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Native American Youth Leadership Academy is back in session

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Now that the new school year is fully underway, the Native American Youth Leadership Academy (NAYLA) commenced on Oct. 8 at the Puyallup Tribe’s Youth and Community Center. Meeting every other month through May, this year the academy is enjoying the involvement of 22 area school districts, up from 15 last year, and two tribes. The participating students represent many tribes locally and beyond, and they filled the Youth Center that day full of anticipation and excitement over what was to come in this year’s Academy.

“It’s gotten a little bit bigger and we’re real excited,” said Mary Wilber, Native American Education Director at Lake Washington High School.

The Academy started two years ago when the Western Washington Native American Educators Consortium (WWNAEC) met with leaders of Title VII Native Education Programs from around the region to discuss building a Native American Youth Leadership Academy. Last year the Academy pilot program was a big success, and it looks to be even more so this year with additional school districts taking part.

“Thank you for coming and making this very successful,” Mary Wilber said to the assembled students. “I think that almost 100 percent of you today are missing a day of school to participate in the academy and I thank you for that sacrifice. It shows to me that you are willing to come and learn leadership skills and make a difference in your community and that’s what the academy is about.”

The Academy’s mission is to support American Indian/Alaska Native youth, grades 8-12, in the learning and sharing of knowledge of Native culture through education, building leadership skills with a Native way of thinking, connecting with other Native youth in the region, goal-setting, creating healthy relationships, and offering service to the students’ communities. Students meet and engage in a range of leadership development, trust building, and personal/academic advancement activities, as well as attend presentations by local Native leaders and educators on the meaning of leadership in academic, communal and personal contexts. Then, every other month, students meet in their own school districts with their Native Education Coordinator to work on and discuss NAYLA themes.

This opening day of NAYLA was all about building community and relationships. Through a variety of ice-breakers, the students had the opportunity to meet and get to know each other in fun and meaningful ways. This set the students up well for the coming months, when Academy exercises will go deeper into subject matter of being a Native youth and how to embrace healthy, positive characteristics and ways of life in order to foster the leadership that exists uniquely in every student present.

“One of the main things we are going to encourage you to do is take healthy risks. Extend yourself,” advised Academy facilitator and educator Arlie Neskahi. “You’re going to hear me say that a lot today. Get out of your comfort zone. Meet people you’ve never met before. Try things that you’ve never tried before. Your confidence will strengthen and your fears will diminish. The more you put into this the more powerful that becomes. It’s nothing without you putting in your mind, your heart, and your spirit.”

After breakfast and a traditional song offered up by students from the North Kitsap School District and a representative from Chief Leschi Schools, the students filed into the main room of the Youth Center to begin their day. What followed were a series of highly entertaining and relevant exercises to help the students get out of their chairs and meet each other. Later, the students shared about the morning, held group discussions on Native youth leadership qualities, and wrote down their strengths and what they want to improve.

This was the first time to attend for Theresa Lockrem, Native American Academic and Cultural Liaison at the Kent School District, and she came with senior student Heather Mooney (Yakama and Klickitat) from Kentwood High School.

“It was a fantastic day for the kids, and the number of students who came was great. I loved the feedback from the students,” Theresa Lockrem said. “I found that the expectation was great on the students’ end. They were quite kind to each other for their age and well receiving of each other. The response and anticipation in their eyes of ‘what do we get to do next’ was exciting to watch in their faces. They wanted to be part of it.”

Fife School District Native Education Coordinator Martha Sherman has been part of NAYLA from the start. Fourteen Fife students have signed up for NAYLA, and eight of them attended the opening day. She too was happy to see more students at NAYLA this year.

“It was really good because the group had grown a good 50 kids from last year,” she said. “These kids that are Native American are sharing pride in their culture and building their community through healthy relationships. All the kids are working on that. They’re all Native kids wanting to learn the same things and hopefully be leaders of the next generation.”

Martha Sherman said she is looking forward to watching the students grow such that by the end of this year’s Academy the students will be the ones facilitating and teaching at NAYLA rather than the adults.

Theresa Lockrem said she is looking forward to the coming Academy gatherings, as they will do wonders for helping the students realize that they are not alone, that “there are other urban Native students that are just like them,” she said. “They have friends in other districts and even though the students are involved in other things, our urban Native students need this.”