Each year in Washington, D.C., the Center for Native American Youth (CNAY) at the Aspen Institute honors a group of young and inspirational Native leaders.
The five “Champions for Change” choose their own personal platforms and issues to advocate for on behalf of Native youth across the country and abroad.
Organizers choose the winners because of their track record of involvement, high goals and expectations of a far-reaching influence in their communities and beyond.
The five youth were in D.C. in February for a week-long series of events that culminated in a ceremony honoring their achievement. This year marked the seventh class of Champions – all under 24 years old.
“There are so many things we can do to make life much, much better for Native American youth,” said former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the founder and chairman of CNAY, at the final day of activities on Feb. 12.
Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (2013 to 2017) was a featured guest at the event and praised the youth for their achievement.
“You’ve all experienced difficult things and you know what it’s like to be responsible for others and yourself, inspiring others like you, and those of us in the room,” Jewell said.
The Champions program is designed to highlight positive stories of impact from Indian Country. It was inspired by a 2011 White House initiative to develop young Native leaders through experience based learning and tailored advocacy training.
“Too often the conversation about Native youth focuses only on seemingly insurmountable problems,” CNAY organizers said in a statement. “This is why we provide platforms for youth … where they can build their own narratives that focus on their strengths, culture and the positive things they’re doing to improve lives in their community.”
Champions receive leadership and communications training, meet with their elected representatives and develop plans to implement their initiatives throughout their one-year term.
They are asked to serve on the CNAY youth advisory board and play a significant role in its work throughout the year.
Champions have access to ongoing opportunities where they can contribute to a national dialogue on critical issues affecting youth in Indian Country.
As part of the Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative launched by President Barack Obama, CNAY also manages the National Native Youth Network. The network includes more than 2,300 members and continues to grow.
Meet the Champions
The following are edited profiles of the five Champions for Change honorees.
• Adam Soulour (Mohegan Tribe), 20, wants to work with youth in his community to get them involved in youth councils. He also focuses on cross-culture shares, learning from other tribes and having youth share the Mohegan culture with different Indigenous peoples.
• Charitie Ropati (Central Yup’ik, Village of Kongiganak) was born and raised in Anchorage and is attending Service High School as a 17 year old senior. She serves as student representative on the Native Advisory Committee within the Anchorage School District. Ropati has been working on an initiative to incorporate Indigenous regalia in graduation ceremonies. Decolonizing the Western standard of education is of her priority. She will soon attend Columbia University to study civil engineering.
• Shandiin Herrera (Navajo Nation), 21, is a senior at Duke University. As a Diné woman and an advocate for Indigenous rights, Herrera has a passion for public service. Her platform is dedicated to engaging Native youth in the political process. As an intern, Shandiin worked in the office of U.S Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, assisting his policy advisers on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
• Madison White (Akwesasne Mohawk) is the oldest of 13 siblings. She is the great granddaughter of the last living Mohawk Code talker, Levi Oakes and relative of the late Native activist and leader of the Occupation of Alcatraz, Richard Oaks. White wants to create a support group for victims of sexual assault and establish a full immersion language school that has a teaching certification option and resource center for adults.
• Autumn Adams (Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation), 22, is a senior at Central Washington University. She plans to advocate for the children impacted by the Indian Child Welfare Act. Due to the recent attack on ICWA, she believes it is imperative for the voices of those affected to be heard.
CNAY works with Native youth – 14 to 23 years old – on reservations and in urban areas across the country to improve their health, safety and overall well-being. The group has a special emphasis on suicide prevention.
More information is available at cnay.org.