When I was old enough to understand the general concepts of leadership, I only partially understood why people of influence and decision-making power rarely looked like me. I rarely saw someone who looked Native American as a U.S. president, a congress member, a CEO, a business owner, a professional athlete, or a celebrity. I remember concluding at a young age that high-level leadership and influence like that would not be an option for me because of my appearance. It just wasn’t an apparent reality. This impacted how I saw the future.
Growing up as a young person of color, I have memories of going to the Southern Hills Mall with my mom, holding her hand as we walked to our favorite store, and seeing other little kids my age who had light skin, blue eyes, and blond hair, staring at me constantly in awe. It was like they had never seen anyone “like me” before. It always confused me. Did I look funny? Was I dressed weirdly? Was there something wrong with how I looked? This was an average Siouxland experience with diversity in the 1990s.
It wasn’t until later in life that I realized that it was usual for me to see someone like them, but it was unusual for them to see someone like me. Additionally, I began to understand how underrepresented we were as Native people, and perhaps as people of color, in the larger community.
However, times have changed. Our communities, including our families, schools, workplaces, and churches, are becoming increasingly diverse – in race, ethnicity, culture, sex, gender identity, generations, sexual orientation, religion, talents, skills, worldviews, and more. Therefore, I believe increasing diversity in our communities should prioritize building diversity into leadership roles.
If we don’t include people from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences in decision-making positions, if we don’t create those inclusive spaces, then we are accepting the status quo. We must include a diverse set of lenses examining all our policies, systems, and structures to create systems and structures that are equitable (Cervantez, 2021, para. 11).
In modern-day Siouxland, we are headed in the right direction with diversity, equity, and inclusion. I see it more often in settings and groups. I am noticing that entities, businesses, and governing bodies prioritize recruitment efforts to increase diversity representation. It has allowed me to join some boards, such as Leadership Siouxland, the Siouxland Magazine, and the Boys & Girls Club of Siouxland.
In fact, Sioux City’s (n.d.) mission states that it “strives to enrich the community by providing input on policy and processes that promote and facilitate active community involvement in the decision-making process and participation by diverse cultures, backgrounds, perspectives and individuals to the Community Liaison, the City of Sioux City and all stakeholders” (para. 1). As a person with a diverse background in this area, it makes me feel respected, valued, and empowered to step up to leadership and bring my voice and perspective to the conversation.
These local efforts prioritize diverse voices in high-level conversations as our community provides opportunities. However, we must refrain from forcing someone to rise to the occasion. It takes self-empowerment. It takes the ability to step up to leadership roles. It takes bravery to speak up and offer perspectives or the perspectives of family, children, neighbors, schools, or groups. It takes stepping outside your comfort zone. Winnebago tribal member, leader, and activist the late Frank LaMere, once said about leadership development, “if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing.” So, I say, rise up. Take a risk. Put yourself out there. If you have a diverse perspective or background, get involved and speak up.
There are many opportunities to bring your voice to the table. Check out local openings to volunteer to serve on boards and committees, offer your perspective during a work meeting, and share your ideas. If you are ever made to feel unvalued, speak out and speak up. Your voice is needed, and your presence is necessary. Our communities and young people need to see more people who look like them in leadership and decision-making positions so they can believe in themselves and pursue their dreams without any apparent barriers. You have value; you can make a difference; you are worthy. It’s time to step up.
By Willy Bass, a member of the Bear Clan of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska and is currently the manager for Ho-Chunk, Inc.’s Community Impact & Engagement team. He has lived in the Siouxland area for 30+ years and currently resides near Morningside with his partner, Tony, and their pets. Willy’s work involves working with tribal and community leaders on important issues related to youth, education, jobs, housing, and elders. Willy prioritizes the elevation of voices from underrepresented groups, including people of color and the LGBTQ and Native American communities.
Cervantez, C. (2021, January 7). Our Leaders Must Reflect the Communities They Serve. Teach For America. Retrieved from https://www.teachforamerica.org/one-day/opinion/our-leaders-must-reflect-the-communities-they-serve
The City of Sioux City. (n.d.) Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. City of Sioux City. Retrieved from https://www.sioux-city.org/community/diversity-equity-inclusion