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Native Youth Lead The Way At Local Health Conference

Youth presenters at the AAIP meeting. Back row (L to R): Leon Paquin, Nick Felipe, Emmit Yepa, Mark Panana. Front row: Tiffany Faustine, Leroy Paisano, Lindsey Toya and Tianie Toya

A Clearly Guest Post by Anthony Fleg

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, NM – A week before the school year began, a group of American Indian youth in New Mexico were not only working hard, they were teaching the class!

Earlier this month, the 39th annual conference of the Association of American Indian Physicians (AAIP) featured nationally known speakers, including Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, the current director of Indian Health Services.

Alongside such speakers were three groups of local youth presenting on their efforts to create healthier, more sustainable and empowered communities.

The Walatowa (Jemez) Green Stars talked about their activism to create a full-scale recycling program in their community, with group member Lindsey Toya pointing out that “we know that our trash will be here for the generations to come, and it is our job to teach the elders in our community as they have taught us.”

Nick Felipe spoke on behalf of the Native American Community Academy’s (NACA) Conservation Corps and the work they are doing to build traditional gardens in local Native communities.

Three youth also presented from the Laguna/Acoma Youth Advisory Group that has worked hard over the past years to advocate in their community and to the NM State Legislature for more funding toward mental health and prevention in American Indian communities, including the Peer-to-Peer Teen Suicide Prevention Program.

“We always hear that youth are the future of tomorrow, but we say youth are the future of today,” said Leon Paquin, a leader of the group.

The session, titled “Native Youth Leading the Way to Healthier Communities” is one of the first sessions in the conference’s history led by youth, and took place on Sunday, August 8th at the Santa Ana Tamaya Resort.

The Native Health Initiative served as the host for the session, and began by asking the audience to consider a simple question: Are youth in your community talked about as an asset or simply as a group needing intervention? As it turned out, the session followed sessions on at-risk youth and suicide, both of which disproportionately affect Indigenous communities.

“In a sense, I think our session was a way to show solutions to what the previous sessions brought out as problems,” commented Emmit Yepa, one of the Green Stars members.

The standing-room only crowd for the session, the proud family members and adult mentors (Christina Castro of the Walatowa Green Stars and Esquipula Tenorio of the Laguna/Acoma Youth Advisory Group) in attendance, and the line of attendees waiting to speak to the youth after the session reflected the power of the youth and their activism.

One physician leaving the room after the session simply whispered, “This is exactly what we needed – adults sitting and listening to the wisdom of our youth,” as he thanked the youth one-by-one for their inspiration.

If you are interested in learning more about how to inspire youth leadership in your program and community, or want to find out more about NHI’s “Youth Leading the Way” project grants, please contact NHI Coordinator, Shannon Fleg (Shannon@lovingservice.us).

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