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Local Educator Receives Award For Courage For Work With Native Students During Pandemic


Many Native students who attend school in Flagstaff live in a dormitory operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs because their family homes are far away, scattered on the vast Navajo Nation. But when schools shut their doors at the start of the pandemic, they had to go home…where they faced not only a sudden switch to online classes, but also a lack of access to Internet, electricity, food and water. Teachers and counselors worked long hours to stay connected to their students, many of whom were suffering from isolation and fear. Darrell Marks is the Native American academic advisor at Flagstaff High School. Tomorrow he receives a special award for courage from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for risking his health and safety to help others during the pandemic. In this audio postcard, we meet Darrell Marks who says the recognition is bittersweet after a year of heartbreaking loss.

[Speaking in Navajo] My name is Darrell Marks, I am White Corn Zuni Edgewater born for those going home, my maternal grandparents are Red House and my paternal grandparents are Salt. I’m originally from the community of Tonalea which is northeast of Flagstaff…. I serve as the academic advisor for Native American students here at the high school, which means I’m here to help students who are struggling with their academics… When our doors closed to the schools and students had to return home…. their homes were Four Corners area, New Mexico, Window Rock, Chinle, Tuba City, and so on, some just right out here in Leupp. Their internet connectivity was not that great at all. Some of them didn’t even have that. Some of them didn’t even have cell phone service. The challenges were only aggravated even more because their families were losing jobs, they were losing family members. Hardships were impacting them. We had students here in town who were like, my parents had to make a decision, either put food on the table or pay for the internet. So there was no choice.

And so it was constant phone calls, it was sending emails, finding ways to visit our students virtually, sometimes physically distant, I’m driving up to your house, how are you doing?  You’re good? Okay! You need anything? All right! Be safe! Roll up the window and then go. We went to those extents…. We even got to the point where our principal said, I have a plane, we have students in Chinle, we have students in Kayenta, let’s go see how they’re doing…. My workday when from 7am to 4pm to 6am to 12 midnight, Monday through Sunday, because the need was always there.

And then, through all of this, my son and I, along with some other relatives, we put together a nonprint to say, okay, this we need to start figuring out how to do we do this long term? Because after the pandemic, what do we do next? We’re identifying all these needs. With the closures, with the pandemic, it really brought all the inequities to the surface.

The reason why we’re talking, the JFK that snuck up on me. That wasn’t anything I planned for. The nomination came from somebody I the school who had seen the work we were doing…. The acknowledgment weighs heavy, because there’s so many amazing people out there… In all this time of despair and anxiety and worry, it was hopeful to know there were so many people were working together as a community. It didn’t matter how much money you made or the color of your skin, or the language you spoke, or where you lived, where your home was. It was people helping people, humans being human…. My hope is that we can continue to do those things, that we continue to be better humans and be better people, because there’s a lot more work to be done.

The virtual award ceremony honoring Darrell Marks and six other "Profile in Courage" recipients is at 3pm Arizona time on Wednesday, May 26. Learn more here and register to attend:

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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