Migizi chosen for Estee Lauder/Amanda Gorman Writing ChangE

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Amanda Gorman is the youngest National Poet Laureate and Estée Lauder Global Changemaker. (Photo from www.elcompanies.com.)

By Hana Broadbent

“We’ve been ramping up our programming this week to keep our students busy, so our office has been lively,” said Migizi’s Lead Media Specialist, Binesikwe Means, with a small laugh as the sound of teenagers roars in the background of the zoom call.

With the Minneapolis teacher’s strike going strong, Migizi is doing what they do best – adapting and providing for their students.

“It’s been great because our office normally doesn’t come alive until 3 p.m.,” said Executive Director, Kelly Drummer.

Drummer recalls the organization, staff and students’ resiliency of the past two years. Especially after the loss of their building to a fire on May 29, 2020. Three weeks after the fire, Migizi’s summer programs were scheduled to start – and they did. Drummer says their programming never stopped and even at the height of the pandemic they moved online.

“When we didn’t have space Kelly worked hard to make sure we had a place for our students,” Means said. “This last summer it was really important to make sure we continued because as adults we were struggling with working from home so, of course, our students were struggling, too.”

Migizi’s programs include Green Job Pathways, academic support programming, and First Person Productions which allows youth to “develop not only expertise in videography and photography, but also management, digital marketing and interpersonal skills.”

Drummer said the organization’s new mission is to provide a strong circle of support that nurtures educational, social, economic and cultural development of American Indian Youth.

Migizi’s work, mission and resiliency hasn’t gone unnoticed as proven by their newest grant, WRITING CHANGE, a collaboration between Estee Lauder and Amanda Gorman, the youngest Inaugural Poet in history. WRITING CHANGE is a three-year $3 million initiative to support grassroots organizations dedicated to literacy and young voices. A total of five organizations nation-wide were chosen.

“We are positive and honest, we value innovation and believe our culture projects and strengthens us, so that is how we do our work,” Drummer said. “I believe this grant comes in the innovation piece.”

The grant states that it aims to invest in organizations working hard to advance systemic changes and close the literacy gap by providing equitable access to tools, resources, and programming that are essential to sustained progress.

Drummer said they did not apply for this grant, instead the award-winning writer chose them.

“[Amanda Gorman] Means our work is being seen on a larger scope than we initially imagined and that is really special for our students,” Binesikwe said.

When approached by Estee Lauder, Drummer and Means said they wanted to be sure that this would contribute to their programs and not take away from it like some nation-wide, large grants may do when they ask for a restructure of the organization.

Drummer said the unique thing about the grant is that the other recipients are national organizations and literacy based, but Estee Lauder wants Migizi to do it their own way. She said they were able to be really upfront that the work they do is in radio, podcasting, social media, film and many different mediums for media and communication.

“We told them, our body of work is in media and they were receptive to that,” Drummer said. “They looked at our work as a different way of expression.”

Migizi will begin the program for WRITING CHANGE in the fall with a group of 20 girls. Means says there are many ways they can use this grant, but because it is inspired by Amanda Gorman, they will choose to explore literacy through poetry. The pieces will be written or digital and published through a variety of mediums like social media, videos, music, newsletters, and First Person Productions.

“We get the best work out of our students when we spark their creative process,” Binesikwe said.

She says a lot of their students are quiet and reserved but as they attend programming that changes. Though the last two years have been a roller coaster for students, putting dents in education and also their relationships. Migizi has spent the last year working with the kids to get them “back to normal” and finding what normal looks like after the pandemic.

“We know they are struggling, so having a space where they can be open about that and be open about their experiences is important for them,” Binesikwe said. “They are finally coming out of their shells again and having important relationships with each other now.”

In addition to poetry, they will also create a podcast to give their students a chance to talk about how the pandemic has affected them and what their experience has been.

“Think about how stressful this has been for adults, now just imagine what the kids are going through,” Drummer said. “It’s not too often people come to you and say ‘we want to fund you’ and they wanted to fit into our boxes, so we are all empowered through this.”

Migizi also strives to provide life and career skills so, like all of their internships, girls that join WRITING CHANGE will be compensated. The organization is also hoping to have credit options for high schools in Fall 2022.

“One of the reasons our work is so important is because as native people, we are natural born story tellers and First Person came about because we wanted to tell our own stories and that is what this grant is empowering our students to do – to tell their stories in their own way,” Binisekwe said. “That is what makes this so unique.”