How Renton’s Tribal Liaison Connects Families & Students to Heritage, History

Tommy Segundo is the Native American Education program liaison for Renton School District and comes from the Haida Nation of Southeast Alaska, Katzie First Nation of British Columbia, as well as Filipino. He has worked with Native American/Alaska Native youth across Washington State for more than ten years.

From Tommy’s professional bio:

“Education has been the focus in all the work I do, but I am also very big on culture and incorporating that into promoting all levels of education. This is more than just a career for me and is something that is very important to me on a personal level. And anyone who knows me or worked with me in any capacity will tell you the same.”

The following is a Q&A with Tommy.

Tell us about what you do in Renton!

I do a lot different things. I am an advisor and counselor for Native American students and families in twenty-six schools. This includes students from elementary, middle and high school and two alternative schools. I serve roughly 280 Native students throughout the district.

Tommy speaking on Mixed-race and Native Identity.

I work under a federal grant (Title VI Indian Education) that funds my position and the program. Some of the main objectives for the grant include “dropout prevention.” That’s a broad subject. Dropout prevention can mean meeting with students, mentoring, counseling one-on-one, monitoring attendance (biggest factor leading to drop out), and working with teachers that are working with Native American students and their families to, as well as administrators. I do a lot of family outreach as well. You could consider my role the bridge between the school district and Native families and students. I am there to help with issues or barriers these students face. Some of the other objectives of the grant include higher education and/or career preparation. I graduated from the University of Washington and also worked as an admissions counselor, so I help students with college planning, applications, scholarships and just try to motivate them to want to go on to college.

It could be discipline issues, it could be absence or absenteeism. I am along for IEP [The Individualized Education Program, also called the IEP, is a document that is developed for each public school child receiving special education] meetings, making sure that students are being supported in their own way and that schools are using best practices to do this.

How does your school community incorporate Native American culture into your classroom?

At an urban/suburban school, many students and families are not connected with their cultural side or know much about their Native heritage. This is due to many varying factors. So I host culture nights where we do activities like drum making, Native art classes, we host Native story tellers who share traditional stories. Sometimes we have dance groups. It’s important to give them exposure to native culture, that’s something they might not have received. It also helps students that are coming from rural reservations where they are exposed to this, too. It helps them stay connected to their native culture.

For Native American Heritage month, I put together a list for all the high schools in my district, of fun facts in regards to Native Americans culture, history, famous figures etc. One for each day of school were to be read during morning announcements to all students, faculty, and staff.

What barriers do your students face?

Sometimes students feel that because they don’t know much about their Native culture or are not connected in any way, that they don’t feel as if they should be a part of the program, or use my help. There is definitely resistance from some families. They don’t have that connection that others do. They may feel as if they don’t belong.

Also, there’s a misconception that Native Americans are such a small population, however, they aren’t a small population in this state. That’s where my job comes into play. There are people like [Title VI Coordinators] me all over the state. It’s our job to bridge that gap and inform teachers and administrators to understand the cultural background, and importance of histories of Native people in education.

Boarding schools, for example, is a darker part of Native history that a lot of people don’t know about. A lot of missionaries would go into tribal lands and forcefully take children. They would cut their hair and wouldn’t let them speak their Native languages. It was forced assimilation essentially. My grandparents were in boarding schools. Because of their experience in boarding school, they didn’t teach my mother the language, even though they were fluid speakers of Haida. A lot of languages and/or culture was lost through boarding schools. Now, it’s a struggle to keep some Native languages/culture alive. It’s generational trauma.

Also, because many of our traditions and stories are orally passed down, there’s not a lot written down. It’s about losing culture. That’s why students and families feel like they don’t have that connection. I want to help them reconnect and reclaim their culture.

What are some of the successes you’ve experienced in your role?

To me, any student who graduates from high school is a success. Whether they go on to college or not. Native students have the highest drop-out rates and lowest graduation rates across the board. They have so many different barriers that I didn’t mention, that anytime they graduate, its cause for celebration. So at the end of every school year, I hold a celebration to honor their hard work and dedication. This past school year I honored them with a gift, a framed art print, by a well-known Native artist, so that they can keep that to remind them that they have accomplished something that many others were not able to. All students and families are invited to this, so that the younger students can see it and have something to look forward to. I have also worked with high standing students who went on to college with full-ride academic scholarships. But success is celebrated all the same in our program.

I graduated from Renton High School, the school I where I currently work. The woman I took over for, she was my mentor growing up, and she was in this position for 37 years. She was a big part of me going to college and getting my degree. I have been working with Native American students since I graduated ten years ago. She had no idea where I would go once I graduated, but her main focus was that I graduate. I wouldn’t be here doing this interview had I not trusted her guidance. So I wanted to make a positive influence in my community and dedicated my career to helping students in the same way. Who knows, maybe one of these students will come back and work in this position one day.

What do you love about education in our state?

I love the progressiveness of education in Washington State. For example, as of the start of the 2016–17 school year, school districts are required by state law to incorporate Native culture, history and governance into their curriculum, using the “Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in WA State” Curriculum. The goal is to provide a more thorough and accurate teaching of history, better engage Native American students, and close the achievement gap. Not only is this important for Native students, it’s also important for non-native students and teachers and administrators to know and learn about the first people of this land. I believe that Washington State is one of two states to implement such laws. For us Native people, this means a lot!

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