Tessa Baldwin started Hope4Alaska in high school after her boyfriend committed suicide.
She traveled the state, visiting villages, sharing her story, and often times, alienating those who didn’t want to talk about a sensitive topic.
“The elders in my village would look to me and say ‘Why are you doing this? You’re going to cause our children to commit suicide if you talk about this,” she said Monday afternoon.
Baldwin, now a freshman at the University of California, San Diego said she misses the cold weather in Kotzebue, her home.
She traveled to Washington, D.C. this week. Monday afternoon she took part in a panel that highlighted the extraordinary work of some Native youth. She’s serving as the model for a new program called Champions for Change, a project of the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute.
“This actually started last year,” she said. “When 11 of us youth went to the White House to meet the president to talk about our stories how we overcame struggles.”
The struggles of suicide have ripped at Baldwin for years. Not only did her boyfriend take his life, so did an uncle. She said all over the state, in every village she visited, people opened up to her about the suicide of a friend or family member.
Former Senator Byron Dorgan founded the Center for Native American Youth. He chaired the Senate Indian Affairs committee while he represented North Dakota.
He said what he witnessed in years of travel in Indian Country belie the myths from outside, and that’s a key reason for starting Champions for Change.
“It’s just an opportunity to show a different face of what is so often reported. They report the challenges, the bad news. But I’m telling you, I think there are some remarkable people doing some remarkable things on reservations as well,” Dorgan said Monday afternoon.
Senator Dorgan said many of the details of the program need to be fleshed out. One element remains certain: all the young adults chosen will be flown to Washington D.C. to share their stories with the White House.
The Champions for Change program is looking for applicants who show promise in the future of Indian policy, those who have emerged as young leaders, and those who have overcome personal and emotional trouble.