ORLANDO — Mary Kim Titla is the executive director of Unity. As such, she oversees the planning and execution of its yearly conference, which took place in Orlando this summer.
She’s been at the helm since 2013.
“Everyone loved Florida. We received an amazing welcome, not only from the host Seminole Tribe of Florida, but resort staff and the city of Orlando in general,” Titla said.
She said many attendees had never been to Florida, and even more where unaware of the culture and history of the Seminole Tribe.
But they were able to learn a little bit about the Tribe at a Unity welcome cultural event. Miss Indian World Cheyenne Kippenberger did her traditional Seminole hairstyling demonstration and Quenton Cypress staffed a booth in the exhibition hall about the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.
While Titla is involved in the conference programming and agenda, she is all about handing decisions over to the young people that the organization serves.
The conference agenda was jam packed with events, activities and keynote speakers. Each of the main conference days had a development theme: social, spiritual, physical and mental.
“What we do every year, and we pride ourselves on it, is that it’s youth led,” Titla said. “We seek youth input on everything; the planning is inclusive of the youth voice from keynotes to the agenda, to extracurricular activities. It matters to us.”
Part of the planning includes compiling the feedback from the previous year’s evaluations – what the youth liked, or perhaps didn’t like.
Keynote speakers the youth wanted to see this year included John Herrington (Chickasaw), Paulette Jordan (Coeur d’Alene), Vicky A. Stott (Ho-Chunk), Michelle McCauley (Paiute), Martin Sensmeier (Tlingit/Koyukon-Athabascan) and Kahara Hodges (Navajo).
Herrington is a retired U.S. Naval Aviator and former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut. In 2002, he became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space.
“All the keynotes posted on social media about the energy and the great time they had,” Titla said.
Most of the keynotes were new, but some, like Harrington, had attended Unity previously.
“He hadn’t been in a long time,” Titla said. “He came in 2004, just after he went into space.”
Meanwhile, Jordan ran in the Democratic primary to become governor of Idaho in 2018 and won, making her the first Native American to achieve that goal.
She lost the general election to her Republican opponent, but her race was inspiring to a wide swath of the population, especially Native Americans.
When Jordan took the stage at Unity, the huge room full of young people gave her a standing ovation.
“Paulette is a trailblazer. The youth think: ‘she did this and so can I,’” Titla said.
Titla, herself, was a successful TV news reporter for 20 years in the Tucson and Phoenix media markets. As a teenager, she was a part of Unity.
“I know firsthand how young people can be inspired and motivated just by experiencing Unity,” she said.
She attended her first conference in 1979 in Oklahoma. About 100 youth were there, she said.
“For me that was huge. My parents saw a spark in me and took me, my brother and sister to the conference,” she said.
Titla said a next step for the organization is to grow its youth councils. There are about 275 now.
“But there are more than 500 tribes, so you can see by the numbers alone there’s a long way to go. We want every tribe to support a youth council,” she said.
The Seminole Tribe is in the process of forming its own youth council.
Titla praised the Unity’s local planning committee that was made up of Seminole Tribal members.
“We are so thankful because we are a small staff and if we didn’t have the support it would be impossible,” she said. “That the Seminole Tribe of Florida saw the value in what we have to offer, it helped to keep fees low so more youth could come. We probably funded 100 youth who would not have been able to be there on their own.”