COVID Relief Work: My Reflection

I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom when my mentor, Ethel Branch, former Navajo Nation Attorney General called me. COVID-19 was spreading throughout the country, and we both knew it would eventually reach our Diné Nation. What could we do? I thought about the 13 grocery stores across our reservation, which spans across 27,000 mi², our community members who haul water every day, and the injustices that we continue to endure. The challenges we experience on the Navajo Nation; inadequate housing, limited access to nutritional foods, an underfunded healthcare system, and the fact that many of our community members live with underlying health conditions, would be completely exacerbated by this pandemic.

Ethel shared her concerns and asked me if I would be interested in joining a leadership team she was forming. Her idea was to start a GoFundMe to raise money we could then use to purchase food and supplies for elderly and immunocompromised so they could stay home and stay safe. We shared the same concern in that while the country shuts down, we were worried about those who aren’t prepared to stay home, or simply can’t because they need to travel the 4-6 hours round trip to a border town to purchase groceries and supplies. What if we could step in to fill that need, and be the resource that allows our people to stay home and stay safe. What if?

Ethel started the GoFundMe and within 48 hours it raised about $50,000. We were all shocked. We began having leadership team meetings, and it truly amazed me how Ethel pulled together Navajo women from various communities and professional backgrounds, and began building this organization from the ground up. I was so honored to be a part of this movement. It might sound dramatic, but it felt like getting a call to join The Avengers. Except, this team was of Navajo women, joining forces to step up and protect our people from a raging pandemic. Our superpowers were dedication, creativity, resilience, and love for our people.

There were many times where I felt in adequate to do the work that was required and needed during this time. Like much of my experience working on the Navajo Nation after graduating from Duke, I felt overwhelmed by the amount work needed in our community, and often frustrated at the systems in play that make community rebuilding so difficult. As a young 23-year old woman, it was also a challenge to get my foot in the door, gain trust from local leaders, and quite honestly, to be taken seriously. After working for my local government for a year, I was becoming exhausted, attending meeting after meeting and seeing no progress, let alone feeling like I was not being heard, and my input not taken seriously. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I returned home expecting to have this insurmountable and immediate impact, but I guess I was naïve to think I would fit in. On the flip side, maybe that is the beauty of my impact, I never settle and I never give up. I constantly pushed my peers, advocated for community change, and worked hard to create an inclusive environment.

But, the difference in working for my local government and joining the amazing women at Yee Ha’ólníí Doo d.b.a. Navajo & Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund is that I was finally given a chance to blossom into a leader. I am trusted with tasks, given the space to offer my input (which is taken seriously), and am an important part of the work we are doing. And, that feels so good to say – I am important. This is also such a unique experience for me because I have never worked with all Native women before. It is empowering. Joining Zoom meetings is like hopping on a call with all my aunties, strategizing innovative ways to help our elders and immunocompromised. The women I work with are amazing and I am so grateful for this opportunity to build alongside them and learn from them. Also, I want to add that it still baffles me that our team has yet to physically meet (all our work/meetings are done virtually). We’ve been working together going on nine months now, and we still have not met in-person. Think about that. There is so much trust that goes into the work we do, and I think that is what has contributed to our successes.

Since our inception at the beginning of March, we have raised over $6 Million, received over 10,000 requests for help, conducted over 400 food distributions, and served over 60,000 people on the Navajo Nation. Every day we are working diligently to continue this work; coordinating orders, training volunteers to safely distribute kinship boxes, and fundraising so that we can continue serving our people through the winter months. Here is the part where I encourage anybody reading this to donate to our organization. Let me tell you why. I often get inquiries from non-Native people asking me for advice, questioning aspects of my culture, or asking if I know of a Native-led organization I recommend they donate to. I believe more people are becoming aware of the realities of Indigenous people, especially during this pandemic, and are genuinely wanting to contribute. I have told numerous people not to drop everything and come to the Navajo Nation to help, but rather, to entrust in us, members of our own communities, to step up and protect each other. So, here is my answer; donate to the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID Relief Fund because we are a group of dedicated Navajo women working to protect our people. In the same way our elders and immunocompromised have depended on us to show up for them, we in fact must also rely on the generous donations that allow us to continue providing food, cleaning supplies, and PPE.

My role has been as the Utah lead, coordinating food/supply distribution in Monument Valley, and surrounding areas. Through both drive-thru pickups and home deliveries, I have had the joy of being the person that shows up to deliver essentials and witnessing the utter gratitude from our recipients. Contrastingly, this has also meant that I have been the person who receives the stories of loss, heartbreak, and a sadness I haven’t experienced before. A few weeks ago, I drove to the home where a few months prior I had completed a delivery of food and supplies. I felt a sudden sadness knowing that this family is no longer complete. I kept a brave heart and introduced a spirit of happiness as I waved form my vehicle, letting them know I’d be placing their kinship package on their porch. As I unloaded, they stood at their door, masks on, thanking me for the work I continue to do for our community. But, there was nothing more that I wanted to do than give them a hug, to say that I am so sorry for their loss. While knowing there is absolutely nothing I could have done, I still wish I saw their father standing with them at their doorway,  smiling and waving as I drove away, excited to see what essentials had come their way.

So many battles against COVID have been waged in my community, and beautiful lives have been taken from us entirely too soon. It is heartbreaking. It makes me angry and frustrated. Over 13,000 people on the Navajo Nation have tested positive for COVID-19. We have lost nearly 600 of our people. 600 mothers, fathers, masanís, cheiis, brothers, and sisters. This year has been devastating for our Diné Nation, and this entire country. We need to continue fighting together, protecting those who have protected us.

I’ll end with sharing a quote from Bryan Stevenson, which I first heard while listening to his TED Talk as I walked through Duke’s campus, on my way to class. “ You are going to be tired, tired, tired, but you have to brave, brave, brave.” There have been many moments along this journey where I pulled over to the side of the road to mentally prepare myself for what was to come. Instances where I found myself completely exhausted, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I want so badly to spread my reach far and wide, encompassing all of my people; to protect, and heal the pain and trauma this year has brought us. For now, I will continue to be brave, brave, brave.

Published by Shandiin Herrera

Diné, Duke University Alumna, Lead for America Hometown Fellow

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