By now, Gen-I Ambassador Jason Chavez is no stranger to CNAY, the Aspen Institute, or
the White House. We first became familiar with Jason through his extraordinary efforts to increase Native youth voter registration in his home community on the Tohono O’Odham reservation. His knack for youth engagement later earned him a nomination to attend the America’s Future Summit in Los Angeles, hosted by the Aspen Institute Latinos & Society Program.
While in LA, Jason met Julie Chavez Rodriguez, White House Deputy Director of Public Engagement, who extended an invitation to attend South by South Lawn (SXSL). SXSL is the first White House event of its kind, designed to be a festival of ideas, art and action for a diverse cadre of community change agents. Among the event panels at SXSL, Jason highlighted Leonardo DiCaprio’s panel discussion with President Obama on climate change. He was pleased that Leonardo DiCaprio brought up the Dakota Access Pipeline – and the Indigenous resistance to the pipeline project – in his panel remarks. “It was good to hear him talk about the actions we could take to shift to a more green way of living,” said Jason. But he also shared frustrations about the absence of this and other Indigenous environmental issues in current conversations with today’s Presidential candidates.
Though Jason is best known within our networks for his efforts around the Native vote, he shared that environmental issues also hit close to home. In 2008, the University of Arizona hosted a film program on Jason’s reservation. As part of the program, Jason created, directed, and produced an 8-minute film focused on the environmental effects of migrant and border control traffic on his community. “We share 75 miles of international border with Mexico,” Jason explained. “The border control vehicles and human and drug smuggling have had a huge impact on our cultural sites and burial grounds.” As a child, Jason lived just four miles away from the border. Migrant workers often showed up at the front door of this childhood home to ask for food and water. “A lot of our ranch lands, where we kept cattle were full of trash – clothes, water bottles, things like that,” he says. “In Indian Country, there’s always been a concern for the environment, and I think that’s been reignited because of what’s happening at Standing Rock.”
Border security is among Jason’s top priorities for both the current and next President. “There’s already a wall along the border that has impacted my community,” he says. “Economic opportunities are few and far between. A lot of people get wrapped up in drug trafficking and human smuggling because those are money makers in a place where there isn’t a lot of money to be made.” He also shared concerns about the harassment of tribal members by border patrol officers. “I used to drive a lot when I was doing voter outreach in really remote areas,” he shared. I’d often get harassed because an agent would say that my car ‘looked like it was carrying a lot of weight’. That’s because I had a car full of ballots.”
Despite the prevalence and importance of these issues, Jason feels as though national conversations are typically treated as “black and white.” “I met a leader of the Movement for Black Lives at SXSL, and we both were venting about the media blackout on the Dakota Access Pipeline story before the court decision,” said Jason. “We know that we share the same struggles, so we have to learn how to best partner with one another.” Jason says that this collaborative approach has been emphasized all of his experiences with the Aspen Institute thus far. “These different groups are all siloed by society,” he said. “We’re made to believe that Black, Latino, and Native American issues are so separate. But when it comes down to it, we all share the same struggle. So how do we partner and build coalitions to address those struggles?”
Jason is encouraged each time he’s asked “How do I help?” He’s also hopeful that Native youth will continue to be at the forefront of community change. “I’m definitely inspired by the young Native leaders I’ve met through Gen-I,” he says. “They’ve done great work.” Jason says that because of Generation Indigenous and organizations like the Center for Native American Youth that keep the spotlight on Indigenous young people, “I’m even convinced that in my lifetime, I’ll see a Native American President.”