Eighteen-year-old Petoskey resident Sarah Schilling may sometimes feel reluctant about stepping up as the voice for her community, but it is a role she is becoming known for -- even on the national stage.
Schilling leaves Sunday, March 3, to be one of five young Native Americans being honored for their leadership by the nonpartisan Aspen Institute's Center for Native American Youth. The program mirrors the White House program "Champions for Change," which honors people for their role in being leaders in their community.
The honorees attend a series of events in Washington, D.C., and will participate in a discussion with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
"The idea is really to shine a spotlight on Native American youth issues in an attempt to drive more resources and attention to the table for native kids and Indian Country," said Erin Bailey, director of the Center for Native American Youth.
In 2011, former U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan donated $1 million in unused campaign donations to fund the creation of the Center for Native American Youth as a policy program within the Aspen Institute, as a way to help connect young Native American voices with political leadership in Washington, D.C.
Like the White House's program called "Champions for Change," the program highlights inspirational Native American youths who are making a positive change in their communities, Bailey said.
This will not be the first trip to Washington, D.C., for the Schilling, who was a home school graduate in 2012 and is taking a year off to explore her interests. She recently returned from the Capitol serving in another role in national leadership.
She was voted by her peers onto the United National Indian Tribal Youth 2013 Executive Committee -- an eight member national body -- and also serves on the Waganakising Eshkiniigijik United National Indian Tribal Youth Council and the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.
For the subdued Schilling, who plans to attend the American Indian Art Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., next fall, speaking with members of Congress or others in Washington, D.C., can seem daunting.
"It is unnerving sometimes, especially adults in positions that matter (like a senator), because talking to our peers and our families it seems like they are only half listening," Schilling said.
Though she might sometimes feel her nerves, she is also ready to pass along the issues impacting her tribal community.
When it comes to issues such as Congress stalling on the Violence Against Women Act recently, the youth leader has no problem speaking for her community.
"(The Violence Against Women Act) wasn't passed because of the native jurisdiction, but it needs to be because it affects all native women across the nation," she said.
Another issue she thinks people often overlook is the how Native American youths are focused on the environment.
"We are always bringing up our hunting and fishing rights, our water rights -- we don't want to see (negative things) happening but don't always know what to do with Asian Carp, with hydraulic fracturing in Michigan," she said. "But, we want to preserve those things for future generations to have the way we did. Where we are from is beautiful, so I don't think people always realize youth is concerned about that."
Though Schilling describes herself as a shy person, others see it as a humble leadership.
"I've seen her grow so much as young woman and a young leader, who really takes her community to heart," said Kristy Dayson, youth services coordinator for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. "She puts in a lot of time and effort to help give young people opportunities -- not just herself but other people. She really sees the bigger picture."
Dayson has been working with Schilling for the past four years, when she became one of the founding members of the tribal youth council.
Sarah helped develop the youth council constitution, bylaws and procedure, being there "since the beginning," Dayson said.
As for that quiet leadership style? Dayson says it has served Schilling well.
"She sits back, takes in a lot of things and listens really well to other people. But, when the time comes for work, she steps in," Dayson said.
Traveling with Schilling as "Champions for Change" will be 14-year-old Cierra Fields of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; 19-year-old Vance Home Gun of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana; 22-year-old Joaquin Gellegos of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Pueblo of Santa Ana in Colorado; and 15-year-old Dahkota Brown of the Wilton Miwok of California.
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