I believe that art can change the world.
It’s why I pursued my M.Ed. in arts education at Harvard, and it’s why I am thrilled that I have, post-graduation, taken on the role of executive director of Lakota Children’s Enrichment, Inc. (LCE), which strives empower youth on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Western, South Dakota, where I grew up, by providing chances to pursue arts, education, leadership and mentorship. It aligns perfectly with my desire to bring the same opportunities that have served me so well back to my community. This is especially important given the history of and the obstacles facing Native American Reservations reservations today.
Through my journey from Pine Ridge and back, now working with the reservation’s youth, I’ve learned a lot of lessons about pursuing dreams as young professionals of color. Whether you’re an artist, a writer, or something completely different, these career lessons are key to making moves.
No matter how small the opportunity, it could help open doors for you. I first became involved with LCE through its annual writing and art challenge, for which I submitted a spoken word piece about protecting Mother Earth in the wake of the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline as well as protecting Lakota people’s sacred lands such as Pe’ Sla in the Black Hills. Through LCE’s platform, my art was viewed by thousands, and I became the writing judge for the challenge for the next two years. I had no idea that sharing a piece of my work would contribute to my interest in arts education and ultimately lead to my post-graduate job, but here I am.
Staying in the loop with organizations or people with whom you’ve worked, partnered, or volunteered often proves valuable for your career. My first three months as the executive director of a nonprofit has helped me to realize how important this has been and continues to be to my professional development. I’ve reconnected with a former Dartmouth professor who has volunteered to speak at future LCE events and former supervisor who has become donor. Their advice and talents have been a huge part of my success in helping LCE thrive.
If you are in an entry-level position, it’s smart to be upfront with your supervisor or partnership organizations about your ultimate career or leadership goals and where you see yourself in, say, five years. When I worked at a nonprofit in Boston for one year after college, I told my supervisor that I aspired to be the leader of nonprofit and to bring arts, education, and mentorship opportunities to my tribe. Once she knew this, she gave me the opportunity to lead a project that educated mentors on how to support their mentees through the college application process, and another that allowed mentors and mentees to explore self-care through writing and drawing exercise. This was integral to my gaining the skills I needed to move my career forward.
As people of color, we sometimes run into implicit bias in the workplace. If you see or hear something that you believe is wrong, speak up and educate to correct ignorance in those around you. Once at a company social event, someone brought out photo in which they were dressed as a Native American for Halloween. I wasn’t sure what to do in that moment, but I decided to speak to this person one on one the next day. I told her that her actions were hurtful and offensive because they made me feel as if my culture was being caricatured, when in reality our regalia and our names are very important and sacred to our culture and identities. She thanked me for coming to her, apologized, and explained she had no idea that the photo was offensive and that it wasn’t her intention to hurt me.
Our peers are not always educated on how things they do or say could be construed as racist, because the ways in which racism and bias manifest themselves aren’t part of their everyday narrative. While speaking out isn’t always easy, it’s been my experience that others respect you for it. In this case, the company’s CEO approached me and thanked me for bringing this issue of diversity and inclusion to her attention.
Images courtesy of The Jopwell Collection