In spite of the coronavirus pandemic, and in many cases because of it, grassroots organizing has led to numerous monumental changes this year.
In Navajo Nation, resident Allie Young in the spring helped launch Protect the Sacred, an organization that works to empower the next generation of Navajo leaders, starting with curbing the spread of Covid-19 and calling for greater relief efforts from the federal government.
As the community worked to contain the virus through the summer and fall, Young, 31, turned her attention toward U.S. Census and voter registration efforts ahead of the November presidential election. She led trail rides to inspire young voters to exercise their right while connecting with their culture.
Action from many Native American leaders and their allies made a difference this year. Turnout among Native American voters in Arizona surged compared with the 2016 presidential race, playing a key role in Joe Biden winning the state that hasn’t supported a Democrat in the White House since 1996. And recently, President-elect Biden announced his nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Department of Interior, which would make her the country’s first Native American Cabinet secretary.
Young, who organized to support this appointment, says it “marks an emotional and historic day for Indian Country and American history.”
“This is a proud moment for our people and our youth who can finally see someone who looks like us in a position of change-making power and who will lead us like our ancestors have for centuries,” Young says. “Rep. Haaland is also a strong person for the job, and we’ve already seen her accomplish historical wins as congresswoman. She got four bills passed under the Trump administration, which reflects her unwavering advocacy and fight for Indigenous peoples. She is my personal shero and I cannot wait to be just like her one day.”
With that said, ongoing surges of Covid-19 in the U.S. are exacerbating longstanding health and economic disparities in Navajo Nation. Here, Young shares with CNBC Make It her reflections on 2020, and how she’s channeling momentum from a challenging year into the one ahead.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“The creation of Protect the Sacred and everything we’ve accomplished through that, from Covid response and being able to call out for medical volunteers, monetary donations, PPE and essential supplies. We worked with Navajo Nation President Johnathan Nez to bring support and resources our nation needed when the federal government wasn’t getting us funding.
“Our community came together to ensure the virus wasn’t going to win. We came together as a community to protect our people. It’s how we’ve always survived.
“The second thing, of course, was the voter turnout in Arizona and our work there with Ride to the Polls. I didn’t know this kind of action could inspire so many people. That was a powerful moment, to see my community show up in the way we did and show the rest of the world: We’re still here fighting, and we are powerful when we come together.”
“Hang on and keep believing what we’re doing. That’s from my mother, who is a very spiritual person. I look to her — my whole family does — when we need guidance. Times are tough with this kind of work, so I’d go to her and ask her to say a prayer, because they’re so powerful.
“She always reminded me: We’re going to get through this as long as we continue to lean into our teachings and our spirituality as Dine (Navajo) people. We will overcome this, because we’ve been through a lot throughout history. I definitely saw that as we flattened the curve the first time Navajo Nation was being hit.”
“I’ve been fortunate in my previous positions and current role to get time off for holidays. Usually for the last two weeks of the year, I indulge in self-care and do my very best to completely unplug and enjoy my family, as well as catch up on TV shows, books and podcasts.
This year, I’ll see how it goes, as Navajo Nation is being hit with a second wave that’s already worse than the first.”
“There’s still work to be done.
“Protect the Sacred will be distributing hygiene kits with disinfectants, hand sanitizer, PPE, gloves, hats and other winter items. It’s something we’re working on alongside more public-health messaging during the pandemic.
“Covid response is going to be our first priority, as well as holding the new presidential administration accountable. Native people showed up for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris, and there are things we certainly want to be invited to the table to discuss, like climate change and policies that pertain to tribal communities.
“Beyond that, something Protect the Sacred is focused on is developing the leadership of young people in this moment. We want to continue providing them with opportunities to develop that leadership as advocates and activists, not only in Indian country, but in a lot of communities of color across the nation. The future is our youth.
“We’ve only just started, and we’re excited about 2021 and our future.”