Intercultural Conversations: Empowering Youth with Community and Connection

2019 Intercultural Conversations participants at the Hopi Reservation. (Photo credit: Alexis Bunten, Bioneers Indigeneity Program Co-Director)

“If I could describe the experience into words it would be ‘loving,’ ‘family,’ ‘kindness,’ ‘hope,’ and a ‘new way of looking at life,’” said Jade Lewis, a Navajo youth from Fort Defiance, Arizona.

This student was part of the 2019 Bioneers Intercultural Conversations (IC) program: a transformative journey toward personal development and cross-cultural understanding.

This annual educational exchange pairs 20 Native youth and 20 non-Native youth from across the country to address critical issues facing Indigenous and all peoples. By providing a platform for discussion and in-person connection, the Intercultural Conversations program enriches students’ personal contexts for mediating cross-cultural tension, understanding complex issues, and speaking up for justice and inclusion.

Intercultural Conversations has a uniquely immersive curriculum unparalleled by any other program in the United States. Developed by Native American faculty, with the deep support of a visionary foundation, it employs a transformative approach that enables students to approach concepts, issues and events from multiple perspectives.

Youth participants had several touchpoints from which to start building relationships before meeting in-person. From February to May, they engaged in monthly virtual discussions about topics presented in Bioneers Indigeneity media. These discussions, formatted as “talking circles,” exposed students to new perspectives and critical thinking exercises as they delved into issues affecting Indigenous communities. Topics ranged from racism in school, to Mní Wičhóni (Water is Life), to intercultural allyship. These discussions were an integral part of the full curriculum, in addition to the lesson plans that facilitators provided between meetings.

“Youth who reach beyond their comfort zone to connect across cultural boundaries grow up to become more empathetic adults, more able to draw connections between ongoing environmental threats and systematic structures of oppression,” says Alexis Bunten, co-director of the Bioneers Indigeneity Program.

Bioneers is focused on uplifting solutions for restoring people and planet, but in order to build a more sustainable world, that change must be regenerative. As society navigates a civilizational crossroads between destruction and rebirth, it’s critical to prepare young people to step into their role as the next generation of visionary change makers. That’s why the skills students practice throughout Intercultural Conversations are nothing short of revolutionary in a world burdened by division and misunderstanding.

A New Group of Life-Long Friends

IC participants greet each other and elders on the second day together on the Navajo Reservation (Photo credit: Alexis Bunten)

Thirty-seven students participated in the 2019 Intercultural Conversations program. Bioneers selected youth interested in social and environmental issues from four schools across the country: 

  • Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California
  • American Indian Child Resource Center in Oakland
  • The New School in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Rez Refuge in Fort Defiance, Arizona

Despite coming  from diverse ethnic, cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds, the youth participants were united in their passion for social and environmental issues. This representation laid the framework for one of the main goals of Intercultural Conversations: for students to better understand and empathize with the unique, intersectional experiences of their peers.

“There’s not much diversity [at the New School] so being able to become friends with kids that come from different backgrounds and cultures was really refreshing and eye opening,” says Jane Elizabeth, a participant from the New School.

20 of the 2019 youth participants reported their race as Native American, eight as White, eight as Black, and five as Hispanic.

The 20 Native American participants represented 16 tribal backgrounds, but predominantly Navajo. Three of the four urban Native youth from Oakland that identified as Navajo had never set foot on their ancestral homeland before the Navajo Reservation cultural exchange. These urban Native youth also expressed more affiliation with multiple tribes — the roots of their family trees having been tangled in federal policy.

“Many of these youth were 3rd or 4th generation urbanites, as a result of the 1956 Indian Relocation Act during the Termination era,” said Bunten. “Many of their parents and grandparents married and/or had children with other relocated Native Americans from other tribes and parts of the country. As a result, many of the urban Indian youth have three to four tribal backgrounds.” 

Architecting a Life-Changing Experience

After months of exchanging dialogue and building friendships, participants got to join hands at the Navajo Reservation cultural exchange in June and again at the annual Bioneers Conference in October.

Rez Refuge hosted students at the Diné College on the Navajo Reservation. While the college dorms were the “home base” for participants during the cultural exchange, they spent much of their time outdoors, engaging in talking circles, eating meals together, playing games, and interacting with elders and culture bearers who joined them at the college.

“As soon as we stepped out onto the Diné College campus, I immediately felt the openness and love of everyone present and this feeling carried itself throughout the entire duration of the program,” said Chisom Nlemigbo, a Bishop O’Dowd student. “This has affected how I view my own relationships in life and the value of having a family and community that will always support you.”

The range of group activities helped participants weave together Indigenous wisdom and a profound respect for humanity’s interconnectedness. These activities served as learning experiences for all participants, Native and non-Native alike.

“Some of the Navajo student hosts experienced aspects of their traditional culture that some did not have access to previously, due to colonization, and family members embracing the non-Native way of life,” says Bunten.

