A young man from the Passamaquoddy Tribe who is one of only five Native American youth in the country chosen as a Center for Native American Youth 2017 Champion for Change has returned home to Pleasant Point after his recent four-day visit to Washington, D.C., and calls the experience "absolutely amazing."
"Everything flew by so quickly, my head is still spinning, but I made a lot of new relationships and came hoome with a lot of business cards," says 15-year-old Carroll "CJ" Francis Jr.
The Shead High School freshman was chosen for the Champion for Change honor due to his positive attitude in fostering relationships among members of different generations, being an active mentor himself, and engaging his peers by introducing them to topics such as how to prepare healthy traditional foods and protecting natural resources. The Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute created the Champions for Change program as a youth leadership initiative that highlights positive stories from Indian Country and develops young Native leaders through experience-based learning.
The other 2017 Native American Youth Champions for Change who joined Francis in the nation's Capitol are Faith Holyan, a 16-year-old Navajo from New Mexico; Mariah Gladstone, a 22-year-old member of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana; Nancy Deere-Turney, 22, who is a member of the Muscogee Creek Tribe in Oklahoma; and Samuel Schimmel, 16, who is a member of the Kenaitze/St. Lawrence Island Siberian Yupik Tribes in Alaska. Since he was the youngest of the five Champions for Change chosen this year, "They called me Baby Champ," chuckles Francis.
Francis was recognized as a Champion for Change for his work to create intergenerational bonds in his tribal community. Having experienced severe bullying in middle school, he sought to strengthen relationships and unite fellow tribal members through educational community events that address natural resource protection, climate change, nutrition and physical wellness and more. His largest undertaking was the creation of Honor Our Elders, a community event celebrating elders as keepers of language, cultural knowledge and traditions. “Elders are the foundation of who we are, and the keepers of our knowledge and wisdom,” says Francis. “It is important for our Native youth to step up and pay attention to them.”
Francis formally introduced his work on Tuesday, February 14, through a public panel discussion at the Aspen Institute. The panel highlighted diverse needs and issues in Indian Country and the champions’ innovative solutions to address them. Following the panel, Senator Dorgan presented the champions to tribal leaders from across the country at the National Congress of American Indians’ Executive Council Winter Session. A reception was held in conjunction with NCAI’s meeting to honor the champions and celebrate CNAY’s sixth year as a national advocacy organization for Native American youth. On Wednesday, February 15, the champions spent their day on Capitol Hill engaging with members of Congress and exploring ways in which their representatives could support their efforts. Champions discussed existing and proposed policies that directly impact their tribal communities, and urged their representatives to prioritize Native youth and tribal nations in their agendas.
“Champ Week gave me the incredible opportunity to represent my tribe and the State of Maine while advocating for important issues in Indian Country,” says Francis. “I was able to voice my personal story of bullying, share my community leadership efforts, and express the importance of our tribal elders. I look forward to continuing to make a difference in my tribal community and aspire to lead our people in a successful direction as the future chief of our Passamaquoddy Tribe.”
Francis had a chance to speak with U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine while he was there, and she said of the experience, "I was delighted to meet with CJ and discuss many important issues concerning Native Americans. CJ is a highly motivated student with an impressive record of community engagement and leadership. I am pleased that he is being recognized as a Champion for Change as one of only five Native American youth selected to participate in this prestigious program."
"I really enjoyed my time with Susan Collins," reports Francis. "She really listened to me when I was talking about the health care problems on the reservation, and when I went into her office she showed me a basket made by a Passamaquoddy person, which she said was her proudest possession. That was awesome."
"My schedule was so packed, I only had time to talk to Senator Angus King during his coffee hour and talked to Representative Bruce Poliquin on the phone."
"Out of all of the people I met, I was most impressed with [former] Senator Byron Dorgan, who founded the Center for Native American Youth," says Francis. "I got to meet our Passamaquoddy Tribe's lawyer, Michael Corey Francis Hinton, and he is awesome."
"All of the receptions were awesome," adds Francis, who was accompanied by his former Shead teacher Benjamin Brigham. "The first night we were each introduced on stage and then walked off, but at the second one, we each got to explain our story and get a medal. It's blue and white with 'congratulations' on one side and 'Champion for Change' on the other."
This national recognition provides Francis and the other four champions with an initial platform to amplify their leadership stories and benefit from a variety of resources that will enhance their advocacy skills.
"I am very happy that I had this experience," sums up Francis. "I came home with a lot of inspiration."