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Mack Strong gives Native students rousing talk on leadership

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The Native American Youth Leadership Academy welcomed a very special guest on April 24 to speak to students about leadership, mentoring and community. Greeted with warm handshakes and a round of enthusiastic “Sea-HAWKS!” chants, former Seahawk fullback Mack Strong gave a compelling talk that kept the students – and adults – in rapt attention.

Sponsored by the Western Washington Native American Education Consortium, the Native Youth Leadership Academy is the first of its kind and encompasses nine area school districts including Chief Leschi Schools, Fife Schools, White River School District, Highland Public Schools and the Puget Sound Educational Service District, a consortium of five area school districts. The Academy was launched for the 2014/2015 school year and has been meeting quarterly at the Puyallup Tribe’s Youth/Community Center for a day of leadership training, team building and fun learning exercises. Fife Schools’ Coordinator of Indian Education, Martha Sherman, invited Strong to speak to the students.

“Everybody in here is a leader,” Strong told the youth. “Whether you play sports or do some other extracurricular activity, everybody in here has someone else that’s watching you. This is a truism. The question is what type of leader will you be?”

To answer this question, Strong listed three qualities that make an effective leader. He encouraged the students to be a leader who cares, a leader who acts and a leader who learns. He spoke of famous people he has met – Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan – to illustrate leaders who care, and said the youth in the audience would do well to embrace these individuals as role models.

“When I think about the world we live in today, there’s a lot of things going on,” he said. “There’s a lot of things you probably see in your high school and in your neighborhood. There’s probably a lot of things that have bothered you, that you care about. The question is will you be the type of leader that cares enough to do something about it? Be the type of leader who cares.”

Expanding on his advice to be a leader who acts, Strong told a story of his senior graduation ceremony and one quiet young man who took a chance to speak out in his senior speech about the drug and alcohol use among his peers in the audience, whom he publicly pointed out. “At the end he just broke down crying because that was something that meant a lot to him. He got a standing ovation.”

Strong said that when he himself was in school, he was a very shy person and felt quite insecure. “I was scared of my own shadow when I was in high school,” he said. “I was scared of being picked on, of kids laughing at me, of standing out or being singled out – I was just afraid.” Being the only African-American in his graduating class didn’t help things either. However, his friend who spoke out left a deep impression on Strong’s heart and mind, which he feels to this day.

“That made a profound impact on me,” he said of his friend’s courage. “I was 17 years old, and I’m 43 years old now, and I remember it like it was yesterday.”

This is the type of leader that Strong encouraged the Native youth he was addressing to emulate – a leader who acts. To elaborate on his third point – “be a leader who learns” – he told of someone he perhaps admires most, someone who seems to encompass all three of the leadership qualities he was discussing that day – his wife Zoë Higheagle Strong.

A registered member of the Nez Perce Tribe, Zoë grew up part-time on the reservation in Idaho and other times with her mother in another city. She was troubled in her youth and disinterested in school. “She went to 16 different schools from the time she started going to school until the time she graduated,” Strong said. She dropped out of community college as well, and at that time said she was done with school altogether.

But in 2003, Zoë got inspired by something that changed her life. As Strong explained to the assembled youth, “We would regularly take trips back to her home reservation in Idaho and she would meet young people just like you. She started hearing that kids were dropping out of school; some would get involved in drugs and alcohol, some ran away from home… and she wanted to do something about it. She found something she cared about. She didn’t know her purpose in life but she found it.”

That same year, Zoë went back to school, taking just one or two classes at a time at a community college, and earned an associate degree. She then transferred to Seattle Pacific University (SPU) as a full-time student and continued making “A” grades in all her courses. She graduated with honors from SPU and from there attended the University of Washington where she earned her Masters in psychology in one year. Now she is about to earn her PhD in educational psychology

“A good leader learns,” Strong reiterated. “I look forward to seeing you guys, you future leaders, out there in the community leading the way in your schools, your families, your tribes. They need you. I look forward to you being as successful as you can possibly be.”