That’s why the curriculum was designed with a strong service learning component. Participants got hands-on experience with activities that elucidated the struggles many Indigenous people face today — ripple effects lingering from the legacy of colonization.

Youth learned about land management and water issues in the area, like how peach orchards have dried up in Canyon de Chelly — the heart of the reservation — because mining projects subverted their underground water reserves. They also worked together with the Hopi people to clear an illegal dumpsite: one of about 1,000 on the Navajo Nation’s land. These makeshift landfills are often used out of necessity. Anti-Native racism has deterred sufficient infrastructure from being built, and poverty caused by historic relocations often prevent community members from being able to afford transfer station fees.

IC volunteers picking up trash at an illegal dumping site on Second Mesa, Hopi Reservation. (Photo credit: Alexis Bunten)

“Seeing how everyone on the Rez all worked together, not for personal gain, but rather for the common wellbeing of their community, definitely defies a common attitude among many current youth my age,” said Sofia Gonzalez, a student from Bishop O’Dowd.

The participants found deep meaning in the cultural immersion activities, especially slaughtering a lamb for a mutton stew dinner. This was an opportunity for Navajo elders to teach them to honor the lives of animals and understand humans’ interdependence with them. The students bonded not only while preparing the food, but also while eating it together.

“The trip was really fun and interesting. I learned that people help the earth any time they can. It was really cool how people from elsewhere are fascinated in what Native Americans do, like the day people butchered the sheep,” said Kody Yellowhair, a student from Rez Refuge.

IC participants cut lamb meat for stew and BBQ (Photo credit: Alexis Bunten)

As the week went on and the bonds became stronger between the youth participants, they began to reflect on the deeper themes and meaning of this experience. The essence of the Intercultural Conversations trip became readily apparent during the post-dinner bonfire on the fourth day. While sitting under stars that they had never seen so clearly, the youth from Oakland and Atlanta watched embers smolder as they discussed humanity’s role on this planet and what the future might look like.

These profound self-discoveries continued when the group reunited at the Bioneers Conference in San Rafael, California, months later. Their trips were sponsored by an anonymous foundation, led by visionaries who deeply care about building youth leadership through intercultural learning, and traditional ecological knowledge-based educational content. This one-of-a-kind experience empowered participants with lessons that they will be able to apply immediately and in the future, based on a strong foundation of empathetic leadership.

“Native youth enhanced and developed leadership skills through increased self-confidence resulting from being placed in the role of ‘expert’ based on their personal experience ‘walking in two worlds.’ The process empowered Native students to take pride and ownership in their culture,” says Bunten. “Non-Native youth learned how to be good allies, and accomplices to Indigenous issues. They learned how to navigate the complexities around how to support Indigenous and intersectional environmental and social justice issues, without abusing societally-imposed power differentials.”

The Roots Grow Deeper

“I fell in love with dusty desert trails, respectful culture, and most of all; the community we created. I felt intrinsically valued, and it allowed me to foster a love of learning outside the classroom,” said Joe Sweeney, a student from Bishop O’Dowd.

In order to change the world, students must understand its history. That’s why Intercultural Conversations is helping to break harmful stereotypes against this nation’s First Peoples by challenging the long-misinterpreted and one-sided narrative of their history. According to the Smithsonian, “87 percent of content taught about Native Americans includes only pre-1900 context. And 27 states did not name an individual Native American in their history standards.”

Not only has this initiative developed scalable discussion guides and curricula for Native American Studies, but it also lays the framework for maximizing the impact of these materials by engaging students through a personal lens. These lessons are imperative to highlight after having been white-washed out of formal education, especially in the process of decolonizing society and healing divisions rifted by systemic injustice.

Beyond the value of its curricula, IC provides an opportunity for young people to radically transform their worldview, cultivate a community with their peers and foster a deeper sense of purpose. This is especially important in empowering Native youth and strengthening their pride in their tribal identities. The Navajo participants experienced a transformation in their mindset about life on the reservation, after hearing the admirational feedback from others about their culture and homeland.

“I made a lot of friends with common interests that I never really thought people would like, and hearing of how people like me, wanting to learn about the Indigenous tribes, cultures, and traditions,” said Salote’ Willie, a student with Rez Refuge.

This opportunity to connect with like-minded peers unleashed feelings of belonging. At its core, IC exemplifies the interconnectedness of humanity — a truth taught best to the younger generation, as they’re passed the torch to lead a more united and compassionate world.

“From that one emotional and vulnerable talking circle we shared, to the conference, to the workshops, to the dance, to even my time alone…I didn’t stop feeling like I connected with those around me and with my own self,” said Imani Alsobrook, a student from the New School. “I’ll never forget how much fun I had and the wonderful new things that I’ve learned, not only about myself, but about the world and the different people that live in it.”

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