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History and Language Ground Leadership of Vanessa Goodthunder

Vanessa Goodthunder, a member of the board and alumna of the Young Women’s Cabinet alumna, demonstrates how the transformational leadership of Indigenous, Black, and young women of color changes our world for the better. Vanessa, Sna Sna Wiƞ (Snah-Snah Weeƞ) comes from C̣a ƞṡayapi (Chahƞ-shah-yah-pee), which means “where they paint the trees red,” also known as the Lower Sioux Indian Community. Vanessa’s passions are education, revitalizing the Dakota language, and working with Native youth.

She believes that language can be used to heal from historical trauma and has dedicated her life to learning and teaching her languages (Dakota and Dine). Vanessa worked with Daḳota Wic̣oḣaƞ (Dakota Way of Life), a girlsBEST grantee-partner, as a youth participant and later, a language instructor supporting Dakota language curriculum development. As the Aide to the Chief of Staff and Tribal Affairs Policy Advisor in the Office of Governor Mark Dayton, Vanessa was able to inform and recommend strategies on issues of great importance to Native communities and our state. Then, she became youngest Head Start director in the country at age 23 when she was hired in 2017 to help start the Lower Sioux’s first school and the State of Minnesota’s First Dakota Head Start. Today, Vanessa serves as director of the C̣aƞṡayapi Waḳaƞyeża Owayawa Oṭi – a Dakota Immersion Early Head Start and Head Start.

Vanessa discovered both her passion for Dakota language and culture and her voice as a participant in Daḳota Wic̣oḣaƞ programming through the Wikoska peer mentoring leadership program. She has said that she is a high school social studies and Dakota language teacher in her core. As she moves through the world, she continues educating those fortunate enough to come into her path about her language, her people and history and how history influences us all.

“I truly believe that our language has our sense of belonging and our language has our history. It has our culture. It has our geography. It has all of our stories and it’s who we are.”

Vanessa Goodthunder

Vanessa’s story shows that we are not building pathways because young women are going to lead in the future, they are leading today. Through Vanessa’s leadership on the Cabinet, the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota has grown, become stronger and more responsive to the vision of young people who are leading today. The power of Vanessa’s voice and ideas speaks to what all young people can do and are doing to bring real solutions that work for our communities.

Vanessa will be honored with the 2022 Mary Lee Dayton Catalyst for Change Award at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota’s Leadership & Legacy Celebration on September 29.

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