The Hopeful Window

It’s insane to think that just last week I was in the Burlington airport, waiting to fly out to the Navajo Nation to participate in a writing workshop. It wasn’t until two days later, when I was on the plane leaving from Chicago back home to Burlington, that I realized that the Friday morning that Elsa, Kati, Fallon and I boarded the first plane of our trip, I wasn’t only flying out of Vermont, but I was flying out of a shell of comfortable reality that I had unconsciously built around myself in Vermont. You know that euphoric feeling that you get when you listen to good music? When you seem to rise above the mundane parts of your daily life and are finally able to think about life selflessly? My whole experience in Window Rock was just like that surprisingly profound feeling I get when I listen to good music.

It’s very easy to feel restricted, especially when in school. The amount of pressure, even unwittingly, that my community puts on students to achieve good grades, and get into a good college is significant, and seems to be ingrained into the ambitions, and goals of the majority of my peers. Before traveling to the Navajo Nation, I hadn’t comprehended how troubling it is that my community measures success by your ability to attend an elite college. We hear about injustices and serious social crises that occur all over the world, throughout our country, and in our communities, but as students in an well funded, upper middle-class high school, our concern for getting good grades, and going to a good college enables us to look away from these terrible things. But, these past weeks, between my trip Navajo Nation and the March for Our Lives, I have found so much hope because of all the young people that were willing to step away from their daily lives and work for the greater good of all people in our society.

Kati, Elsa, Fallon and l landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Friday at around noon, and began our stunning drive to Window Rock. Just being able to drive beneath the biggest sky I have ever seen, surrounded by some of the most strange and fantastic topography, was an experience of its own, and I couldn’t help but think more than once that earth is just unbelievably beautiful. We made it to Window Rock in time for a dinner with the rest of the participants in the workshop and I found myself surrounded, by what I soon learned to be, a room full of advocates, educators, and students, from across the country (and beyond) all working together towards change in their communities and their educational systems.

Rex Lee-Jim

Sonlatsa’s Oldest Daughter

This dinner really set the scene for what our learning and experience would look like during the next few days.  Rex Lee Jim, the former (and possibly soon to be) president of Navajo Nation, and Sonlatsa Jim Martin, an organizer of the event, both introduced themselves, and provided some insight into what the workshop and our time in Navajo Nation might look like. Soon after, Sonlatsa’s daughters, students who grew up in Navajo Nation, introduced themselves in the Navajo tongue, and explained what their names mean, and where their ancestors came from. We would later learn that their introduction was not only a way to define where they originated, but it also defined their identity, and how their ancestry helps define who they are. This value in discovering yourself, and how your family history impacts this self-definition, was prominent during the weekend workshop, and provoked a lot of thought within myself, but also with the other “What’s the Story” representatives.

Student Representative Meeting

The next day of the workshop were filled with learning about the advocates, students, and professionals, and the tradition and the culture of Navajo Nation. Some of my most memorable experiences included hearing about indigenous people’s fight for water, and the importance of water to Native Americans, and their culture. I was also really moved hearing about the work of a several of the Navajo poets. In their passionate, heart-wrenching, and most importantly, eye-opening writing, they expressed some of the issues that Navajo citizens deal with in their daily lives. During one of Rex Lee-Jim’s workshops, we learned about some of the traditional Navajo music (which was sung in Navajo), and the meaning (both spiritually and culturally) behind that music. All the student representatives were able to meet and discuss the issues they are working with in their communities. During this time we were able to hear more about the social issues that young people from two of the represented locations (Navajo Nation and Kentucky) are facing, as well as the things that they are doing to work towards addressing these problems. I soon learned that this meeting was really the beginning of a great opportunity to share the progress of our own work with students from across the country.

Rex Lee-Jim Sharing His Work

Some of the most inspirational, and phenomenal stories were shared after the workshops. During the first night, authors, such as the poets that had led the earlier workshops, shared some of their work, and in it, I continually found strength, power, and hope, stemming from painful circumstances and injustices. Rex Lee-Jim shared some of his music, as well as another musician, also from Navajo Nation, and by the time the day was over, I found myself soaring high above the reality of my own life that still lingered from where I left it in Vermont.

Window Rock

 

The next day began with a hike to the  Window Rock. Window Rock was stationed high above the town of Window Rock, and is literally a hole resembling a window, created by the infamous red rock formations of the Southwest. Our hike included walking behind the “window”, which we could look out of and see the town of Window Rock. I wondered what the people below saw when they looked through the window. I could picture looking up from the ground below, and seeing a group of people, from all over the country, laughing, smiling, and enjoying the striking view, together. Could this be what the strength of hope looks like?

Workshop Led by a Panel of Navajo Activists

Through the rest of the workshop I listened to the powerful stories of street artists and their activism, authors and their stories, and Rex Lee-Jim and his expression of Navajo culture through traditional music. After the workshop, there was an opportunity for the workshop participants to share written work through an open mic, and nearly everyone used that small, black microphone, and the weekend, to really reach into themselves. I was honored to be in a space, in which people that had met only a few days earlier, felt comfortable enough to be vulnerable with each other. Hearing about some of the issues that people across the country, of different races, ethnicities, faced in their daily lives, was eye-opening and moving. But even more, the strength that I found in each one of these stories, was extraordinary. Whether people were fighting for change, or just continuing to be who they are in the face of adversity, it held an immense amount of strength and inspiration for me.

On our flight back home to Burlington, I realized that there would be no way for me to return back into that shell of feigned ignorance, and self-centered priorities, after my experience in Navajo Nation, which I have to admit, was a scary, but also motivational realization. And as I sat next to Elsa on that small plane, from Chicago to Burlington, sharing earbuds, and jamming to some good music, while watching the expanse of the Earth, basking in sunlight, pass below us, I thought about all the beauty in the world, and where that beauty comes from.  Even with the social and political chaos and division that is occurring throughout our country, I left the weekend feeling optimistic for the future. Thank you so much to all of you that made this workshop possible and for the overall experience.  It instilled in me new found confidence and hope for the future. I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to travel to Window Rock, and hear about all of your work. As the author, Sarah J. Harris, said, “the whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows”; and I know that I could see through Window Rock as clear as day.

 

Lena Ashooh

One Response to “The Hopeful Window

  • Lou Bernieri
    1 month ago

    Fallon and Lena, your comments about your trip to Navajo are vitally important to NGLN and to us all. Our country is now segregated by race and class as deeply as it was before the 1964 Civil Rights Act and desegregation. Most of us — poc and white — live in dramatically homogeneous communities. We don’t have experience with diversity. Your posts witness what happens when people gather in a supportive community in safe spaces to share their stories. Your honesty and insights move NGLN forward as a transformative network that can bridge differences between races and classes. Thank you.

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