While most college graduates are lost in the millennial struggle for employment and purpose, Maggie Dunne holds the title of President. At 16, she founded Lakota Children’s Enrichment Inc., a non-profit dedicated to providing services and empowering the youth of the Oglala Lakota Nation. After growing her project, and attending college, she is now one of the many young women leading social justice initiatives. The only thing more impressive than Dunne’s story is the work that she does for the Native communities of the Lakota Nation. Her approach to social justice work pushes beyond one-time giving, and instead initiates change from within. I met Dunne at the Women in the World Foundation’s Next Generation Leadership Academy and sat down with her to learn about the state of Native communities and the future of LCE.
The Daily Beast: Can we talk a bit about the hardships of the Lakota Nation? What brought you to work in the Pine Ridge community in particular?
Maggie Dunne: I work with the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Pine Ridge is the eighth largest Native American Reservation and is composed of the three poorest counties in the United States. The Lakota were relocated to these Reservation lands when gold was discovered in their sacred lands, the Black Hills of South Dakota. The majority of the 40,000 residents live in dilapidated trailers and suffer from various health conditions with consequences that rival the so-called “developing world,” such as life expectancies of reportedly 49 for men and 52 for women, the lowest in the Western hemisphere aside from Haiti. Many people do not have access to plumbing or nutritious foods. The United Nations has classified the Pine Ridge community as one the most marginalized indigenous communities in the world. This is what injustice looks like.
As a high school student from a NYC suburb, rural poverty was an abstract concept to me, until I found myself in South Dakota, faced with the realities of daily life for the Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation. After a week of skirting trailers and installing bunk-beds in homes I was appalled into action and committed to do more than just volunteer once a year. What started out as a spontaneous trip to South Dakota “to do something meaningful” quickly became a moral imperative that moved me to action. Many Americans have no idea that such extreme poverty and marginalization exists inside our own nation’s borders. I’m working to change that.
Your non-profit focuses on youth led engagement and learning. Why have you found this most effective? Can you share some of the programs that Lakota Children’s Enrichment is currently developing and continuing?
When young people rally around a cause, almost everyone listens. At first, I focused Lakota Children’s Enrichment on providing direct material support to children, families and schools; however, I later pivoted the focus to address the root causes of the drop-out, suicide and mental health issues, through programs that engage and empower Lakota youth to see a future of possibilities and opportunities. Our culturally sensitive, collaborative partnerships connect Lakota youth with outside resources and with a platform to express themselves and for their voices to be heard. Today, LCE works with thousands of Lakota families and engages a volunteer base around the world that raises awareness about issues facing Native American communities.
Our Youth Advisory Board is the newest exciting addition to the team. The Board consists of ten student representatives who all want to bring new programs to their communities. They are an energetic and talented team that will help guide and run our future projects. We are planning to turn many of their ideas into realities. Another exciting initiative is our Annual Writing Challenge. Last year we asked students to write about inspirational female role models in the community. The winners received small scholarships and their stories were celebrated through award ceremonies on International Women’s Day. The schools of the two Grand Prize Winners received grants.
Your emphasis on involving youth has carried out in your own experience founding and running LCE. Can you talk about the challenges and lessons you have learned from running your own nonprofit at such a young age?
Over the years I’ve learned to set my dreams and goals high, and to surround myself with positive people. The times when I grow and learn the most are when I take risks and push myself out of my comfort zone. I remember when I returned home from my first trip to Pine Ridge I asked my high school friends to help me, but most did not think it was “cool.” Frustrated, a few weeks before I returned to the Reservation the next year, I wrote a letter to my local newspaper, the Scarsdale Inquirer, asking for help to collect children’s coats and books. I was scared to put myself out there in a public plea, but in less than three weeks I received over 2000 beautiful picture books and 300 snow jackets, which I personally distributed to Reservation schools. That first “risk” both surprised and empowered me—it made me realize that most people really do want to make the world a better place, even if you don’t know anyone in your immediate sphere of influence that cares about the same things you do.
I encourage all young people to act on your passions, today, while you are young and have the support of your communities and schools. When you start working on a project, whether it is your own initiative or a team you join, don’t be afraid to ask for help and mentorship from people who want to support you—this might be a teacher, friend or parent. I have an amazing collection of mentors, with whom I regularly consult and it makes all the difference.
Our generation will be inheriting the world’s problems and the sooner we start addressing the moral and ethical challenges facing society, the better positioned we will be to create a more equitable and sustainable world for our own children.
Although stories of ‘Native American” politics (the term itself is already misleading) have been floating around the news lately, many Americas are misinformed and uneducated on the particularities of tribal relations, and as Lakota Nation can attest, the very conditions of these reservations. From your work, what do you feel is the largest misconception surrounding “Native America/Americans”?
Well, first of all, there is no “one” image of Native America. I could never make a statement on behalf of so many people. That being said, I think it is important for people to know that today there are over 566 federally recognized tribes in the United States and between two and four hundred are still fighting for federal or state recognition. In New York State alone there are 6 nations, all of which have made substantial contributions to our national identity, culture and military. The children in these communities are as deserving and talented as any other children in America, however, due to numerous factors that include disadvantage and discrimination, many doors to opportunities are closed.
A 2012 UN Human Rights investigation concluded that the United States of America does not met the minimal human rights standards for Native American Nations that it demands of other nations, and predicted that our continuing failure to address the inequities facing our own country’s first peoples will put us at risk of losing moral credibility on a global scale. Apathy and continued inaction is a decision to maintain the status quo. I encourage people to take steps to become informed about Native American Affairs.
Lastly, although there is generally a lot of negative media coverage focused on alcoholism and gambling—I encourage people to recognize this as selective publication and look beyond these stories because there are countless inspirational role models in Indian country and positive accomplishments to be celebrated. The students on our Youth Advisory Board want to be doctors, lawyers, journalists, forensic psychologists, entrepreneurs, suicide counselors and tribal Presidents. They deserve to be all these things and more.