Honoring Nations: Gregory Mendoza: Akimel O'odham/Pee-Posh Youth Council

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Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development
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Gila River Indian Community Governor Gregory Mendoza, formerly the director of the Akimel O'odham/Pee-Posh Youth Council, provides a history of this trend-setting example of innovative governance and discusses the many different ways that it strengthens the Gila River Indian Community.

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Mendoza, Gregory. "Akimel O'odham/Pee-Posh Youth Council." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 11, 2004. Presentation.

Gregory Mendoza:

"Good morning. First of all, before I begin my presentation I'd first like to acknowledge my bosses. Our president, Myron Brown, Jr., all of you remember Myron. And one of my other bosses -- this is Britney Bydell, who didn't really get to speak yesterday, but she will have the opportunity right now. Britney."

Britney Bydell:

"Can you all hear me? Good morning, how is everybody? Good. My name is Britney Bydell and I am 16 years old. I am the District Three representative and we are divided up into seven political districts. And I am also a part of the Arizona Youth Commission for the State of Arizona. I attend Higley High, where I'm in the 11th grade. And I want to say that it's a great honor to be here and to be able to come and meet all of you wonderful people and to learn about Harvard University and to be able to experience and learn about the Honoring Nations and I will learn this all for the very first time. Greg."

Gregory Mendoza:

"Thanks Britney. And I don't know if I could top what Myron did yesterday, but I'll do my best. But I just want you to know that this program started back in 1987 and I was just right out of college and wanting a job, really. And I share this story with the youth council members. Every year we have our in-service orientation for the new members coming on board, and I think it's important for them to understand the chronological history of the youth council and where it evolved. But myself and about maybe nine other college students felt very frustrated back in our community.

Back in 1987 there was very few opportunities for our young people to come together. And so it was through that interaction with my colleagues that we wanted to bring our young people together to bring a collective voice for our community. And so that year began, and it was quite a frustrating process for me because my parents had to support me for one year from 1987 to 1988, but my parents understood my mission. They understood the importance of giving young people the opportunity to come together.

And our community is comprised of two tribes, the Pima and Maricopa Indians. Our ancestral names are the Akimel O'odham and the Pee-Posh. The Pima are referred to, our ancestral name is the Akimel O'odham, meaning "˜the river people.' The Maricopa ancestral name is the Pee-Posh. So the youth council named...the official name of their organization comes from the ancestral names of the two tribes that make up the Gila River Indian community.

But again, the year 1987 was real trying because we had to sort of convince the people of my community to come together to support a concept, a concept in our culture which was really unheard of, to give young people a voice. Because in our culture we're taught not to be boastful, we're taught to be respectful, we're taught not to speak over our elders, and we're taught just to be there and listen to them. But we soon decided that we needed to bring the young people together and so we sponsored our first youth conference and we drew in about 300 young people and the idea of the youth council was born.

In 1988, the youth council became fully incorporated under the laws of the Gila River Indian Community. We became the first tribal youth council to be fully funded by our tribe. We are a youth servicing, youth-led organization complete with again, our bylaws, our constitution. And again, I've been their facilitator now going on 17 years. And as I reflect back on the 16 years, actually my 17th year will be coming up. On October 17th would be my 17th sort of year with the program and with the organization. As I reflect back, I have to just say that working with young people in our community is tremendous. It's a wonderful opportunity as you see with Myron and with Britney -- perfect examples of what our young people are capable of.

And I just have to add something about our president Myron because he's going to be leaving us very shortly. Myron is very involved. This young man is a precinct committeeman. He was manning the polls during the primary election. And I have to add this and he's not going to like this, but you know what, he has his own mind and he's a very proud Republican. And I think that's so unique about Myron. Myron was a delegate to the Arizona State Republican party convention. He's hoping that he will be a delegate at the next Republican National Convention. So he also just was recently elected one of the directors for Students for Bush. So Myron is involved and I admire that in any young person, to be involved at that level. And to tell you the truth, I don't know how he manages his time. This guy is a full-time college student, second-year political science major; he works part-time for a health care corporation. I don't know where he finds the time and he's still president of our youth council. As Britney mentioned, she's an up-and-coming rising star of the youth council. She just got appointed by the State of Arizona's governor to the state governor's youth commission. She has a voice for Native American youth at the state level, so that's very commendable as well.

