Green Jobs for Navajo Youth: Q & A with Nikke Alex

By Yvonne Yen Liu Jul 23, 2009

Nikke Alex, the youth organizer for the Navajo Green Jobs and the Black Mesa Water Coalition, talked with us for a few minutes while she was at the Navajo Nation Council Chamber in Window Rock, Arizona, celebrating the historic passage of the first green jobs legislation in American Indian country. The green jobs act establishes a Navajo Green Economy Commission and Fund, which can apply for federal and local funds to create green jobs for Navajo youth, as well as sponsor small-scale, green developments that will help to provide needed services to the community. Nikke is a member of the Navajo Nation (Diné Bikéyah). She is Salt clan born for the Tangle People clan. Her maternal grandparents are of the Big Water clan, and her paternal grandparents are of the Red Bottom clan. She grew up in Gallup, New Mexico. RaceWire: How do you feel now that the green jobs bill has been passed? Nikke Alex: I feel really great, even though I’m exhausted. The real work starts now. It’s been 14 months of work to campaign to get the green jobs bill enacted. It feels really great to be at the forefront of the Indian country, to be the first nation to propose green legislation and pass it. RW: What was the role of Navajo youth in the green jobs campaign? NA: The campaign was youth-led. The Black Mesa Water Coalition mobilized a lot of young people to come out yesterday to talk with the (Navajo Nation Council) delegates. We wore green shirts and marched to the Council Chambers. We said, “This is for us (the youth). (Older generations) aren’t going to face the harsh effects of climate change. But, we will.” I think youth pushed the delegates to vote for (the green jobs bill). Young people have been involved in the campaign, from start to finish, even writing the legislation.
There’s nothing like this in history. It’s the first time that Navajo youth have come out to the (Navajo Nation) Council. It’s the first time that the Navajo Nation Council’s Speaker has worked on a proactive initiative, rather than reacting and applying band-aids. RW: Who will get the green jobs created by the act? NA: We want green jobs for Navajo youth. Right now, unemployment on the reservation is at 44%. There’s nothing for young people. The only ones working are college graduates. There are no jobs. That’s why I’m pushing for the green jobs act because of two reasons: (a) these jobs aren’t coal mining and (b) they’re safe for the Mother Earth. I’m pushing for this, more job creation and development. Talented, skilled people travel thousands of miles to work. They’re not home to see their family during the week, they only come home on the weekends. A lot of young men go to Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Los Angeles to work in construction or as electricians. Some drive three miles each way, six hours roundtrip, to go to work. A lot of the women also work off the reservation. They work in hotels or as waitresses. The (green jobs) legislation will help bring back jobs and keep monies in the reservation. Currently, for every dollar made on the reservation, 70-cents gets spent outside. That’s a 70% leakage rate. There’s no economic development in the reservation. There are grocery stores, but they’re not Navajo-owned. One of the main stores is owned by a man who lives in Phoenix. RW: Are things worse now during the Great Recession for Navajo youth? NA: It’s always been hard for us. I talked with my grandma recently who lived through the Great Depression. She didn’t realize that there’s a recession right now, because it’s always been this way. Over 40% of Navajo living on the reservation don’t have running water or electricity. RW: What are the next steps for the Navajo green jobs campaign? And, how can allies help? NA: Our first steps are to work with the (Navajo) President (Joe Shirley Jr.). He has ten days to sign the legislation, to make it law. (The green jobs bill) was passed by the (Navajo Nation) Council but now we’re mobilizing Navajo youth to get the President to sign it. For the broader movement, you can help by encouraging the federal government to allocate green job monies to the Indian country.