Indigenous Youth Power

At The Liber Institute, young people from Indigenous communities across the country use design to hone insights and advocate for change

Jonathan Santos Silva has been working since 2019 to found The Liber Institute, an organization serving Indigenous educators, families, and young people in South Dakota. Guided by his board, Santos Silva works to create opportunities for Indigenous leaders to re-imagine schools and communities as places where their languages and cultures flourish. The Liber Institute believes that young people should see the line from what they’re being taught to the things that matter to them, both culturally and linguistically.

During Summer 2020, The Liber Institute partnered with Cambiar Education to launch The Liber Institute and Cambiar Wayútȟokeča: Change Agents program, a 2-week intensive experience for 20 Indigenous young people from North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Washington state. Wayútȟokeča is a Lakota word meaning “to change, modify, or transform,” and the participants are referred to in the program as change agents. Krystal, one of the young people who participated in this summer’s programming, says the adults were very adaptive to change agents. “They didn’t call us students,” Krystal says. “We’re not learning from teachers; we’re learning and collaborating alongside elders and each other.” This sense of family and collaboration was threaded into the very fabric of The Liber Institute’s summer programming. Change agents started each day with a “blessing,” which could be a prayer song, prayer, words of affirmation, or well wishes. One of the facilitators had a young son who came in the room during sessions and occasionally stayed in the background playing. People had music floating through the speakers of their video calls, families were laughing and talking. Krystal fondly remembers small details like these as she thinks back on her time in the program. “If we started going off topic they didn’t pull us back. They let us talk. They let us find our way back to the work.”

In the thick of this learning community, change agents asked a big question: “How might we counter the marginalization of Indigenous young people and their families by ensuring that the schools and classrooms they return to are spaces of radical belonging for each person?” Using this question as a starting point, they then conducted 65+ empathy interviews with elders and peers. According to Krystal, in these interviews they learned to ask “Why?” so much that there was nothing left to say, and interviewees then asked questions that stretched and re-shaped change agents’ original thinking. From there, they distilled their empathy interviews into insights, crafted centering questions, and proposed solutions. At the end of the program, change agents had the opportunity to pitch their innovations to leaders from Tribal education departments, schools & districts, and education nonprofits.

These insights were rich. Elders communicated to change agents clearly that it was the community’s responsibility to help their young people. “That’s what it means to be a leader,” Krystal says. “They believe in laying foundations for newer generations. [In the interviews,] one elder sang, one did a dance. They want learning to be enriching… an experience where you can ask questions and go outside. Learn the plants. Hear and see for yourself. Not just read a book and answer comprehension questions.”

Santos Silva’s role as a dad has reinforced these beliefs about education. He and his family have been spending their COVID-19 quarantine watching movies together, dancing to Cambodian and Cape Verdean music in their South Dakota living room, and his son learned to read motivated by the desire to better understand the messages on the screen of a video game he loves. Learning happens anywhere, and has to be deeply connected to one’s desires and identity, Santos Silva believes.

It is this re-imagining of learning, born out of a deep sense of interconnectedness and purpose, that is propelling The Liber Institute into their future work. They are asking: What if we center the relationships between young people and their language and culture, value what their communities have to offer, and strengthen these heart ties from educator to young person to community? It’s hard work but it is worth it, Santos Silva would tell you. It takes a tilling of the soil, a breaking up of the monotony, doing things in a different way than they’ve been done before. It takes boldness. “Be who you are and speak your language,” one elder, Sage Fast Dog Sr., told change agents. “Be a part of the world.”

The Liber Institute was an awardee of the inaugural Enduring Ideas award, given by The Reinvention Lab and powered by Teach For America. To learn more about all Enduring Ideas awardees, click here.

Illustration is by Drew Madson. Madson is an award-winning illustrator, educator, caricaturist, and doodler. His work has been featured in Harvard Ed. Week Magazine, The Harvard Citizen, CSB/SJU Record, and more.