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Changing Perspectives: Zoe Stein ’17 Changing Perspectives, Monster Slayers, Navajo Nation Reservation

“I believe investing in and supporting people individually pays off in ways that cannot be measured.”

This summer I served as a mentor for Monster Slayers, a summer program targeting social, emotional and leadership skills in Diné youth on the Navajo Nation reservation. The mission is for students to take the support and skills formed and use them to slay the monsters harming the community, such as poverty, substance abuse and domestic violence. About twenty students from Sanders Valley High School participated in the program, and one of the highlights was visiting Ghost Ranch, a retreat camp focusing on team building activities and stepping outside comfort zones.

Ian, a leader at Ghost Ranch, placed a circular piece of rope on the ground, about two feet in diameter. The twenty Monster Slayers were instructed to fit themselves inside the boundaries of the rope, including all feet and extremities. Many methods were attempted and a few tears from laughter were shed before the students decided that standing on each other’s shoulders was the best possibility. It took about four attempts of the piggyback method until everybody fit inside the circle. After many cheers for the success and sighs of relief to no longer be smelling each other’s body odors, Ian congratulated us and then placed the rope on the ground again, this time half the size.

“See if you can all fit into it now!”, he said jokingly.

Many students groaned, and Kai, a particularly outspoken one, exclaimed, “No way, that’s impossible!”

Then, to everyone’s surprise, one of the quieter jokesters of the group stepped up and said he had an idea for how to fit everyone inside the rope. Grabbing a few friends, Michael ordered them to stand on each other’s feet in alternating directions, holding each other’s arms so they could balance. The method seemed to work, and after only two attempts the entire group was able to fit into the small space.

Michael’s innovation and leadership is exactly what the Monster Slayers program aims to bring out in students. He could have easily stayed quiet about the idea because the majority of students expressed that it was impossible. Instead, he had the confidence in himself to speak up and try the idea, and it worked. Not only did he have the innovation to come up with the idea and the confidence to share it, but Michael had the leadership skills to guide the rest of the group in its successful execution.

I saw firsthand in Sanders how invaluable this innovation, confidence and leadership can be in the community. One monster harming the Sanders community is alcoholism. An overwhelming number of people suffer from alcoholism, and the local taverns and bars were making the problem worse by having alcohol readily available and being so concerned with making a profit that little action was taken about violence and other crimes taking place on the property. Many individuals in the community noticed the problem, but only a few individuals had the confidence and leadership skills to take action, and their action resulted in the three local bars and taverns being shut down by the state.

The youth in Sanders are aware of the monsters harming their community. They see it every day in their families and schools, and they have the capacity to slay those monsters. Even when structural obstacles stand in the way, the people are creative, motivated, and well-intentioned in finding ways to navigate these hurdles. It is heartbreaking to see the adversity the Diné community faces. The people were historically oppressed, killed, relocated and forced to assimilate. Today, the community faces extreme poverty, racism, mental health issues and a lack of support and resources from the government. This list only begins to scratch the surface, but even so, I saw a great potential in the students I worked with this summer to improve their community.

Michael taking initiative in the rope activity was only one of the many instances I saw of the group being great leaders and friends to each other. In the two months I spent in Sanders, many students suffered more abuse and loss than I have seen in my life. Yet they showed an astounding amount of resilience. Successfully leading your team to victory in capture the flag, playing the guitar in front of a crowd for the first time, or expressing your dream job in a talking circle might seem like feats that can bring small personal improvement at most. However, these skills put into a community context can bring about change. The community is made up of people, so I believe investing in and supporting people individually pays off in ways that cannot be measured.

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Hometown: Covington, Virginia

Major: Philosophy

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • The Stone
  • College Access
  • Hillel
  • General’s Christian Fellowship
  • University Wind Ensemble

Why did you apply for this particular internship? I wanted to experience a different community and see their perspective on poverty and related issues

How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? Aside from poverty studies, I was able to apply my work to my philosophy and religious studies. I stayed at the Native American Baha’i Institute, so I learned about the Baha’i faith and philosophies as well as the Navajo faith and philosophies. It was insightful to learn how complex the spiritual dimension of poverty is.

What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Internship experience? The most unexpected aspect was learning that a lack of what I considered basic needs, such as electricity and running water, does not necessarily mean a family is impoverished, and in some cases, forcing these basic needs on people can harm them in other ways, such as undermining traditional values.

Post-Graduation Plans: Returning to my home community and teaching

Favorite Class: My spring term class about Nepal that ended up being held on campus with Prof. Silwal and Prof. Lubin. It was called Caste at the Intersection of Religion, Economy, and Law

Favorite W&L Event: the SAIL showcase, I love seeing how talented my peers are and coming together for a cause