Celebrating Native American Heritage Month with Angella Martinez

Celebrating Native American Heritage Month with Angella Martinez

By Angella Martinez, KIPP SoCal CEO

The journey of understanding and appreciating who you are is just that — a journey. It’s certainly been that way for me. Growing up, talking about identity, especially as a Native American, was complicated. But it’s at the heart of the work I do in schools today. Amid Native American Heritage Month, here’s what I’ve learned and what I want to share with other school leaders. 

My grandparents would say that they were “Spanish.” They were not from Spain, but this relic of colonization and systemic racism reflects a larger sentiment that was (and still is) common: If you want to survive in America, you have to deny who you are. 

I understand where my grandparents were coming from. But I am grateful that my father made a different choice — one to discover, embrace and appreciate his Native American identity. This helped guide me on my own journey of self-understanding. 

In my experience, part of being Native American is nurturing a sense of connection to a larger community and a greater purpose. In our fast-paced culture that is hyper-driven by consumption, this can be quite difficult and even at odds. But schools can learn from this and foster an environment where resources are cherished and shared and sentiments of appreciation override our cultural fixation with consumption. 

In order to thrive as individuals and as a school, we must be connected to a larger community, something we’ve maintained at KIPP SoCal through local partnerships, like the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Alma Family Services and the Salvation Army. These partnerships are a valuable lens to help guide our students’ approach to the world. We are all in this community together, and school leaders should treasure those connections and nurture the idea that we embrace community needs as a collective. 

However, it’s not just about building your own school’s community. It’s also critical that we shift to view all schools as part of that community. The painful history of colonization is still with us. I’ve learned that un-doing that — decolonizing — is incredibly difficult. 

The colonizers’ strategy of “divide and conquer” was effective. It’s a strategy that’s still utilized today. In California, one of the most prosperous places in the world, schools fight each other over scraps. We have successfully been divided. But we can push back on that. I believe school leaders can transform ourselves and our school communities into a different mindset that will lead us to a more hopeful and collaborative future. We have to see ourselves as one community. We should share the things that are working for us and our schools openly and proudly with each other and we should lean on each other’s assets. We can — and should — approach the act of leading a school as one of collaboration, not antagonism. 

While we are part of one community, we’re not homogenous. Embracing and valuing unique identities within our community is an act of deep respect, bravery and authenticity. It builds stronger communities. 

My own identity has shown me the importance of supporting people with complex identities. Complex identities should be reflected in as many spaces as possible and school leaders should do their best to ensure this. That doesn’t mean solely via people at the front of the classroom, either, though that type of representation is certainly meaningful. This can also be done through books, songs and lessons. 

Complexity shouldn’t be watered down in schools — it should be welcomed. Some states have made great strides in requiring lessons on Native American history and culture, for example. Those efforts — which reinforce the idea that all of our students and their complex identities are valuable and worth learning about — should be encouraged. They’ll help build up our students, schools and communities. 

Although these learnings are very much rooted in my own experience and the lens through which I view the world, I do believe any school leader of any background can apply them. We can create schools where students can meaningfully engage with the journey of understanding and appreciating who they are and the role that they play in our larger community. In fact, we push back against the forces of colonization when we do — when we send a clear message to students: you don’t have to deny who you are.