Accountability Within the Movement: Addressing Indigenous and Gender Disparities in Rural California


By Jacob Patterson and Jermaine Brubaker

Gender Justice

In one Convening session (also described in an earlier blog post), panelists were asked to discuss gender-based approaches to meeting the needs of youth of color. Because we work closely with queer and gender nonconforming youth and organizers, we were excited to hear the panelists explicitly state how they’d address the gender continuum and the needs of non-binary youth, in addition to doing the vital work surrounding girls and women of color.

During this talk, Kimberlyn Leary referred to a quote from President Obama on the state of affairs for girls and women of color. “[They] struggle every day with biases that perpetuate oppressive standards for how they’re supposed to look and how they’re supposed to act. Too often, they’re either left under the hard light of scrutiny, or cloaked in a kind of invisibility.”

With such rich discourse around the inequities black and brown girls are facing, it was disheartening that the experts in the room didn’t have as much to say on the subject of queer and trans youth. How many more years are we, as activists, policy changers, and social reformers, going to keep having such basic conversations about queer and trans youth?

Rural and Native Communities

There was a call from the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions asking how we can get more individuals at the OYIF table, but Del Norte and Tribal Lands want to know how to keep those we’ve already invited. Rural and Native sites are struggling to stay at the table. It is unfortunate to see the continued dearth of public, private and philanthropic investment in rural and Native communities, which includes lower funding levels through OYIF. Right now, our indigenous communities are at the forefront of organizing the biggest environmental movement our generation has seen. According to the Rural Family Economic Success Network, nearly half of opportunity youth live in rural areas. By focusing primarily on the needs of urban communities, a larger divide seems to be created not just in the Aspen Forum, but within the youth perspective. If urban communities continue to remain more heavily funded, rural opportunity youth will always see the city as the solution to their community’s problems, which ultimately means, they will leave.

There are clearly opportunities for the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund to further engage the rural sites in our cohort. The need for this support, more specifically supporting indigenous communities, is undeniable. Native American boys are the most likely demographic to commit suicide. Native American women are 3.5 times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-Native women. And Native youth are incarcerated and killed by law enforcement at a disproportionately higher rate than youth of all other ethnic groups.  More than 100 different nations have gathered to #StandwithStandingRock and fight back against corporate greed. This kind of justice scares agencies tasked with pursuing social justice, but who are accustomed to propelling economic gains through traditional capitalist means. Environmental protection is an opportunity youth issue because of the damage that natural waste has on individuals, industry, and economy in rural lands such as salmon kills, health risks, and threats to traditional ceremonies. We have seen this firsthand.

Making it Work in Del Norte and Tribal Lands

We have seen many of these issues play out in the work we do in California. In particular, the need to empathize with those closest to the pain and cultivate authentic youth leadership in the movement led our backbone agency in Del Norte County to form the Empathy to Impact project, funded through The California Endowment (TCE). The project was born out of human-centered design, an approach to solving problems by listening to and including the people you’re designing for and ending with custom built solutions. Our organization wanted to address issues of employment and education the current opportunity youth population is facing. So we conducted interviews with a wide spectrum of opportunity youth, adult allies, and service providers. We are now working with stakeholders to understand the experience and come up with goals and strategies to address the needs of the opportunity youth population in both prevention and intervention.

Through our partnership with Building Healthy Communities (BHC), we have identified and are diving deeper into many of the larger issue areas that relate to opportunity youth. And we are incorporating these into the larger BHC work here in Del Norte and Adjacent Tribal Lands. One big issue we identified was literacy, looking at a child’s ability to read and write at age appropriate milestones as a key indicator of their ability to thrive as young adults. We also explored opportunities to build and strengthen Health Career Pathways, with a grant from TCE to build our own local diversified health care community.  Through the first stages of the work, health professionals and employers were asked, “What was your journey and how did you get here?” The key finding with this demographic was that these people had had an experience that made them want to help the people of their community. This project framed that past experience in a way that would bring professional stakeholders into the experience of the people OYIF aims to serve.

Structural Racism

The national policy agendas being lifted up by groups such as Black Lives Matter, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, and the Boys & Men of Color Coalition are incorporating youth voice and organizing to address structural racism in our country. In many of the sessions for site leads around creating OYIF policy agendas for rural and California sites, we discussed how we can create clear policy agendas to influence incoming administrations. By aligning our agendas on issues such as the school to prison pipeline, police brutality, and toxic masculinity, we have an opportunity to really lift up these issues on a national scale. Collaborative efforts and unity make stronger voices. So we are not whispers but a cohesive and loud yell that we care about these issues, that we see these issues, we support the change that needs to happen. Not only do we need to align with other National movements, but align ourselves as well in order to have a stronger and more powerful voice.

When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion. – Ethiopian Proverb