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Engaging the Next Generation of Indigenous Leaders

November 22, 2019
At Sovereign Community School, Phil Gover focuses on holistic wellness, culturally responsive teaching and equity for Native American students.

November is Native American Heritage Month, and the Walton Family Foundation is highlighting the work of education advocates like Phil Gover of Oklahoma City, who believes the key to successful outcomes for Native students comes from within their own community tradition.

Phil Gover is here to remind everyone that Native-centered education works - and it can work really well.

“Before Oklahoma was a state, it was called Indian Territory,” Phil says.

“Before it was all taken from us, the tribes ran a statewide education program. We had the ability to educate our own kids in our culture and traditions and cosmology. We have ideas and philosophies - all the big things that you need for the foundations of culture.”

Phil Gover is the founder of Sovereign School, a public charter school for Native American students in Oklahoma City.

Phil, who grew up on the Hungry Valley Reservation outside of Reno, Nevada, is among a number of Native education advocates across the country seeking to address a complicated history and shine a light on an overlooked student population.

After stints as a Native American recruiter for Dartmouth College’s admissions office and with Teach for America, Phil left in 2016 to make a greater impact on his own community.

“More so than other communities, people often think of Native American communities as a thing of the past,” says Phil.

But the reality, Phil says, like most people in the United States, a majority of Native people live in urban areas. “My reservation, the reservation my mother grew up on, wasn’t out in the middle of nowhere, it was a mile from downtown Reno.”

And while urban Native students experience similar levels of poverty, substance abuse, incarceration and lack of quality education options as other underserved communities, theirs is a struggle that frequently gets little attention.

“This is a marginalized community even among marginalized communities,” says Phil.

This is precisely what Sovereign Community School, the public charter school Phil founded in Oklahoma City, is working to change.

The autonomy gives you a vessel that you can fill up with your community’s values and beliefs.
Phil Gover, founder of Sovereign Community School

Sovereign hopes to activate and engage the next generation of indigenous leaders, challenging them to understand and affirm their roles as citizens of the many Native nations around the country.

Currently open to sixth and ninth graders, the school focuses its learning around three pillars− holistic student wellness, culturally responsive teaching and equity and justice for marginalized communities.

“We give our kids grace to make mistakes, to let them know we care about their well-being,” says Phil Gover.

For Phil, the charter model was uniquely suited for this mission.

“The autonomy gives you a vessel that you can fill up with your community’s values and beliefs, which is really something the indigenous community could get on board with.”

It is a community, Phil says, that is wary of the traditional system where, historically, Native students were not well served.

Sovereign opened its doors following two years of development that involved a robust and continuous community organizing and outreach effort with the Oklahoma City Native community, tribal leadership and Indigenous families and their non-Indigenous allies.

“When we surveyed our families and leaders, the number one issue that kept coming up was wellness, an overwhelming sense that our kids are sick, our families aren’t doing well,” says Phil.

At Sovereign, student wellness is centered around the Native concept of the medicine wheel, equipping kids with the knowledge and tools they need to live happy, healthy and productive lives.

“We have conversations every day about historical trauma, how that impacted your parents, grandparents—and how it trickles down to you,” says Phil.

The school’s teaching staff is made up entirely of educators who share the experiences of their students. They are adapting portions of curriculum from other established Native schools, like the Native American Community Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

But where the academy centers its literature on the Navajo tradition, Sovereign pivots to the tribal heritage of Oklahoma.

The hope is to build a data set that shows other tribal communities how social-emotional learning can make a real impact on some of the country’s most marginalized students.

“We give our kids grace to make mistakes, to let them know that more than anything, we care about their well-being,” says Phil.

“When we first sat down to figure out what we wanted for this school and our kids when they graduated, our priority was to make sure they were one step closer to knowing the role they wanted to play in their own nation.”

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