Sarah Schilling (Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians) is a 21-year-old sophomore at Washtenaw Community College in Michigan and an alumnus of the Center for Native American Youth’s youth leadership development program, Champions for Change. Sarah was recognized as a Champion for Change in 2013 for her work to establish her tribe’s first-ever youth council, complete with its own constitution, bylaws, code of conduct, and affiliation with the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY) network. Under Sarah’s leadership, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Youth Council hosted youth retreats, talking circles and other community events to address issues such as underage drinking prevention, anti-bullying and suicide prevention, among others.
Since 2013, Sarah’s leadership interests have evolved to focus even more on mental health, with a particular passion for increasing grief and bereavement resources for young people affected by youth suicide in Indian Country. She is also working to gain more experience and knowledge related to overall health policy, IHS facilities, diet and nutrition, and other factors that play a part in creating better environments, stronger families, and better relationships between people in Native communities. Sarah has volunteered her time and expertise to speak at numerous events that elevate these and other Native youth priorities. One example includes Sarah’s involvement in a CNAY federal resource roundtable aimed at increasing prioritization of Native youth issues across agencies and sectors.
Recently, Sarah began participation in the Native American Political Leadership Program (NAPLP) at George Washington University, a full scholarship, semester-long program for Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian students who wish to learn more about US political decision-making systems and processes. Through the program, Sarah is enrolled in two courses – Electoral and Legislative Process and Native Policy, and Grassroots Organization. Sarah says that her Grassroots Organization course has been especially helpful in learning to develop a clear mission statement and “elevator pitch” to communicate what she’s passionate about and why – a skill that she feels is particularly useful for youth advocates like herself who are working within tribal communities and communicating priorities to potential collaborators and allies.
The NAPLP program includes an internship, in which students gain first-hand experience by working with an organization or federal agency that aligns with their interests. Sarah chose to complete her internship with the USDA Office of Tribal Relations because of her interest in government to government relations and the ways in which US federal agencies share resources with tribal nations. From this experience, Sarah is finding that “people want to help, but don’t always know how to approach tribes”. She says that programs like NAPLP help young leaders like herself learn skills that can bridge that gap and foster good approaches to collaboration between governments.
Sarah’s leadership extends beyond the bounds of NAPLP’s academic components. She is working to connect Native students by helping to organize events such as a Frybread Night at GWU to provide a space for students to meet one another. She says that connecting with Native students both within and outside of the NAPLP program has been useful in helping her navigate life in Washington, DC. From grocery shopping to dorm life to networking to coursework, these connections with others have helped to smooth the transition from home to the Capital – a transition that has at times proven to be a bit overwhelming.
In reflecting about her time in DC, Sarah revisited memories of the first time she arrived, as a 2013 CNAY Champion for Change. We asked Sarah what advice she had for the new class of Champions, who will be announced next month. “Wear comfy shoes!” she laughed. “Try to be open-minded and ready to tackle what’s at hand. Take it step by step. Think about your work in your community and what you want to say about it to this big audience. Think about your passion and motivation. That’s what Champions for Change is really about – sparking that motivation in other young people to act on what inspires them.”
Sarah Schilling remains engaged with the Center for Native American Youth through the Executive Committee of CNAY’s Board of Advisors.