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Acceptance Speech – Chesie Lee

I am greatly humbled and honored to receive this award.  There are many amazing women I have met during my career in Wyoming over the last twenty-five years.  And so I accept this award, not so much for myself, but also for the others who do not have the privilege of standing before you.

I have been asked to tell my story of Breaking through: Find Your Voice, Share Your Voice, the theme of this year’s conference.

When I was about 10 years old on the playground at school, I noticed some boys throwing rocks about the size of eggs at another little boy Jimmy, whom I knew to be from a poor family.  I walked up to them and said two words:  “Stop it!”  And they did.  That was the beginning of my career of seeking justice.

I think I have always known I had a voice.  I grew up in a large family with five older brothers.  My mother, although a high school dropout and married at age 17 to my father who was a college graduate and 7 years older than her, yet had a strong and confident voice.  We had great meal-time conversations.  We were allowed to disagree.

I grew up in southeastern Ohio where the Underground Railroad had gone through in the mid 1800’s; that is, slaves fleeing from the South to freedom on the other side of the Ohio River.  As a result, the little town of 250 people where I grew up had many black families who had settled there.  But through school integration and day-to-day living, I saw how racism worked.

In 1963, I went to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his. “I Have a Dream Speech.”  I was 18 years old.  This experience profoundly shaped me.

But when I returned home right after the March and went with my parents to a Farm Bureau Council meeting to which they belonged, I was not in the company of supporters.  They talked about how the March was Communist inspired and the evils of integration and the stereotypes of colored people, as Blacks were called then among other names.

My father seldom said much at those meetings, so when he did say something, people paid attention.  He had a stutter and so that contributed to his shyness.  But I remember as if it were yesterday his moving forward in his comfortable seat on a sofa in one of the member’s homes and saying, “Well, as you know, someone in this room was there and you should let her speak.”  And they did let me speak.  We had a good dialogue.  I’m not sure I changed anyone’s mind, but maybe.  But what it did was allowed me to have my say, which strengthened my convictions.

I am now 70 years old.  I am at that age where I do not know whether it is better to try to keep my age hidden because of the bias in our culture against older people, especially older women, or whether I should shout it from the housetops and say, “Hey, I am 70 years old, an 8-year survivor of breast cancer and listen up everybody, because I have something I want to say!”

One of the things I want to tell you today is that Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream is mine as well.  And for segments of our population, it still has not happened.  About 27 months ago, I moved to Riverton for my work.  In 2012, the Wyoming Association of Churches had passed a resolution that we want to connect with Native Americans in Wyoming, listen to and respect their cultures and stand with them.  I lived in Laramie at the time and was trying to implement that resolution from Laramie.  That was not working, so in the summer of 2013, I packed up and moved.  Last year, I bought a house and I intend to stay.

The dream for equality for Native Americans on the Wind River Reservation is far from reality.  What is sad is that historic trauma of defeats, forced boarding schools to “kill the Indian to save the man,” institutionalized racism in Wyoming and prejudice especially in the communities surrounding the Wind River Reservation has led to internalized racism, where Native Americans believe they cannot succeed because they are Native Americans.  Many do not know that they can have a voice.  I have heard well-respected elders say things like, “I went to Cheyenne once to talk to legislators and the experience was so bad, I am never going back.”

On the Wind River Reservation where the life expectancy is 49 and the median age is 21 in the heart of Wyoming, I am given the opportunity to help them find and share their voices.  The newly forming Wind River Native Advocacy Center I am nurturing has set as its vision, “A community engaged in self-determination for education, health, economic development and equality for the Wind River Reservation.”  This past year 25 went to Cheyenne during the Wyoming State Legislative Session.  They were heard and made a difference.  This year we are planning for 50 to go.  For next year’s elections, we plan to increase voter turnout on the Wind River Reservation that has been significantly lower than in other Wyoming communities.  It’s convincing an oppressed population living in third world conditions that their vote, their voice and their civic engagement matters.  Native Americans have welcomed me and appreciate that I am there, not to do for or to, but to do with and to empower them to have a stronger voice.

My bigger challenge, however, is getting those who are throwing the rocks, some of whom do not even know they are doing it, to stop it.  For example, the University of Wyoming for how senior students from St. Stephens High School were treated last month in the bookstore downstairs in this student union where they were falsely accused of shop lifting, detained and searched because they were Native Americans when the young white chaperons with them were not.  Is that any way to encourage Native Americans from the Wind River Reservation to come to UW to get their degrees so they can go back and be teachers, lawyers, entrepreneurs and such on the reservation or wherever else they may choose to live?

The Melting Pot and assimilation have not worked for those with black or brown skin.  The chair of the Wind River Native Advocacy Center and friend of mine says, “We speak your language. We wear your clothes. We eat your food. We live in your houses. We go to your schools.  What else do you want?  We cannot change the color of our skins.”

I have a dream.  I believe that in Wyoming we can end racism.  We can have a state where immigrant workers from Mexico or refugees from Serbia or recruited black players to the university or Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone and other Natives who were here long before Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain can be accepted, respected and appreciated for what they have to offer.

I have a dream that diversity of culture will be valued as the highest priority for Wyoming’s institutions and governing bodies.  I challenge every church, club and social structure to look at itself and determine how they can become more welcoming opening their doors and hearts to those who are different from them.

That is my story.  My advice to you:

  1. Find your voice for your vision.

  2. Share your voice to make a difference.

  3. Despite what others tell you, never plan to retire. Plan for aging and for transitions.  Even plan for death, as it will come.  But always use your voice for making a better world.

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