By Anthony Fleg
Tohajiilee, NM – When you hear Waverly Yazzie speak about her dream of having empowered youth in her community leading efforts to improve Tohajiilee, you would probably guess that she is far older than twelve. Indeed, Waverly is a 7th grader from the Tohajiilee community of the Navajo Nation who is spearheading efforts to create the Tohajiilee Youth Council.
And this week, Waverly, her mother Dee Apache, and other members of the Native Health Initiative will head to Washington D.C. for the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association (APHA) to hear Waverly speak about the importance of youth leadership in health efforts. Waverly’s presentation, “Youth Leading the Way to Healthier Communities” will allow her, at twelve years of age, to present to public health leaders from across the country.
“I am excited to represent proudly for my community and for the youth who are working to make positive changes in Tohajiilee,” says Waverly, admitting that she is also a bit nervous about speaking at the nation’s largest public health conference. Indeed, of the 13,000 who will gather next week at the APHA meeting, there are less than 20 youth, and even fewer youth presenters.
The idea for a youth council arose in the last year as Waverly and other youth from her community realized that there needed to be more options for youth in Tohajiilee, and that youth needed a voice to share their concerns and perspectives to the Chapter House leadership and Tribal programs. They have already begun to map out short- and long-term goals for the group, including getting representation on the Tohajiilee Health Board, creating a one-on-one program for visiting elders, and raising awareness about hard-to-talk-about health issues that affect youth.
“I think that there are a lot of things that we need to learn about and talk about, such as substance abuse and mental health issues…sometimes, these subjects are kept hidden, which allows them to continue to grow in our community,” says Waverly.
When you hear from the adult allies who are working to support the Youth Council’s efforts, the praise for Waverly is impressive.
“I see her as a leader who understands our Dine’ philosophy on leading with the heart, not the ego, says Sarah Bitsui, a cultural specialist who works for Tohajiilee Behavioral Health. “She is really a great example for the adult world on how to lead with humility.”
The Native Health Initiative (NHI) invited Waverly to serve in its 2011 Summer Internship program, with her task being to take the idea of the youth council and make it into a reality. Elaine Shutiva (Acoma), one of NHI’s Coordinators, recalls that Waverly and her peers volunteered long hours to get the Tohajiilee Youth Council off the ground. “We always try to let the youth lead, to support them but not get in the way, and in this case, they made it quite easy.”
You can find out more about youth leadership opportunities, including Youth Leading the Way project grants (for youth to create and carry out projects to improve their communities) and the Healers of Tomorrow program (meant to mentor Native youth interested in health careers) by visiting the NHI website (www.lovingservice.us) or by contacting Elaine (firstname.lastname@example.org).