Gila River Indian Community is comprised of over 20,000 tribal members. Young people represent about half of the tribe's total population. Our problems are no different from other youth from throughout the country. We have the same social issues that affect our youth, gang violence, drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, which are very high within our community. And so we, the co-founders of the organization decided there was a desperate need and urgency to develop a youth program.

Our tribal council in the past have always focused on the elders and the young people were somewhat overlooked. Young people had no idea what the system was all about, the governance of our community. We were somewhat disillusioned about our lack of voice within the community and so the council was created based on giving that young people the opportunity to provide positive change within the community.

Today, the youth council has a formal voice and I invite all of you to come to our youth council. It's just amazing. You ever see a tribal council meeting? These guys do better. These guys know parliamentary procedures, they know motions, they debate motions; it's a really unique setting when you see them coming together on issues facing the youth of the community. And of course Myron being the president, he has the gavel and he controls the council with his gavel. But it's an interesting process because we get a lot of groups, youth groups particularly, that come to Gila River just to see and observe and study our council. I think our adults and our elders are just really taken by the leadership of this young group and it's really amazing.

So I do encourage if you're at Gila River, if you ever want to see a youth council meeting, the youth council meetings range from maybe three to five hours. Their agenda is anywhere from, what is it? Two- to four-page agenda. They have the same process, reports, old business, new business. Every once in a while they'll have resolutions on the table that they'll entertain, but it's a really unique setting.

I'm their boss and what I do is I work with them directly. I work really closely with the president; I advise him. I sort of give him some direction on where we need to go, but they sort of give me the insight, their perspectives, that I do as the administrator to put all these ideas together in the form of either a report, a grant application, or a position paper. My job is just to work with them and I do a lot of the writing on behalf of Myron but with his perspectives going into that.

I think it's really important for people today, if you're going to develop a youth program you need to make sure young people are involved in every phase and at Gila River we do that. And what's so unique about the relationship with our community is that our tribal council gives us that authority. These young people, once they're elected onto the council, they're actually sworn in by a tribal judge that makes them official. They're considered like any other tribal elected official in the community and they have perks just like any tribal council member. Of course, they get stipends, of course they travel, of course they're given many opportunities, just like tribal council members to attend various events, receptions, activities, stuff like that. And what makes that really unique is that the council, they get invitations from time to time to meet with the council members or even meet with the governor. So it's a really good setting for the young people in our community.

And I have to just say that the accomplishments are great and I'm just going to include some of the benchmarks over the years, in the last 16 years that this group has accomplished and it's really good. And I think Myron pinpointed some of those accomplishments.

In 1993, the youth council launched again the Kids Voting Program, which mocks the polls to the young people. What we did with the Kids Voting Program is that we developed a curriculum K-12 and what we did with that curriculum is we took basic concepts from the tribe's constitution and bylaws and we developed it into a curriculum. The curriculum also includes some corresponding activities so that the young people not only has the kids voting curriculum for their lesson planning, but they also have corresponding activities. So the curriculum, again, was adapted from a state program, but we included it, we tailored it to meet the needs of our community. And again, as Myron mentioned yesterday, we're getting ready for the presidential election, so you'll see young people coming to the polls come November second. Our youth council members will be manning the polls in each of our communities' districts, political districts. And what makes our community really unique at voting time is that our theme for our Kids Voting Program is called "˜Voting is a Family Affair,' because you see young people taking the parents to the polls along with themselves. And what is even better is that community, they have like barbecues in all the districts and now the young people are afforded that same opportunity to eat with their parents in a sort of a community fun environment. So I think it's really something special when you see young people involved in the electoral process and understanding some of the basic fundamentals of voting and when they become of age...you know we've been doing this for almost ten years, just think what we're doing with all these young people that have gone through the program since 1993. The last Kids Voting Program, we brought in close to 1,000 young people to vote. We're looking forward to this next coming election because again we're hoping to surpass that 1,000 amount.

