My Brother’s Keeper: Reactions from the Navajo Nation

May 8, 2014

A young Navajo activist and member of the National Council of Young Leaders shares her reaction to My Brother's Keeper 

On February 27, 2014, President Obama launched his My Brother's Keeper initiative. This move to explicitly provide assistance to young people of color—and to seek input before creating a budget for implementation—has been a long time coming.

In his speech at the launch, President Obama addressed several key points that are very much in line with the federal policy recommendations that we on the National Council of Young Leaders created in 2012. (A note from my experience working with my fellow Council members: we can reach bipartisan support a lot faster than Congress!)

Before I share my reactions to the initiative, I’d like to share a little of what I see in my home communities on the Navajo Nation, and why I think this type of federal focus is important right now.  

In 2010-2011, I was working as an AmeriCorps mentor. I was part of a team that spent our time weatherizing local buildings. The majority of our crew were Navajo men.  Several of them were over-experienced for this work, but because of a lack of employment opportunities, they were happy to lend their skills to improve our housing issues. 

On the Navajo Nation, our unemployment rate averages 50 percent, and sometimes higher. Of the limited jobs available, very few incorporate teamwork or allow young people to apply newly learned leadership skills to a supervisory position. Most are minimum wage with minimal skill requirements, for example gas station attendants and clerks.

It’s also not unheard of for elementary school students to ride a bus three hours to school, one way.

Shared Responsibility

Of course, I know that I alone cannot fix these issues. Nor can any single federal initiative.

holding handsThat’s why I was glad to hear President Obama speak about the need for cross-sector support; we emphasize that as well in our Recommendations.  Policymakers need to listen to youth, corporations should create more internship and training opportunities, and nonprofits that are trying to fill the gaps must do so more efficiently. We need to empower our communities to work together to improve conditions. As a member of the National Council of Young Leaders, I try do that by sharing what I know about leadership, as well as my personal experiences of what does and doesn’t work. 

As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” This is true my community, and so is T’aawhi ajiilii’—a Navajo concept of self-sufficiency. I’d like to see a continued teaching of these ideas, together. As President Obama acknowledged, My Brother's Keeper will not solve all our problems so we also need our young men to take initiative for their own futures. We need to make sure there are opportunities to reach for, and expect young people to reach for them.

Here are a few of the National Council of Young Leaders’ Policy Recommendations that align with the president’s goals for My Brother’s Keeper. I would like to see each of these explicitly integrated into any work under the initiative:

  1. Expand effective comprehensive programs.
  2. Expand national service. (In my case, we would like more Conservation Corps on Tribal Lands.)
  3. Expand private internships.
  4. Increase all forms of mentoring. (I was lucky to be an AmeriCorps mentor within my community.)
  5. Protect and expand pathways to higher education. (In my community, the AmeriCorps-funded education award was vital and gave assistance to our young crew for finishing/beginning at a community college or trade school.)
  6. Reform the criminal justice system. (Too many of us know this system too well at a young age.)

Are the Goals Clear? Is the Budget Enough?

In our Recommendations, we set a short-term goal of reconnecting 1 million disconnected youth who are not in school and not working. We estimate that it would cost $6.4 Billion a year to expand all the existing federal programs to meet the needs of these youth.

For My Brother’s Keeper, the president has a commitment for $200 million from philanthropy “to coordinate businesses and government.” I would like to see the explicit goal(s) for this Initiative to know whether this budget is adequate.

Seek Advice from Those Who Know

Most of all, I’d like to recommend that young men and women continue to have a voice at the table—that means that there must be more opportunities for our input and also that  we need to do a better job of speaking up and asking to be heard when we have the chance. 

As a Council, we selected our sponsoring organizations not only because they have longstanding track records of being successful, but because they maintain approval from young people that their approaches work. We are engaged in a meaningful way.

For My Brother’s Keeper, I’d like to see more young people of color having direct input by serving on special taskforces and/or designated committees throughout the process. When the plan for the next phase of My Brother’s Keeper is released, we’ll be watching to see if it includes these types of youth advisory bodies.

We will take initiative to hold decision-makers, including ourselves, accountable for stronger futures! 

Philan photo

Philandrian Tree is a member of the Towering House Clan of the Navajo Nation.  She is currently interning as an assistant to the Coconino County District 4 Supervisor, tasked with community relations and communications between her office and tribal communities. Philandrian served two terms as an AmeriCorps mentor and was selected as The Corps Network’s 2012 Corps Member of the Year.  
Philandrian Tree