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Power of Empathy in Native Youth Leadership

Healing Indigenous Lives Youth Submission: Kyleigh Shipman 

In my early childhood, I witnessed close relatives struggling with substance abuse. After speaking with them, I have come to the understanding that these are battles in which a person begins to lose control. This has had a major impact on my life, and I had to learn how to handle situations that include substance abuse and alcoholism at a very young age. I learned that letting a person know that people are supporting them and assisting them in whatever they need. Learning empathy for others has shaped my leadership. These struggles with incarceration and generational addictions have made me stronger and a better helper for my people.

A close cousin-sister of mine was recently jailed as the result of her addiction, but I know that when she is able to talk about the situation, the conversation usually leads to why she was under the influence. She talks to me about the underlying issues and allowing her to talk about them seems to lift a weight off her shoulders and provides an outlet to everything that goes on in her mind. So many struggle. They simply need that extra push to realize how many people want them to succeed. We can help people turn pain into growth if we take time to be there for them.

“I have learned about the importance of empathy. Learning from other peoples’ perspectives and opening my mind to different points of view has shown me how to assess situations and handle them with everyone involved in mind. Empathy is crucial within a leader because they need to be capable of understanding a problem fully to work towards a solution and moving forward from there.”

Kyleigh is Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Navajo, and Chickasaw.

Cultural knowledge is very key when it comes to a person’s identity. There are a lot of people who did not grow up traditionally and have difficulty trying to get into the culture but do not know how or where to start. Because of this, people lose a sense of who they are or where they come from, especially among Indigenous Youth. Growing up in the city, and off of the reservation, it has been difficult to find my identity because not only are Native Americans not prevalent, but many of my peers are unaware that we still exist. However, with my recent involvement in UNITY, and my youth council, I realize that being around other Natives has had a positive impact on my overall social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health. Being able to dive into learning about my inter-tribal cultures has given me a sense of belonging and I have encouraged so many of my Native peers to do so as well. Providing opportunities to even just meet with other Natives from different tribes and their upbringings is very empowering because they can identify with a group of people very similar to themselves.

Establishing a Youth Council: In my life, I am most proud of co-establishing and co-leading my school’s first ever Native American Club. As mentioned earlier, I’ve struggled with cultural identification my whole life because I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. When I would go back home to the reservation, I was seen as a city kid because I grew up much different than the kids there. However, when I went to school, it felt like I was the only person who did not speak Spanish or grow up with a Hispanic background. I felt out of place and once I got older, I began to realize that I was not the only person that felt this way. Another Native friend and felt these same strong feelings, so we came together and set goals to work toward. If we could create an environment where people felt they belonged and promoted Native pride, we could all come together. This ball was hard to get rolling and we faced very discouraging times, but we overcame them and continued to push through. We did not expect to have very many members, but we believed if we could do this and impact even one person, it was worth it. Eight months later, we created a proud community beyond our school and to the other schools in our district to just celebrate being Native Youth and going to places where members found opportunities to develop and exercise their leadership skills.



What would you tell a Native Youth who struggles to see themselves as a leader?

I would remind my fellow Native Youth to reflect on our great historical Indigenous leaders. I would let them know that we were not meant to be divided into strictly leaders or strictly followers. Becoming a leader is a matter of an individual finding their own personal calling or purpose and standing for it. Many fail to understand that leaders do not always have to be so large scale. A great leader will stand by their word and will lead those around them to reach a common goal, inspiring others to lead as well.

Three major issues of concern which face those impacted by the juvenile justice system are that they are not aware of the resources available to them, they struggle to fit in, and they are challenged staying productive, which would keep them out of trouble. There are many programs that might help young people and keep them on track, such as mentorships. People do not take advantage of opportunities because they are not aware of them or they may not know how to reach out and ask for these things. Another issue is lack of cultural identity. Many people oftentimes are quick to judge those who do not know their cultural traditions and are unwilling to help pass on these teachings.  Because of this, some youth may feel they don’t fit in and feel they can’t contribute to their community in that way. Last, more needs to be invested into the youth because we are going to eventually lead society, and being able to develop skills now is going to help us in the future. Developing activities for young people and inspiring them to get involved in would be very helpful. In schools, more money can be directed to the fine arts and athletics so students have something to do after school, such as clubs and sports.