In 1996, the youth council succeeded in establishing a Boys and Girls Club in the community, the first Boys and Girls Club in the State of Arizona to serve a Native American community. This project grew from the youth council because we thought there was a great need to develop a youth program for the younger ones. So as you know, the Boys and Girls Club, they do a lot of their programs, they focus primarily with the young ones all the way up to teens. So what we did is we initiated the planning and the application process and we submitted a grant application to HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] and we were awarded a $1.5 million grant. The tribal council included an additional $2 million to the project, and to this day we're very proud to have two clubs now in our community.

In 1998, the youth council won a grant from the Close Up Foundation to implement an intense program focusing on tribal government, to explore the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a democratic nation. The program is a hands-on program for young people. It exposes them to tribal leadership from the courts to the tribal council to the governor's office. So the young people got to see how our tribal council operates and how our government functions. And what's so unique about Close Up is that we bring the select group of youth, 50 young people from about 14 different high schools, including boarding schools that service Gila River Indian community, and they come in for three days to examine tribal government one on one. And it's a unique opportunity because the young people are even introduced formally to the tribal council, they're introduced to the governor, the lieutenant and our tribal judge. And what happens at Close Up is that they elect their own governor, they elect their own lieutenant governor, they elect their own tribal council. So these are like a mock community for the young people, and it's a really unique opportunity for them to examine their tribal government. What we also included in this particular program is that we have a curriculum that focuses on the three branches of government that is based specifically for high school students from our community. So we're very proud of this program.

In 2001, the youth council learned the benefits of persistence when we advocated back in the mid-1990s for a tribal teen court program. The youth council was first involved in the development of this grant when we were invited by the Department of Justice to go to Washington, D.C. to provide some feedback with regard to developing a tribal youth program grant for tribes throughout the country. Our youth council members didn't know at the time that they were developing a grant program called the Tribal Youth Program Grant and it was through that opportunity where they provided feedback to the Department of Justice on the needs of the young people in their community. And so as a result of that, the tribe won a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a tribal teen court program. So we're very proud that we are now beginning to reduce and prevent crime within our community, particularly among the young people.

And just recently the youth council won a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to develop a 'Celebrate Fitness" grant initiative. As you know, as Myron mentioned to you, diabetes is the number one problem within our community and what we're discovering among our young people is that a lot of our young people are now being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. And so I personally am involved, not only my health because my parents are diabetics, but now my two younger brothers are diabetics. And it's something that I've been very passionate about with regard to our young people because it's starting to come to our young people. 60 Minutes did a special segment about the fattest Americans and which featured the Gila River Indian Community. We featured this video to our youth during our youth conference back in August and it was just alarming for the young people. I think for our young people in the community it was a shocking, an awakening for them to see that diabetes is an issue within the community and we need to begin to develop preventative measures to prevent this from our community. So of course, I've taken that as well because I work out, I try to work out every day and as you saw in the video yesterday I looked a little bigger in that video. So I've been very cautious about my eating habits as well as exercising daily. But again, we won this grant and so the youth council is beginning to develop Celebrate Fitness projects within each of our communities in the community.

So again, these activities and these different initiatives are all projects that had been launched by this youth council and it's remarkable what these young people can do together, collectively, as a group and it's a pleasure to work with them. Challenging at times, you know. And I just...I think it's the best job in the world and again you meet such great people as Myron and Britney. And again, a lot of our alumni, we've served over 300 alumni who have now become educators, teachers, firemen, policemen. We have some that are presidents of some of our tribal corporations and you have even one that's served on our tribal council. So 90 percent of our alumni that have gone through the program have come back to the community. They come back, they have a sense of community, they want to use their education and so they are. A lot of them are involved still and a lot of them still look to the youth council, they advise us, they give us direction. A lot of our board members, we do have an advisory board comprised of former members of the youth council.

So I just want to say that in the 16 years, it's been a great opportunity. I think Gila River is very fortunate because we also have the financial support of the community. Of course, as their administrator, I look into other financial sources, grants, and we've been very successful. So with that, thank you."

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