Dr. Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz helps young Native American children connect to their language, heritage and culture. As founder and principal consultant of the First Light Education Project in Denver, she partners with the Brazelton Touchpoints Center of Boston to lead a national Indigenous Early Learning Collaborative. Her mission is to support locally driven, community-based inquiry that advances high-quality early learning opportunities for Native American children and families. “Native communities have the ability to identify areas of strength, need and challenge in their systems of early care and learning,” she says. “So, we’re working with a number of different tribal organizations and communities to build their early childhood practice by conducting their own inquiries driven by their own questions. The collaborative draws upon what communities already know to design culturally grounded early childhood development systems, interventions and knowledge.”
The collaborative is a game changer since most research that affects Native American communities comes from outside. “This pattern feeds the perception that Native communities do not have research expertise and cannot find answers to their own problems,” Yazzie-Mintz says. “Meanwhile, all the work I do with different centers and organizations is based on having them manage their own data, reporting on it as they wish, and using it to provide strong, culturally rich, educational opportunities for young children. My role is to get them the funding they need, look for partners to support their efforts and help communities make their own decisions.” By partnering with Native communities, Yazzie-Mintz augments the communities’ strengths.
And she has first-hand knowledge about the strengths of the communities she serves. “I grew up in a rural community in the Navajo Nation,” she recalls. “Both my parents were educators who started their careers in the early childhood field. So, there is some truth to the belief that we’re influenced by what our families are engaged in. Certainly, a lot of what my parents did rubbed off on me. Yet I didn’t intend to go into the early childhood field when I first started in college. I was exploring psychology at Arizona State University. It just so happened that I had a chance to work as a research assistant in a study on how young children develop empathy. After doing that for a few years, I was hooked on early childhood.”
She also gained some first-hand knowledge of children because she worked full-time as an educator for urban children while earning her BA in the nineties. That was a while ago, but she still remembers the young children she taught. “They were 2-year-olds and they each had their own personality,” she says. “It was really fun to see them gain language and social skills in the time they were with me. It was also fun to see the kind of caring attitude children show each other despite coming from a wide range of different backgrounds. That was my first introduction to the issue of multicultural education, and it showed me the need for teachers to have stronger training to serve a racially and ethnically diverse demographic of students and families.”
That’s what led Yazzie-Mintz to go to graduate school and learn more about how to align teacher knowledge with child development. “While doing that,” she explains, “I got connected with researchers doing work in Native communities. I began to think about some of the broader issues of culture and language being an aspect of how children develop. And I began looking into ways for teachers to learn more about that. Since then, most of my career has focused on the teachers and care providers who work with young children.”
Since earning her doctorate at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Yazzie-Mintz has gone on to hold a wide range of roles in college education and the nonprofit sector. She’s been a research analyst for Boston Public Schools and a professor at Indiana University Bloomington. She’s also served as a program officer at Wakanyeja ECE & Ké’ Family Engagement Initiatives where she administered the Wakanyeja “Sacred Little Ones” Early Childhood Education Initiative, which provided support to four tribal college grantee programs in the areas of early childhood program development, teacher development and family engagement. In addition, she served as vice president of program initiatives at the American Indian College Fund for many years. In this role, she led a team in developing community-based programs in early childhood education and learning systems, restoration of native arts and cultures, environmental sustainability, high school credential completion and indigenous leadership.
Her work with the College Fund was satisfying, but it had some constraints, as she points out. “It was contextualized only for tribal colleges, and what I wanted to do was grow this kind of work to more communities. So, I started the First Light Education Project in 2019. This allows me to work with any community that wants to advance high-quality learning for Native children. They don’t have to be served by a tribal college and they don’t have to be located in any particular area of the country. Right now, we have four sites: one in Hawaii, one in Washington State, one in Michigan, one in Minnesota, and we’re hoping to expand to the Northeast and New England.”
The sites serve different tribal groups and come under different umbrella groups. But they’re all early learning centers, where teachers are committed to finding ways to serve Native children and their family members in culturally rich and appropriate ways. That demands attention to both tradition and quality learning, as Yazzie-Mintz points out.
“We foster educational communities that ensure success in school is one of the outcomes. But there are larger issues involved for Native children to be successful in life. They also need to have access to tribal history, identities and language.” So, some of her centers revive native languages through immersion programs and help Native communities heal from the historical trauma they’ve faced over time due to the loss of people and culture. They partner with elders, who serve as community knowledge keepers, in connecting children to their land. The centers are also working to bring these knowledge keepers together with home visitors to build culturally informed home visiting programs, Yazzie-Mintz relates. “All that comes along with our vision of providing children strong early opportunities to learn.”
Yazzie-Mintz’s own role is to support—not steer—the teachers’ work. “When I make site visits,” she says, “I go to a classroom, get to see the learning activities, get to see how the site developed a curriculum or assessment, and get to know about the family engagement activities. I meet the leaders, the teachers and the assistants. Then I collaborate with them so they can make their own decisions and move ahead.”
And in everything the centers do, they include families as their partners, Yazzie-Mintz explains. “When we start working at a site, we try to ensure parents and members of the extended family are involved at the first meeting so they can envision what they want for their children and don’t have to engage in something they had no role in building. So, we have sites where parents have worked on the curriculum or done assessments. And we’ve done simple things to make it easier for parents to get fully engaged like finding out times when they can make meetings or making sure they have the child care they need at the time. All this makes it easier for early childhood professionals to bring parents into the work early on.”
This approach has led to a lot of successes, as Yazzie-Mintz points out. “We’ve seen teachers gain confidence, use data to make informed decisions and enter a number of different spheres in which they can make an impact on policy and become very active advocacy leaders in their communities. We’ve seen parents become researchers. We’ve had children gain a positive sense of identity and belonging by being exposed to their culture and traditions.”
Seeing the children connect to their culture and native tongues is wonderful to watch, as Yazzie-Mintz explains. “A lot of these communities have a deep love of music and crafts so a lot of that is brought into the classroom. There’s also a focus on having children learn a sense of responsibility early on to care for the environment and the world.” The children drink it in because “Native children, like all children, have a great amount of curiosity. And I think one of their strengths is their intense love of learning and ability to connect across different generations.”
In time, these children become the knowledge keepers of their traditions, she says. “I’ve heard about 2-year-olds who did pottery and paintings and then down the road in grade school they talked about their experiences. Or they took math and science classes, then connected what they were learning to the land. Success stories like these have taken place across a number of communities,” she says. And they inspire her to keep expanding her project across the country. She’s still having fun watching young children develop and learn.