One of the most powerful tools in an advocate’s toolbox is a story. Advocates in all fields are often trained to build support for the cause they’re championing by collecting and telling stories, specifically stories about the people who would be impacted by the policies in question. Stories are indeed an important part of advocacy because they help establish connections and build empathy and understanding. However, they sometimes omit one key detail: the fact that the people we are advocating for have their own voice and their own power.
As advocates, we have to remember as often as possible to build our support directly on information from the experts: the people and communities we are advocating for. Those directly affected by an issue are often in the best position to share their truths and raise their issues. When they voice their own priorities and state their recommendations, advocacy is at its most powerful.
New Mexico Congresswoman Debra Haaland, now the first Native American person serving as Secretary of the Interior in President Biden’s Cabinet, has been using her voice and her power to advocate for the concerns of Native American communities in the United States. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo and Co-Chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Haaland has been focusing much of her work on tribal affairs.
In November, she introduced H.R. 8729, or Native American Languages Resource Center Act bill, which would establish a consortium of institutions to support the various Native American communities’ language programs in the United States, as well as reflect their culture and diversity. Through the Resource Centers, Native American language programs, schools, and educators could access resources to improve the capacity of current and future Native American language programs and revitalization efforts.
Perhaps most impactfully, the Resource Centers would support the acquisition of distance learning technologies and serve as a resource base for their use and implementation, thereby ensuring that instruction in heritage languages can be sustained and will be accessible by all.
The Native American Languages Resource Center Act bill has been endorsed by tribal organizations and has garnered the support of other groups working to protect Native American language education as well. The widespread support for this bill is a powerful example of the momentum that advocacy championed by the experts can gain.
When Haaland introduced her House companion bill to Senator Schatz’s, she stated,
“Over the past three decades Native-run nonprofits and tribal entities have developed exceptional Native American language immersion programs. The COVID-19 crisis threatens to destroy 30 years of progress made by grassroots efforts in vulnerable communities, progress that may not be able to be fully restored without prompt intervention. Operating with limited resources, Native American language schools and programs desperately need coordinated, experienced support in best practices, including how to use technology to instruct, develop teaching materials, and certify Native American language teachers.“
As a Native American person herself, Haaland is able to clearly identify and state-specific priorities needed in heritage language communities across the country and thus summarizes these needs in her bill.
Policy in practice
This was also the topic of a Policy in Practice breakout discussion at JNCL-NCLIS Language Advocacy Day this year. In this session, hosted by Mango Languages, attendees shared what effective advocacy for bills like the Native American Language Resource Center Act bill looks like and how the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on the existing progress in this area could be mitigated. Together with other language education experts, we explored lessons learned from our time advocating on Capitol Hill — lessons learned not only about how we can better elevate the stories of indigenous language communities, but also about our own roles as educators and language experts. How do we rally around these communities without getting in their way?
Amongst many powerful ideas and passionate discussions, the consensus remained that advocacy has to begin with the people living the experiences. Whether it is legislators like Congresswoman Haaland and her tireless efforts to create legislation on Native American affairs, or advocacy groups establishing platforms to support tribes, or language-learning software providers working directly with indigenous communities to feature their voices and priorities, the starting point for all advocacy must be the experts.
This does not mean that we as non-Native individuals can disengage from the issues — quite the contrary. We have an obligation to advocate for Native American affairs. If advocacy starts in the right place — with the experts — we can be an ally that listens to their needs, amplifies their voices, and elevates their causes.
One of the best ways to do this is to get involved with the Joint National Committee on Language (JNCL) and take advantage of the many advocacy materials they have already created. Even better, join their next Language Advocacy Day, an event that gathers language experts from around the country and offers powerful lessons on how to speak directly to state legislators and argue for key policies.