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Ms. Wilhelmina Yazzie is a name that may not ring a bell until placed in the context of the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for a few years in New Mexico, you have undoubtedly heard this case name at least once on the news. There are landmark case names in history: Roe v. Wade, Brown v. Board of Education, Marbury v. Madison. As time fades, so too the importance of some cases and their implications. The names attached to those cases are left behind in history, while the case goes forward with its legal life and subsequent precedent and legacy. Yazzie’s successful 2018 lawsuit ended up with the state ordered to “provide a sufficient education to all public school students”—including those traditionally underrepresented, such as Native students, English language learners, students from low-income families and students with disabilities. To this day, many of our state leaders have struggled with how to enact the changes this lawsuit requires. Talking with Ms. Yazzie, you realize one thing right off the bat: You recognize the woman behind the petite stature and pulled-back hair is a force to be reckoned with. As they say, “You begin to move mountains by clearing the small stones first.”
“When I first started this,” recalls Yazzie, “my oldest son Xavier was in fourth grade; he is done with school now. It is his senior year. My other son is a sophomore. And my youngest is who I worry most about; she is entering pre-K, so I have had to adjust to help her also. It wasn’t just my son or my children; it was all our children in the community struggling with limited resources, not enough textbooks. The class grades seemed fine, but his testing wasn’t reflecting that.”
Unwilling to sit back and let New Mexico’s children fall behind, Yazzie took action. “Hearing from different parents as well made me realize that it was just not my son. The struggles they encountered and the limited access: not enough books, limited computers, even teachers asking students to help bring classroom materials. We’d have substitute teachers for half or the whole year! Limited programming and social services are nonexistent in some schools.”
But little did anyone know they had found a mother not willing to settle for the status quo. Ms. Yazzie, as it turns out, had worked as a paralegal in a few law offices over the previous 15 years and had passed the Navajo Nation Bar Association exam. She was savvy enough to start to research and ask the other families in her situation for input and found that she was not alone. More people came to her to tell their stories.
“When the time came, I was asked If I would like to be a part of this lawsuit and go up against the state and Governor Martinez. I said okay, but I was also a little hesitant because I thought about the past experiences that many of our Indigenous people have faced. My mother, she had been an educator for 30 years. She taught me the importance of education. She brought us up in the education system. We saw the struggles she endured and how important the children were to her—not just her own children, but how the children of the community meant so much for her.”
Yazzie set out knowing the public school system was built to assimilate and not initially meant to be of service to Indigenous and minority students. Even her son, who did well in school, could not find his way into AP or other higher-ed programs, because either they were not offered in the school or he was passed over when those classes filled. It became clear that this was going to be more than just a fight for access and accountability. The system was broken far deeper than that.
The spread of the coronavirus and the sudden rise of at-home learning in 2020 brought some of these technical and hardware disparities to light. Within a blink of an eye, computer access became the primary impediment to fix. But what people may not know is that this is about much more than just adding more broadband across the state. For Ms. Yazzie, this is about putting qualified Native and minority teachers in the classroom. It is about having culturally relevant programming. It is about teaching the greater N.M. community about their Native neighbors, whose ancestral lands we live on to this day. This is the larger portion of the case, the 15-year plan, if you will. The plaintiffs have called for more money to be provided to teacher and language curriculum training and have even gone as far as requesting putting money behind training more Indigenous and Hispanic teachers and getting them into the school system. The state legislature has appropriated large amounts of money, but the Public Education Dept. created no structure to help schools comply. Thus, money was given back. This year, Governor Lujan Grisham has asked for more accountability.
“It’s like pushing what you could be doing off onto someone else,” says Yazzie of the PED’s latest plans. “And then it will fall back on the district, again. I try to stay optimistic, I hope these things will work, but the research and statistics show that some schools are really trying hard to do their best. But things like impact aid and other issues help expand these disparities from one school to another inside the same district.”
Ryan Stewart, New Mexico’s newest secretary of public education, had barely moved to the state in earnest last July, raising questions about whether NMPED has done its due diligence when it comes to tribal consultation. You often hear from tribal communities that the secretary has yet to make himself known in these communities. With Lashawna Tso’s addition as assistant secretary of Indian education, Tso will oversee New Mexico’s compliance with a court order.
“You asked me how I feel about this? Whether I am upset, sad, mad or angry?” says Yazzie, looking back on her fight. “You know, gosh, yes, it is sad. I’d say it’s more like angry, but not in the sense of having anger toward someone or something. Within my fundamental values and in my culture, we try not to use that word, or to feel that. So that is important for me. Oftentimes I get approached and asked, ‘Aren’t you mad?’ Or the person will say, ‘Doesn’t this just make you mad too?’ And yes! Of course, it does, but I have to go back and remember who I am standing for, and how important our children are. It is our responsibility to protect and teach them. We all want our kids to be successful, but today they are hurting because they are being left behind. We just want equality and opportunity within the public school system. We just want them to be successful.”
Equality in education is a big tree, but Wilhelmina Yazzie and the case with her name attached to it is the small, sharp ax.