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Growing Leaders at the Minnesota State Tribal Youth Gathering

“Nothing is done by ourselves, but through the help of Creator” – Billy Mills

Governor Dayton addresses the Minnesota Tribal Youth Gathering.
Governor Dayton addresses the Minnesota Tribal Youth Gathering. Photo credit: Office of Governor Mark Dayton.

Two hundred American Indian youth gathered at the 2018 Minnesota Youth Tribal Gathering on July 27 at the University of Minnesota Continuing Education and Conference Center. Modeled after the White House Tribal Youth Gathering hosted by former President Obama, this was the first statewide gathering in the nation focused on strengthening community and youth leadership.

Last fall, Vanessa Goodthunder, a Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota (YWI MN) Cabinet alumna, presented her dream of hosting this gathering during her tenure as Aide to the Chief of Staff at the Governor’s office. To register for the event, American Indian youth from all over the state of Minnesota completed the Gen-I Challenge, pledging to do something positive for their community. Attendees’ projects represented a range of youth-led leadership initiatives tackling health, self-sufficiency and sovereignty, youth engagement, and culture revitalization.

“It isn’t that we needed a gathering to get Native youth to be leaders—there are leaders who are already doing work within their communities,” said Vanessa, now director of the Cansayapi Wakanyeza Owayawa Oti, Lower Sioux Dakota Immersion Early Head Start and Head Start program. “What we needed was a leader like Governor Dayton who was willing to support our gathering.”

A highlight of the day was keynote speaker Billy Mills, a former Olympian who won a gold medal in 1964 in the men’s 10,000-meter run, who shared his perspective on why giving back to their community is important. Nevada Littlewolf, a Trustee of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and president and CEO the Tiwahe Foundation, talked about what it meant to see him address the gathering. “When I was in my 20s, Billy Mills inspired me to do what I am doing now; and even though his speech was directed to the youth in the room, it still felt like he was talking directly to me.”

At lunch, a few of the Young Women’s Cabinet members in attendance spoke about how their leadership was amplified by the gathering. Nashel’ Bebeau, a Cabinet member, talked about how her involvement with the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota has supported her with new opportunities, like attending The United State of Women Summit. “I wear a lot of hats. My mentor asked me how I wanted to be introduced to others today at the gathering, and I told them I wanted to be introduced as a Young Women’s Initiative Cabinet member,” she said.

Another Cabinet member, Brook LaFloe, explained how YWI MN has given her a voice. She said her journey as a Cabinet member has pushed her in her career and supported her growth and evolution as a leader. Brook recognizes the privilege she has experienced through her involvement with the Women’s Foundation, and how the support of YWI MN allows her to be present among other Native youth at the gathering.

Nashel’ described that the most mesmerizing part of the day was what it felt like to be among so many peers in solidarity. “It’s almost like our minds are synched up and I can feel their energy,” she said. So often, American Indian people are written off as invisible, and opportunities to convene are not common or often supported. That is what makes the 2018 Minnesota Youth Tribal Gathering a pivotal memory and catalyst for American Indian youth attendees to grow their leadership, build upon their assets, and share their love for their community and culture.

The gathering illustrated what I know to be true: there is no shortage of talented, brilliant, and dedicated youth in the state of Minnesota. Everywhere, from Greater Minnesota to the Twin Cities, there are movements led by youth, particularly young women of color, pushing our state toward progress. What do we need to be successful? Strong and sustained support from government agencies and community organizations can resource gatherings like the Minnesota Youth Tribal Gathering, which forge new opportunities for emerging leaders to build their skills, grow their networks, and strengthen their innovation.

The Women’s Foundation and the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota have played an important role by listening to the needs of communities here in Minnesota. Young Women’s Cabinet members like Vanessa, Brook, and Nashel’ are a testament to how building pathways for young women of color can create systems change. With leadership and support from WFMN, the Governor’s Office, state agencies, and the Bush Foundation, to name a few, we can deepen the impact of work being led by American Indian youth leaders today that will create a stronger Minnesota tomorrow.

By Cynthia J. Zapata, Wenda Weekes Moore Intern and WFMN Innovator

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