Last year at the Institute of American Indian Arts, President Robert Martin (Cherokee) led the faculty, staff, students, alumni, board members, and donors though a strategic planning process that resulted in a number of important new directions. Among these was a new mission statement to guide our work. It states: “Our mission is to empower creativity and leadership in Native American arts and culture through higher education, lifelong learning, and outreach.”
Like most tribal educational institutions, we are engaged in a dynamic process to constantly improve the ways we meet our students’ needs. Last year we agreed that developing leadership has become a major part of our collective endeavor. We employ various strategies to do that.
We hire students each semester to serve as Educational Assistants (EAs). These EAs assist in the week-long new student orientation and provide a vital link to our new students as they adjust to life at college. Our student body currently includes students from 80 different tribes, and many of them are far from home for the first time.
The EAs work in the Learning Support Center where the first-year advisors, general education and developmental skills faculty, counselor, tutors, and others assist in a successful transition to college. EAs are successful upper-class students identified by Learning Support Center Director Diane Reyna (Taos Pueblo) to help first-year students.
We have also begun to give academic credit to students who serve as Teaching Assistants (TAs). These TAs work closely with faculty to deliver course content. They may create a power point presentation or lecture on a specific topic. They may lead study groups outside of class to insure students’ grasp of course material. They may assist faculty in hosting visiting artists or scholars. They may lead demonstrations of techniques specific to a given medium of artistic expression. These TAs are being prepared for the kind of work they may have as graduate teaching or research assistants.
Student government leaders who wish to receive academic credit can now enroll in an independent study and work closely with a faculty member in the Indigenous Liberal Studies program to learn about leadership. They can explore questions, such as: What makes a successful leader? What qualities and characteristics, skills, and abilities are required? What are leadership models in traditional Native cultures? What are the leadership needs of Native communities today?
We had observed how our high-achieving students sometimes became so involved in their campus leadership roles that their coursework suffered. We wanted to combine the experiential learning – the on-the-job training that student leaders get – with an opportunity for structured reflection and study about leadership.
You May be Dean
I advocate for student involvement in the busy decision-making of the college. When we give our students the opportunity to serve with us on institutional committees, we all learn. When students sit with us as equals, we expect them to understand the importance of confidentiality and professionalism. It is important how we conduct ourselves; we are their role models.
I sometimes say to them, “You are the future of IAIA. One day you may be the dean or president of the board of trustees. You may be the museum director or faculty council chairperson. And we want you to be ready.”
Leadership is service. Traditional models of leadership abound in examples of the sacrifice and commitment of Native leaders. For leadership is sacrifice. It is a give-away in which one gives one’s best for the good of the whole. It requires creative problem-solving and commitment. Students can be effective partners, providing feedback that can shape the future direction of our educational programs.
Indigenous languages hold many guiding principles that may help us advance our knowledge of effective leadership. Over 30 years ago, I learned one such word: the Anishinaabemowin term bimaadisiwin.
My Anishinaabe mentor, Nokomis Keewaydinoquay Peschel, patiently explained to me that bimaadisiwin means to live life fully, embrace experience, and always learn from it. I learned from her that to live life fully requires courage. When everything is going well, it is easy to be open and kind.
But when things are going poorly, she warned against striking out, shutting down, withdrawing, becoming numb, dulling one’s senses with drugs or alcohol. Although pain, sorrow, grief, and anger are difficult and powerful emotions, they, too, are part of the fullness of life.
She often said, “Do not be afraid to feel; it will not break you. Like the willow, learn to bend in the winds of autumn and the high waters of spring. Stand with grace no matter what life brings.”
Available and Accessible
Today at work I keep my door open when I am not in meetings. It is important for me to be available and accessible to hear from students. In this way I model that leaders must not become removed from those they serve. I hold myself accountable to the students. If I am not helping the campus community members to meet their needs, I am not doing my part.
One student shares concerns over a recent mammogram; breast cancer runs in her family. We discuss her options and how she might better manage the schoolwork since she is hoping to graduate this year. Another just learned she is pregnant and needs to decide whether to return home or complete the semester. Another wrestles with the difficult decision of whether to drop out and enlist; I urge him to stay in school.
Our lives are complex and full of deep emotion. We live. We love. We learn. The college is just one of the places in which we are challenged and we grow. Nokomis taught me to participate deeply in life and be fully awake.
I bring this awareness to work each day as I encourage and support the highest standards of excellence in teaching and learning. I know that life brings change. I remind my colleagues that education may serve as a tool to help us respond effectively. May it empower us to bring about positive transformation in ourselves and the world.
In order to stay balanced, I try to keep one hand on my heart and one hand on the pulse of the people and things around me. I listen. I speak. Then I go outside and look to the mountains. I consider the sunlight, the rain, or the snow falling around me. I breathe. Then the problems presented to me each day become solvable. The creativity of the students becomes uplifting. The dedication of the faculty becomes inspiring. It is good to live life fully. What a beautiful word: bimaadisiwin.
Dean Ann Filemyr, Ph.D. is the chief academic officer for the College of Contemporary Native Arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She is celebrating her fourth year there and looking forward to the 50th anniversary of IAIA in 2012.