Community Learning Exchange

MIGIZI Builds Up Native Youth Leaders in Minneapolis

Community building is central to the work MIGIZI Communications does. The Minneapolis-based organization’s mission is to "advance a message of success, well-being and justice for the American Indian community,” which it achieves through academic, entrepreneurship, leadership and media programs for native youth.

MIGIZI began in the late 1970s as a way to strengthen the role of American Indian journalists in the media. 

“The organization realized that the pipeline out of high school was not as strong as we’d like it to be,” said Graham Hartley, MIGIZI’s director of programs. “We made the decision early on to work with students in middle and high school.”

The MIGIZI team in San Marcos, Texas

MIGIZI’s 3 Focus Areas for Community Improvement


1. Native Academy

Native Academy provides educational support - both in local schools with the cooperation of classroom teachers and through after-school and summer enrichment programming. Native Academy’s goal is to increase graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates among American Indian students, and students work with MIGIZI staff in math, science, technology and other subjects. MIGIZI's work is contributing to moving graduation rates in the right direction for native students. 

2. Native Youth Futures

Native Youth Futures aims to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty among the Minneapolis American Indian population, leading to economic self-sufficiency for youth and encouraging small business growth in the community. Students learn by creating business plans and competing in an entrepreneur fair, where they are awarded microgrants to further their business ideas. 

3. First Person Productions

The intention of First Person Productions is to get students excited about education through multimedia and new media production, primarily documentary film. For after-school internships, students work on social media and social entrepreneurship for community-based organizations.

“This past summer [as part of First Person Productions], students produced four videos for area nonprofits,” said Graham. “The students did the whole process. They sent out RFPs to organizations. Nonprofits had to submit applications to students, and students selected those they wanted to work with. They created videos, met with EDs of organizations and discussed the vision for videos. It’s a way to engage students in real entrepreneurial work. It’s not only for students’ learning, but it also helps nonprofits.”


Partnerships Between People

Miguel, Karissa and Danielle from MIGIZI

Graham has taken youth groups from MIGIZI to two Community Learning Exchanges - one in Seattle in 2011 and one at Texas State University last summer. Many students, he said, had never traveled on an airplane or left the state before attending the Learning Exchange, and the experience of broadening their worldview was influential.

“The students had an incredible experience,” he said. “They really enjoyed their time in San Marcos. All three were asking when the next time we’re heading off somewhere.”

The theme of the San Marcos CLE - youth-adult partnerships – was fitting for Graham and the three MIGIZI students: Karissa Kier Ficken, Miguel Mayen-Eagle and Danielle Pineiro. 

“It’s important that the students begin to see themselves as adults, as being able to hold the same power as human beings,” he said. “It’s about partnerships - not youth-adult partnerships - just partnerships between people.”

Graham said that he has seen this idea in action as the students continue to develop as leaders. He said they show greater ease with talking to new people, expressing their ideas and public speaking.

Two members of the MIGIZI San Marcos team, Karissa - a high school sophomore - and Miguel - a senior - said they were interested in attending the CLE to grow as leaders. 

“I wanted to go increase my knowledge of how I can better myself by being a leader in my community,” said Karissa. “What I took away was that you’ve got to all work together to make a difference. The support is needed a lot.”

“I saw this as an opportunity to work with other youth around the country to come together and collaborate,” said Miguel. “I wanted to find motivation for Native American students to be successful and increase attendance in school.”

Graham said he took great pride in seeing the students embrace leadership roles in the larger group throughout the weekend. MIGIZI youth led participants in the CLE in a smudging ceremony - which uses smoke from sage to clear the mind, body and spirit - as well as a fun cultural activity called the “potato dance” that the group did with oranges.

“It brings together two people, holding an orange between their heads,” explained Graham. “It engages the group in a playful icebreaker activity, involving people with movement, laughter and culture without hitting them over the head with it. They can experience culture in an enjoyable way, building community.”

The orange game at the San Marcos CLE 

Leadership Solutions


Back in Minneapolis, MIGIZI youth are continuing to develop their leadership skills.

Graham explained that recently, students had experienced changes they weren’t happy with in the All Nations program at their school, which is designed to support and empower American Indian youth. The school administration had banned smudging in the building due to complaints, canceled the teaching of drumming and the annual All Nations Powwow - changes which some students felt took away from the cultural focus of the program.

Student leaders have since worked with the administration to find solutions to these issues. Smudging is now allowed in the science lab, where students can use the fume hood to dissipate the smoke. The drumming group meets after school, and the district is paying for the instructor. The All Nations Powwow is scheduled for May 2.

Karissa has been active in planning the Powwow, as well as another event, called the Gathering of Sacred Voices, as part of MIGIZI’s youth leadership activities. Miguel is also involved in school activities, as the captain of the wrestling team and through efforts to influence his peers to pursue better education.

“They’re both the top leaders in their places,” said Arlana Omaha, youth development specialist at MIGIZI. “Both are just phenomenal leaders.”

Both students have big plans for the future. Karissa wants to be a neonatal nurse and hopes to host a CLE in Minneapolis. Miguel would like to be a video game designer and has a goal of increasing native youth attendance in Minneapolis area schools.

They share one common goal for the future: attending another CLE.


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