Celebrating Native American Youth: Leadership and Resiliency

By Andrew Mulinge

Recently, the Aspen Institute’s Center for Native American Youth held its fourth annual Champions for Change celebration. The event recognized the extraordinary work of resilient young men and women in Native American, Alaskan native, and Native Hawaiian communities across the country.

The young leaders’ inspiring work is a constructive response to the hardships and tragedies they have experienced. They discussed channeling their challenges and pain into innovative programs that address suicide, sexual abuse, cultural preservation, and mentorship for their peers. These programs are critically important; too often, communities perpetuate trauma instead of supporting those who experience it.

Chronic trauma and adversity are key public health issues with major implications for the wellbeing of youth—especially those in American Indian and Alaskan Native communities. Barriers to positive youth development  include violence, abuse, and neglect, as well as chronic stressors like unemployment, racism, lack of adequate health care, and social isolation. Chronic trauma and adversity in childhood can interrupt normal brain development; this has long-term consequences for learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

According to research in California, youth of color disproportionately experience adverse childhood events that negatively affect their developing systems and have lifelong repercussions. California’s Native Americans reported the highest number of adverse events in childhood, with 29 percent reporting four or more. Seven percent of Asian/Pacific Islanders reported four or more. The average number of adverse events for White Californians was 1.6, compared to 1.7 for Hispanics, 1.8 for Blacks, and 2.6 for Native Americans. 

These disparities are consistent with research that shows geography—not individual behavior—is most often the catalyst for violent and chronic traumatic experiences. The effects of concentrated poverty often overwhelm Native American communities. According to Brookings Institution, areas of concentrated poverty have higher crime rates, underperforming public schools, poor housing and health conditions, and limited access to private services and job opportunities. It is essential that communities provide resources that promote healthy youth development to mitigate the impact of concentrated poverty on vulnerable youth. Examples include:

  • Cognitive development: School instruction, out-of-school activities, community environments, and informal learning;
  • Physical development: Safe physical recreational facilities like parks, community centers, streets, physically safe schools, and medical facilities that provide primary medical and dental care; 
  • Social/emotional development: Healthy and safe environments for social interaction, the formation of positive peer groups, caring adult supervision, and age-appropriate mental health supports;
  • Cultural development: Cultural institutions and opportunities to bridge understanding and build relationships with different cultures in the community;
  • Vocational development: Organizations and programs that expose youth to work and careers, allowing them to earn money while developing work skills.  

The programs developed by the 2015 cohort of Champions for Change are proof that community action can meaningfully contribute to youth’s social development and overall well-being. Youth and communities are heavily codependent; youth need comprehensive support systems to reach full their potential, while communities rely on youth’s energy and innovation. When the two are in sync, the possibilities are endless.

To learn more about the 2015 Champions of Change recipients, click here.

Read CLASP’s resources on youth development and well-being for youth of color: