Community Learning Exchange

Eastern Cibola County, New Mexico

New Mexico Community Foundation and Laguna Department of Education

The communities in eastern Cibola County, New Mexico are some of the oldest in North America. Today’s residents have a complicated history of different cultures living together in the same region. Residents include Laguna and Acoma Native Americans as well as a smaller group of Hispanics in Cubero and Seboyeta – descendants of the original encounter with Spanish over 400 years ago. All four communities are dedicated to the educational success of their children.

How are they improving the opportunities and success of their children?
The Pueblo and Hispanic communities of eastern Cibola County realized that their children were not doing as well as students in the Western part of the county. They discovered that their school funding was considerably lower in their part of the county. They realized they needed to work together to create a different future, so they formed a collaboration (see KLCC Bridge article below) to gain funding a build a new high school. As they built the new school, they incorporated unique aspects of each culture into the architecture of the building. [picture of new school]

They viewed the opening of this new high school in their community as an opportunity to help shape a new collaboration between local community leaders and educators. They formed a broader coalition of community members from the four communities. One of their specific goals was to improve the integration of the Hispanic and Native communities’ knowledge, languages and cultures into the school system’s curricula.

They brokered a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the boards of Grants and Cibola County School Districts, Pueblo of Laguna Department of Education, Sky City Community School, Pueblo of Acoma Commission on Education and St. Joseph’s School Board, which commits the five entities to meeting regularly to discuss ways to more successfully transition students from “feeder” schools to the Laguna-Acoma High School. They also work collectively to improve the educational process for students attending schools in Eastern Cibola County.

The Laguna Pueblo had its own Department of Education to provide greater tribal authority for the education of Laguna youth. During the process of collaboration, the sister community of Acoma formed a new department of education. Their focus was on teaching the Keres language and incorporating culture into the curriculum.

Creating collective leadership capacity. It is not easy to bring people together when they are separated by hundreds of years of living side-by-side in different cultural communities. The New Mexico communities learned how to find a strong shared purpose of improving the lives for all their children, to help them build new, more interconnected relationships.

KLCC Bridge
Winter, 2003 Vol I, Issue 3, pages 1-3

Eastern Cibola County, N.M. is home to one of the oldest inhabited villages in the continental United States. The relationship between the Laguna and Acoma pueblos and the two nearby historic Hispanic land grant communities— Cebolleta and Cubero— spans hundred of years. The governments of Spain and Mexico had an administrative presence in the region before the U.S. government established itself there in 1848. Consequently, the relationships between the diverse communities here are as complex in character and purpose as the patterns found in the region’s woven textiles.

Today, long-waged disputes over land, territory and culture persist. Still, the region has a longstanding history of diverse peoples living and working together around issues of trade, commerce and more. This history of cooperation provides the raw material for the organizational effort Kellogg Leadership for Community Change fellows are putting forth here to create better educational opportunities for the region. It is an organizational effort in which people are learning to effectively mesh styles of shared leadership that are familiar to them with the less familiar styles of other groups to achieve common objectives.

When Gil Sanchez, executive director of the Pueblo of Laguna Department of Education, convened the Laguna-Acoma Task Force in 1993, his aim was to work toward building a much-needed, new high school to serve the region’s four distinct communities. The new campus will open in January, but that is not where the work will end. The KLCC grant, which was awarded in the fall of 2002, has provided additional resources for the pueblo to improve the system-wide curriculum, and focus on youth development, boosting community expectations and interschool collaboration. The grant also has served as a catalyst for the pueblo to focus on bringing about long-term systemic change.

The organizational work of moving the educational initiative forward is based on the traditional governance framework of the Laguna people. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo, Sanchez’s approach to leadership is rooted in the Laguna tradition. Like other leadership frameworks of surrounding communities, the Laguna way emphasizes consensus building and treating all participants as equal partners.

“Gil Sanchez is definitely a leader who uses his skills one on one, in small group meetings, more behind the scenes,” says Phil Sittnick, KLCC coordinator for Eastern Cibola County Schools. “When people want to hear from him they’ll ask, otherwise he’s very silent, not directive in any way.”

Since Sanchez is the prime mover in this effort, it is the Laguna model that forms the foundation of this community’s approach to leadership. “I’m not leading the charge so much as trying to support ideas that people have,” Sanchez says. “The numbers show that we need improved education to turn out students for the world of work and higher education.”

