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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Featured Fellow: Maya Torralba
Interview conducted by Dan Klein, spring and summer 2008 YP4 communications intern, for July 2008.

Maya TorralbaMaya Torralba is the proud mother of Chado and twins Matthias and Kateri. She is also the founder of the Community Esteem Project in Anadarko, Oklahoma and a 2008 Young People For fellow at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. In this interview, she talks about the importance of community esteem, the power of traditions and how other YP4 fellows have inspired her.

Maya, what do you stand for?
That’s a big one. Helping people, unifying different types of people. Really, I stand for helping people — that’s what I like to do.

Tell me about your Blueprint for Social Justice.
It’s called the community esteem project. What I’m focusing on is building community esteem in Anadarko, Oklahoma. I want to work with young Native American girls, preferably between the ages of 12 and 18, and work with them on their self-esteem and how that relates to building community esteem in our town. What they’ll do is come in twice a week and work on a curriculum geared towards building their self-esteem through teaching traditional native values and sitting with women Native American elders while they’re doing this.

Why is it important to build esteem in Native American girls? Is that a major problem?
What I found working in the educational sector in town is that [the girls] have a defeatist mentality in their education and academic work. I worked out [...] that it seemed to come from the home. They don’t feel like they can achieve good grades or finish school or actually graduate high school. They don’t feel like they’re smart enough, good enough or that it matters. So I created a root cause tree so I could see where it came from. [The root cause tree is part of the curriculum at the YP4 National Summit, which kicks off the fellowship year.]

And the root cause is home life?
There are a number of factors. There are historical factors — loss of culture through assimilation and government policy that was geared towards assimilating Native Americans into a culture they weren’t used to.

The result of that was a loss of culture and the question, “Where do these girls fit in society?” If they’re not assimilated into mainstream culture they gravitate toward bad elements: gang activity, substance abuse or domestic violence. They feel like they don’t fit into society. But with this curriculum we’re trying to show them that they do fit in, because they make their own spot in society. They don’t have to “fit” anywhere. They make their own spot by going back to their traditions.

How do you reintroduce them to those traditions?
The plan is to have elder women sit with them, talk with them, tell them about their life experiences and how they’ve overcome different obstacles in their lives — whether that be substance abuse or domestic violence or getting out of the game — and how they’ve managed to survive better for themselves.

At the same time, the elders that I’ve spoken with that have had these experiences are very traditional. They’ve come back to their traditional ways. They may know traditional native language, religious songs — we call them hymns — or how to make regalia, be that moccasins or dresses or shawls. Then there are the stories that go along with traditional values and morals, old stories that have been passed down forever. A lot of these women know these stories that have a message that these girls don’t necessarily hear at home, but would be able to hear in this program.

What’s been your biggest struggle as a progressive leader?
Getting people within the town to see this as a program to help the whole community, not just the native community.

How do you deal with that?
That’s the part where the community esteem comes in. We have a high population of Native Americans that live in our town. We are the town, y’know? But we don’t contribute a lot to the economic development of the town. There’s a high unemployment rate, a high dropout rate, there’s teen pregnancy. In building these ladies’ self-esteem, they realize their connection to the town, [that] where they live matters and how they live matters and how they better that lifestyle betters the community. So that’s how I’ve put it together.

What’s been your biggest success as a progressive leader?
This is it. This Blueprint is the biggest one so far. The biggest success.

What’s a strategy you’ve found that you think works?
Working with media, from what I’ve seen. Getting that information out, asking for volunteers and asking for help. Rather than saying I’m going to do this and this is how it’s going to be, I’m open to suggestions and help. It makes it a more organic program.

What’s an approach you’ve tried that hasn’t worked so well?
Giving suggestions instead of acting on them. That’s the biggest one.

What inspired you to apply for the YP4 fellowship?
Kevin Killer.

(Kevin, who is a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe, completed the 2006 YP4 fellowship and the 2007 Front Line Leaders Academy, through which he won the mock election to be president of Young People For. We laugh because Kevin Killer kicks ass.)

He’s been a big inspiration.

What about Kevin Killer?
That he’s very successful and you can tell he’s benefited from YP4... and he still is [benefiting] now! That was very encouraging to see that, and to see a young Native American man achieve so much. That he was willing to spread the word about YP4, that helped a lot too. He’s a good guy and he’s got amazing energy. I thought, “If Kevin can do it, that’s awesome.” So I felt like I definitely wanted to.

What has stood out to you about the program so far?
The fact that people want to do so much for other people. The open arms and saying, “Here is all our support, here are all our resources, here’s a path and someone to help you along the way.” That’s been amazing and I’m so glad to be a part of it.

How would you like to see the progressive movement change for the future?
That’s the whole point, isn’t it? It’s progressive so it’s always going to change. To make sure that it doesn’t become a cookie cutter image of itself, that it doesn’t become marketed. That’s the biggest thing... We need to make sure that it stays organic and pure.

What’s next for you?
Well, I’ve been accepted into the Front Line Leaders Academy.

Thank you very much. I’ll be working with that, and I’ll continue to work on my Blueprint and have it become a success.

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