When students learn leadership skills at school, an entire community benefits

By Chinelo Onwualu

Dawn Depoe-Ike is a member of Oregon’s Siletz tribe. But growing up in Seattle, Washington, she didn’t have many Native American teachers who could help her understand her own heritage. So, when she became a teacher herself, she made it a point to work in largely Indigenous communities, to stay connected to her roots and help her students do the same.

Depoe-Ike moved to the Yakama Indian Reservation—approximately three hours south of Seattle—and started teaching English at the Yakama Nation Tribal School. There, the educator found a vibrant but struggling community. Her students came from backgrounds marked by poverty, substance abuse and homelessness. She admits, “I had a lot of students who tend to live day to day and don’t plan that far into the future.”

Looking for a unique way to make a difference in her students’ lives, she turned to the Treasure & Bond-supported WE Schools program, created to inspire youth across North America to reach for academic success. She started a WE Club at the school and began integrating tribal traditions into the service-learning curriculum at the core of the WE Schools program. It wasn’t long before Depoe-Ike witnessed a shift in the members’ attitudes. The topical lesson plans offered through the program not only raised students’ awareness of global issues, but also increased their enthusiasm for learning overall.

And, just as Depoe-Ike had hoped, the WE Club (now counting 30 members) began tackling larger social issues in a way that was unique—and beneficial—to their community. Club members used the reservation’s annual longhouse-style feast, held in honor of its elders, as a platform to talk about local food insecurity and accept donations for the club’s WE Scare Hunger campaign.

Then there was club member Hilary Hannigan’s appearance at WE Day Seattle, where she took to the stage to speak about the thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women across North America. As a stadium-sized event, WE Day presented the student with an enthusiastic audience of young change-makers—all there to celebrate youth leadership. Depoe-Ike brought several community elders, among them a Vietnam War veteran, to watch the show with her from the front row. “They just loved it.”

For many club members, including 17-year-old Jonah Goudy, becoming part of the WE movement has been a turning point in their lives. When Goudy was in Grade 9, he wasn’t interested in participating in school activities. He was morose and withdrawn, spending his days in class with his head on his desk, listening to music. His grades suffered, falling to the low Cs, and he began racking up suspensions for angry outbursts.

Quote. I want to be making smart decisions for my school and make a big impact with the skills I've learned. Unquote. Jonah Goudy.

Seeing the potential in Goudy, Depoe-Ike nudged him to enroll in the school’s WE Club. Through the club, he found himself at WE Day Seattle. The event was a revelation for him. Hearing inspiring stories from local celebrities, like Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and student leaders his own age made him reevaluate his path in life. “I was kind of thinking bad about myself, but I saw how if I did what they did, [things] would get better.”

Goudy arrived back at school invigorated. He began studying more and his grades improved, but what’s more, he discovered the importance of empathy through service-learning lessons focused on issues affecting his own community.

For Goudy, this sense of empathy was soon put to the test. On March 14, 2018, thousands of students across the United States walked out of their classes in tribute to the 17 people killed in a school shooting the month before at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Goudy, like many other students around the world, watched in solidarity. “The thought of what it would have taken to drive someone to do that … he probably felt alone and not able to do anything good for himself,” he says. “I wanted to sit in silence for the families that were suffering.”

Goudy was inspired to organize his own demonstration that same day: a spontaneous WE Are Silent campaign to echo the Parkland protests. Within an hour, he’d won the school principal’s approval and created posters. Over the school intercom, Goudy asked students from all grades to join him on the front lawn for 17 minutes of silence. And they did.

“It was so cool to see him feel really empowered by that,” says Depoe-Ike, noting Goudy’s blossoming leadership skills. The educator credits the Treasure & Bond-supported WE Schools program with helping students find their confidence—a first step to becoming highly engaged self-starters, like Goudy. “I’ve seen a really big change in him for the better.”

Depoe-Ike was so impressed with Goudy’s overall improvement that she recommended him for a leadership camp for Indigenous youth. While at camp, he wrote a two-page letter to himself defining his future hopes and dreams. Among his goals, “I want to be making smart decisions for my school and make a big impact with the skills I’ve learned.”

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