To kick off the Laguna- Acoma Task Force, Sanchez asked the governor of Laguna to arrange a meeting with representatives from the various involved communities to discuss a new Laguna-Acoma high school. There had been dissatisfaction over the years about the existing facility and the need to improve the educational prospects of the people. Neither the facility nor the curriculum was adequate.

“The [old] building was never meant to be a high school, it was built as a junior high,” says Bob Tenequer, acting director of the Laguna Education Foundation. “People have worked with it but we need a more modern facility, we need more space, we need a state-of-the-art facility, fully wired, and also the quality of education was another area that we really needed to look at.”

The need to address this important deficiency on the reservation provided a rallying point around which community leaders chose to organize and apply traditional models of cooperative decision-making.

“We developed the [initial] proposal from this end,” Sanchez says. “How we involved the other communities is in line with how we operate here in Laguna, the basis is involving the community in making the important decisions.”

Three Laguna representatives, three Acoma representatives, the superintendent of the school district, and representatives from the Hispanic land grant communities met with the principal of the existing high school and quickly agreed that a new high school should be built. The most important outcome from this phase of the task force’s work was the immediate suggestion that a joint powers agreement be drafted to ensure the commitment of all parties. The next step was the ratification of the agreement by the tribal governments.

The amount of time required for input from each community has varied according to each group’s leadership and community structure. Laguna has six villages, which is unusual for pueblos as most comprise only one village or perhaps two sub-communities. The Laguna tribal council consists of two representatives from each village and nine executive staff members. The 2000 election marked the appointment of the first female staff officer and since then a female council representative has been elected. The council is a sovereign authority that acts upon all issues relating to the community. In the Acoma pueblo, the cacique, or religious leader, appoints the leadership body. It took more than a month for the Laguna community to weigh in with its input about the high school, somewhat longer than the time required by the other communities. The draft was presented to the Laguna council; the council then explained it to the villages, each of which responded on their own timetable. The Acoma response came in two to three weeks. Sanchez sums it up like this, “We worked on it to where we could make it work. We had to accommodate it to the framework we’re accustomed to. We can’t change from what we’re doing already; people respected each community’s process for input and decision-making. There is no dramatic difference between the entities, it’s all about involvement by the people.”

But Bob Stark, executive director of the New Mexico Community Foundation, the KLCC host agency, stresses that the cultural differences are as significant as the similarities. On the question of shared leadership across communities, he notes that barriers exist along racial, geographical, language, age and gender divides. Nevertheless, he agrees with Sanchez that any leadership initiative of individual communities must respect the existing organizational frameworks within those communities because leadership patterns are intrinsically tied to these groups’ sense of themselves.

“You don’t sustain existence without an entrenched organization of how leadership is developed, recognized and passed on,” Stark says. “Sharing roles and passing on authority has allowed [these communities] to survive over time … communal activity and communal leadership was a way of survival.”

Stark considers it a remarkable achievement on Sanchez’s part to have brought the different communities together to work successfully on the task force. The key seems to be that there was an important cause that galvanized people to pool their efforts to bring it to fruition, a process that took eight years.

“Because the focus was the high school, people didn’t lose interest,” Sanchez says. Sittnick agrees: “[The communities] had never really cooperated toward a common goal.” He credits Sanchez with providing a vision that allowed these communities to cooperate across boundaries.

Stark says the strategic decision to employ a familiar, shared leadership model permitted the pueblo to push the envelope on such issues as age and gender integration to enrich the task force. But as this process moves forward, there is a gnawing concern about how to sustain the initiative to address new challenges, such as creating a curriculum that is culturally based not just culturally appropriate. Formulating that curriculum will require the participants to continue working together outside their comfort zone as they seek equilibrium among their respective leadership and cultural imperatives. Progressive capacity needs to be built within all the communities and the question of how to do that looms large in Sanchez’s mind.

“We could be beating our heads against the wall. We can carry on, but for how much longer?” One way to ensure that the work goes on is to focus on youth. A youth leadership program is expected to be an integral part of the school curriculum in addition to traditional academics.

“Addressing youth leadership is the way to go for the future,” Sanchez says. “The most difficult challenge now is how to get teachers to change their style.”

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