belva Phillips. A smart, resourceful young woman of the Dakota tribe, Belva Phillips lives in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, the ancestral homeland of the Dakota.

At 19, Belva is the primary breadwinner for her family, supporting her disabled mother and three younger siblings.

“I have hopes and dreams for my future, but what I want needs to come second right now to what my family needs.”

While college is on the back burner for now, Belva holds tightly to her dream of becoming a middle or high school literature teacher in the next five years—and she is well on her way. In 2014, Belva became the first person in her family to graduate from high school. By every measure, this milestone equals wild success.

Data show that in Minnesota, American Indian children have among the lowest graduation rates and the highest dropout rate in the country. And at Redwood Valley High School, American Indian enrollment drops markedly between 10th and 11th grade, and again between 11th and 12th grade.

Belva credits her participation in Dakota Wicohan’s Wikoska (wee-KOHSH-ka) —young woman in Dakota—program with keeping her in school and on the path to success since she first joined at age 14. Dakota Wicohan is a girlsBEST grantee-partner of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

Founded in 2002, Dakota Wicohan (wee-CHO-ha) means the Dakota way of life. The organization works with families from Lower Sioux, Upper Sioux, and other American Indian communities in southwestern Minnesota to preserve Dakota as a living language and transmit Dakota lifeways and values to future generations.

The Wikoska program meets weekly and focuses on keeping young American Indian women in school, encourages post-secondary enrollment, and builds leadership. Culturally relevant mentoring helps the girls develop a positive Dakota identity by teaching them about Dakota lifeways, values, and practices, and how to speak the language.

To date, all 11 of the Wikoska girls have graduated from high school, five are enrolled in post-secondary school, and three are working and saving for college. Seeing the older girls in the Wikoska program graduate and go to college has shown Belva what is possible. These girls did it and set their own paths. It might take me a little bit longer, but I know I will do the same, she said.

In 2013, when a suicide pact among the seventh grade girls at an area school came to light, Dakota Wicohan knew they had to intervene in the community at an earlier age. American Indian youth have the highest suicide rate of any ethnic group in the U.S.; in adolescence, the rate for American Indian girls is four times that of white girls. Dakota Wicohan already had programming in place that promoted a sense of belonging, which is critical to suicide prevention. GirlsBEST funding from the Women’s Foundation enabled them to expand their efforts to include middle school girls, grades 5–8, known as the Wiciyanna (wee-CHEE-yah-nah) —young girls in Dakota.

The Wikoska now mentor the Wiciyanna and plan their weekly meetings and activities. Belva is one of the mentors who leads the group, which includes her younger sister, Neveah. Belva credits her mentoring experience with helping her discover a love for teaching. ͞This program showed me that I can work with kids and that I’m good at it.

In 2016, Belva hopes financial stability will make it possible for her to attend Minnesota West Community and Technical College for two years before transferring to Mankato State University to study English. Upon graduation, her plan is to teach at one of the local schools and help her community prosper.

“As a teacher who is Dakota, I’ll be able to understand my students’ experiences—where they are coming from, and how they feel. Our culture is like a half-burned down house, but our resiliency and hope will help us rebuild the other half. It’s going to take hard work, sweat, and tears, but I know it’s possible.”

Note: Belva Phillips was a panelist for the Women’s Foundation’s Listening Session with American Indian Young Women in November 2015. Learn more and view the report Listening to Young Women of Color & Advocates

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