Native American Issues

Welcoming Young People to the Table

January 17, 2019  • Dan Porterfield

Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield delivered welcoming remarks at an event organized by the Center for Native American Youth on January 17, 2019. Follow him on Twitter at @DanPorterfield.

Thank you, Erik, for that lovely introduction. It is great to be here and to see all of you.

A little while ago I met today’s panelists—Devin and Anthony and Kyra and Carina. Whenever you are with Erik, he introduces you to fantastic young people who are really making a difference. It is always a partnership between the staff of the Center for Native American Youth and young people to try to create together something that neither generation possible could make alone.

It wasn’t too long ago that I met this extraordinary young guy named Trenton Casillas-Bakeberg who was on a panel like this one. Trenton spoke about coming of age, about stepping into his leadership, about the pride of his community, and how he hopes he can be a voice of empowerment for native youth and for all youth.

Trent had this line—it was haunting (no pressure) and it was amazing. He said, “I used to think that not voting was an act of rebellion. Now I believe it is an act of surrender.” This insight, which he had come to through his participation in the Fresh Tracks program as a young leader, activated his desire to be a difference maker in society and to make sure he’s always at the table.

There is always a table where decisions get made. Donnell Bailey is one of my great friends and young mentees who I met when I was President of Franklin & Marshall College. Donnell a survivor of Katrina who lived in Houston with his mom for years before they finally got back to New Orleans. Donnell Bailey always says “there’s going to be a table, there is always a table, and if I’m not at the table, somebody else is going to be at that table.”

So, Donnell was always putting himself at that table, and that’s what you are doing, putting yourself at that table. And I really think part of being at the table as young people is understanding other young people. It is about how to find unity in difference. It is about how to understand the diversity of cultural backgrounds among the young and how to understand the commonalities, the similarities. It is about how to develop together agendas that can make a difference for your generation, for society, and maybe even be a model for older people about what it means to build relationships that transcend the supposed divides of identity while respecting the beauties and particularities of every culture. That’s what I think you are modeling for us today—thank you.

The Center for Native American Youth and this forum take inspiration from you and from what you are doing, and that makes people like me want to go out and do more—to find more resources to invest more in young people, and also to learn myself what are some of the ideas that aren’t self-evident to me but that I can learn by being in relationship with the young. The older and the younger are always in relationship.

And thank you for taking the time to do this! These four young people, they’re all college students who are also working and developing in relation to one another.

Sometimes people talk about “mind, body, spirit.” I think this is really important—we are more than just one thing. We are a mind—we are a consciousness and sensibility. But we are also a physical entity—a body. And we are also are a spirit or a soul—pick the word you want to use that captures our relationship with the transcendent.

What people don’t always say is that we are also something else—citizen. By definition as citizens we are in relation to one another. As Dr. King said, “I can only be what I am to be if you are what you are to be and you can only be what you are to be if I am what I am called to be.” That notion that we are mind, body, spirt, and citizen is one that we sometimes forget in our society. We forget the radical interdependence. We forget the radical mutuality that comes with being a human being on the planet Earth.

In fact, taking stock of the fact that there is something called the planet Earth, we sometimes forget that there is grandeur in the world around us. Sometimes, when you take stock of that grandeur, in the beauty in the world around us, it can remind you to hold hands, human to human, and protect each other and our planet. We learn that in dialogue with one another.

So for me, being here with you today is a chance for me to say thank you to you, a chance to pour a little water back in my own reservoir, into my spirit and soul, so that I can remember how powerfully important it is to take the risk and to spend the time to reach out and learn in a cross-cultural way and how building bonds of dialogue, friendship, and understanding can lead us to be even more fully alive to the community we come from and to the humanity we share. And I am positive that if those of us who are a little bit older than you can really absorb the lessons from you about how you spend your time, we can do better in our work for young people to make sure we build a world in which all of us are able to flourish as human beings.

So, thank you. Thank you for spending your time with us, for being part of Fresh Tracks, for all your support of Fresh Tracks and the Center for Native American Youth. Thank you so much for believing in the power of the young and in how much it matters that we welcome people at the earliest stages of their lives and their careers to the platform and to the table so that your voice, your ideas, and your presence animates the national conversation about who we are as a people. Thank you.