By Wilhelmina Yazzie
Wilhelmina Yazzie (Diné) is the inaugural recipient of the National Education Association’s Wilma Mankiller Memorial Award. It is one of 11 NEA Human and Civil Rights awards, the organization’s highest and most prestigious awards, honoring exemplary individuals and organizations in education work. Ms. Yazzie lives in Gallup, New Mexico and is the parent of three children. She is a named plaintiff in the landmark education lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico.
My mother and grandmother’s teachings are my greatest motivators in life. They taught me that in our Diné culture, children are sacred and it’s our responsibility to prepare them for “iina’,” what we call “life” in Navajo. My grandmother raised me to be proud of my culture, where I’m from and who I am. My late mother, an educator for 30 years, taught me to do what I could for all of the children in our community, not just my own.
That’s why it’s so meaningful to me and such an honor to be chosen as the first recipient of the National Education Association’s Wilma Mankiller Memorial Award. She fought for equal rights for Native American people and is one of the most influential Indigenous leaders of our time. Her work toward equity in schools is a huge inspiration. She is someone who has done such impactful work for our people. She left a great legacy to follow.
For a long time, I have been concerned that my children, and all children, were not getting the education they need. They weren’t even getting the basics, much less a culturally relevant education. They still aren’t.
When we go to school our background and culture isn’t included or represented, there’s a sense of confusion. The same pattern of not being accepted and feeling like we don’t belong in the public school system has been repeated for generations. These are the relics from the boarding and residential schools and the forced assimilation era that we’re still fighting today.
I didn’t think anyone would listen to my concerns about education. Then I learned that New Mexico’s children have a constitutional right to a sufficient education and that there are protections for students who are Native American, Hispanic, English Language Learners, low-income, and children with disabilities. I joined the Yazzie v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, and I decided to speak out.
It’s been three years since we won, but we’re still not where we should be. Despite the legal victory and the years of work and building with other families and allies, we’re still fighting for an equitable education that meets the needs of all our children.
It’s time for our leaders to be courageous and make real changes for our kids. All across the country, people are standing up against the inequities caused by hundreds of years of systemic racism. It’s time for our state to stop fighting the lawsuit and instead address the inequities in our schools.
As we continue this work, I’m hopeful that all the attention that has been brought to this case and to our education system will lead to the state making the meaningful changes that our students need now and deserve.
I’m grateful and humbled beyond words to receive this award on behalf of the children—my own and all of the children across our state—and the other families and school districts who are part of this lawsuit and standing up on behalf of their communities.
Like my grandmother and mother would always say, “Our children are our future.” It’s our job to do right by them.