A federal official told a Fort Lewis College audience Friday that a program aimed at providing opportunities for boys and young men of color applies to Native Americans, as well, and hopes to break the school-to-prison pipeline.
“The reality is that large sections of our populations, particularly boys and young men, often do not get a second chance,” said William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education.
“When the president unveiled this initiative, the assumption was that it was about African-Americans and Hispanics,” he said, but it applies equally to boys and young men of the Native community.
Called “My Brother’s Keeper,” President Barack Obama launched the initiative in late February to address the opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color, he said.
Community members as well as FLC students and faculty were invited to Friday’s roundtable discussion about existing challenges and the opportunities the initiative has provided to boys and young men of the Native American community in the Four Corners.
When boys and young men return to civilian life from prison, employment opportunities are scarce, contributing to critical life outcomes, Mendoza said. The administration is joining foundations and businesses throughout the country who are taking important steps to connect boys and young men of color to mentoring, support networks and resources needed to obtain a college education and a sustainable job in the future, he said.
The president appointed a task force to identify programs and policies that provide support for these populations need, he said. Task-force members are meeting with people in the affected communities, such as the Four Corners, to identify programs that are working as well as discuss challenges and possible opportunities, Mendoza said.
“We need to see how people are grappling with these issues at a local level,” he said.
Liz Mason with the Native American Center at FLC said one of the biggest challenges Native students experience is feeling split between maintaining their tribal customs and values while trying to adapt to modern culture.
Some students need to feel they are giving back to their community, said Ken Pepion, associate vice president for Academic Affairs at FLC. It is challenging to try to relate a class like calculus back to the community, he said.
When Native American students graduate, they often look for jobs to help the communities they grew up in, he said.
Some colleges and universities tend to focus on the academic underpreparedness of students coming from communities with high unemployment rates and health disparities, Pepian said. By doing so, these institutions have failed to recognize the strengths of students coming from tribal communities, he said.
“It’s never usually a lack of ability, but the lack of opportunity provided,” Mason said.
Programs at FLC that have had positive impacts include the Native American Center and the Diné Club, a group open to all students seeking enrichment in Diné culture and language, Mason said. They help provide a family feeling for students.
Mendoza said he will share information and insight gained from Friday’s roundtable with the task force. Its goal is to get at the heart of the systemic issues and hope that those will drive change, he said.