Three days before her first day as a Teach For America corps member, Samantha Wauls learned that she had to create her own curriculum for the high school English classes she would be instructing. Later, she realized the school had outdated textbooks. And throughout that first year, she struggled to help parents navigate barriers that impacted their involvement, such as having to work multiple jobs.
Despite it all, she “survived like a champ,” said Samantha, who is teaching on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Now at the reservation’s elementary school for her second year in this community of about 1,600, she is determined to strengthen parent engagement as well as be a leader in trying to address an exodus of students from Lower Brule schools to non-Native schools in the district.
Throughout, Samantha said she’s turned to Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE) for strategic advice on how to foster positive relationships with her students’ parents and the larger community as well as organize residents to discuss shifts in school enrollment. “I see myself being a part of this movement and more so at the federal level,” Samantha said of tribal education. “In the future, I’d be interested in having a role that could create better legislation (to) help improve the academic performance of Native students and provide resources and opportunities to these tribal schools.”
Supporting Native American communities, and especially the Lakota of Lower Brule, is more than a professional pursuit for Samantha. It’s personal: She is teaching on the land of her maternal grandmother’s birth.
Raised in what she described as a low-income neighborhood in San Bernardino County, Samantha was deeply involved in the area’s inter-tribal community and internalized a diversity of values from different tribes. Principles such as respect and perseverance were reinforced at home, where education was also a priority. “They knew how important it was that we have a better life than they were having,” she said of her parents, who had Samantha as teenagers and had dropped out of high school. “They wanted more for me and in order for that to happen, they stressed education as an important value.”
“We didn’t have everything growing up, but we had what we needed.”
And by the time Samantha arrived at California State University, Northridge, she knew part of what she needed from college was to be immersed in activities that addressed racial and other inequities. Tackling such issues had become a growing interest in high school, where Samantha was involved in the NAACP, Hip Hop Think Tank and other groups. It was during high school, too, that she took note – often at sporting events and mock trial competitions – of a stark difference in resources available to students at other schools, compared to her own.
Then, once at Northridge, most days revealed frustrating reminders of what Samantha had not experienced. “It was realizing what was not available to you because of your economic background,” she said. She noticed, for instance, that some students did not have to wait for financial aid to buy their books. They were aware of opportunities to study abroad, and able to participate once in college. Others had research internships in high school and knew the value of graduate school; Samantha said she had little understanding of master programs.
“Every day I was being exposed to something and I was like, ‘Why were these opportunities not available in the communities that I grew up in?’ I was just shocked and amazed at the differences” in knowledge and experiences her more affluent peers had prior to college.
Witnessing these differences expanded Samantha’s growing understanding of some of the outcomes of educational inequity. It also intensified her desire to pursue work that amplifies the voices and experiences of communities of color and have a role in dismantling barriers to opportunity many of them face. While at Northridge, Samantha was an outspoken activist on campus, engaging in debates about how persistent tuition increases were affecting students from low-income families and launching campaigns that strove to include more students of color on the student government ballot.
Visions of a career in public service began to emerge, one that would concentrate on empowering the most marginalized. “I wanted to be able to represent community members that for the majority of their lives felt that they did not have a voice or know how to protect themselves,” Samantha said.
After graduating with a degree in African-American studies, Samantha worked for a Phoenix nonprofit focused on health disparities in communities of color. While there, Samantha learned that TFA was expanding to two new reservations in South Dakota – the place she had wanted to be for so long. And, she learned, one of the new spots was Lower Brule Reservation.
“This is where I’m supposed to be,” she remembers thinking.
Samantha’s grandmother was young child when she and her siblings were taken from their mother, separated and placed in Indian boarding schools or adopted by non-Native families. Her grandmother was raised in boarding schools in South Dakota and Texas, until she reconnected with her mother – Samantha’s great-grandmother – in Pomona, Calif. Decades later, in her 40s, she reunited with her siblings.
Samantha’s ancestors’ painful experiences were common at the time, when educating Native American children was under the purview of the federal government, and boarding schools and adoptions were essentially a practice in assimilation. Samantha said she believes the upheaval of generations past continues to play out in the struggles some Native American communities have today, including alcoholism and drug abuse as well as with education: Many tribal schools have low student test scores, high teacher turnover and limited resources.
“We have to realize the history that these people have lived, the trauma they have experienced and how they have coped with that trauma,” Samantha said. “It’s very real.”
But when it comes to building relationships with parents, Samantha said she believes she’s off to a much better start this year, in part because she began immediately communicating with them on the first day of school. She’s also helping to organize a forum for parents and other residents to discuss why students are leaving Lower Brule schools, as well as hear their thoughts on what’s working and what they believe needs to change. Separately, Samantha said she is collaborating with LEE’s regional representative to identify a handful of Lower Brule residents to participate in a community organizing workshop that aims to spur among them a spirit of activism around issues they care about.
“LEE has taught me that it’s about working with the community,” Samantha said. “It’s about recognizing the assets that this community has and working within that framework … to build great community relations that promote positive change.”
And whether Samantha stays in Lower Brule after her service or moves elsewhere to pursue a career in law and public policy, the experience is providing her a spiritual foundation that she believes will carry her for years to come.
“I’ve prayed so much more, I’ve stayed in ceremonies so much more,” since living in Lower Brule. “I’ve really been blessed to have this experience because I think it’s really going to keep me balanced and grounded for the rest of my journey.
“And I’m going to need that because the work that I’m so invested in is not an easy task.”