Cara: Cynthia, learning to be leaders that we aspired to be in our lives, requires us to identify and build our personal assets and strengths and I think that many of those assets and strengths are found in the pride that we feel for our culture and our heritage. It becomes a part of our identity. In your journey you’ve really embraced those assets and you’ve created something really wonderful in how you teach leadership, can you share with me and my listeners how this journey began for you?
Cynthia: Yes and thank you so much for asking. So my journey began, I started up from very meager means. I grew up in the inner city of Los Angeles and literally we started on welfare. My parents divorced when I was very young and my mom used welfare the way it was supposed to be, a temporary fix, so I had a very humble beginning. I come from two cultures, Latino and Native American Cherokee and so what I’ve been able to do in my lifetime is take that knowledge from those two cultures and really try to use the best of it. So I like to say I get my passion for life and my love for music and dance from being Latina and then I get my spirituality and love for Mother Nature and the environment from being a Native American.
So, throughout my life, I was the first person in my family to go to college and then through hard work, I found myself in a very prominent leadership positions. At one point I was president of the Board of Public Works for the city of Los Angeles, in charge of five thousand people, so every day I had to make difficult decisions. What I realized was if I make decisions based on my core values, I’d never make a bad decision. What I share in the book Cherokee Wisdom:12 lessons for becoming a powerful leader, are basically my values from my Cherokee background and what we call twelve attributes for leadership.
For example, the first one is integrity. Have integrity in everything you do. The way we define integrity is doing the right thing even if no one else is looking.
Cara: I mean, it’s kind of when I talk about engaging strangers in our lives, it’s like really treating people in your every day with value and importance.
Cynthia: Exactly, because when you really think about it, each and every one of us is on our own individual journey. It doesn’t make somebody’s journey better than the others, we’re all here to learn lessons throughout our life, and so because we’re all unique, nobody has the same fingerprints, we’re all special. We all are on our own journey, so it is about respect. I respect you for your opinion and your journey and I hope in turn you respect me, and my life, it doesn’t make one better than the other.
Cara: When you were doing a lot of this writing for a Cherokee wisdom. I noticed, for example, that you do a lot of work in engaging women and girls and really working on empowering them. How is that experience of providing mentorship and knowledge transfer inspired you?
Cynthia: Well, it actually comes from my beginning because I struggled so much, like I said, I was the first person in my family to go to college, so I really just struggled and had to figure everything out. So, now I feel very strongly about turning around and helping the next generation of young women so they have self-confidence and they’re exposed to opportunities. You know, in Cherokee culture we believe when people make decisions, they should take into consideration seven generations before and seven generations in the future. So you’re looking at a holistic world when you’re making these decisions and to me it so important to look to the future, look in the next generations and invest in them. I’m so excited about the young people and in the hope that they bring. Right now in the United States is a little bit crazy.
Cara: A little bit.
Cara: That’s all we’re going to say about that cause we don’t want haters on my page Cynthia. (haha)
Cynthia: I mean but you know there’s a lot of craziness and all you have to do it is turn on the news. So for me, it’s so important because young people get it. The young people now, they’re even in business, there’s social entrepreneurship. millennials, when they’ve spent their dollars, they actually spend their dollars at corporations that have a social conscience. So, I think that there’s so much hope for the future and I really love spending time with the young girls because not only do I give so much to them, they actually give so much to me.
Cara: I can really relate, because I actually work with them as well. I work with our city’s youth council, which is the miniature city council. They are the voices of the youth in the city. I always tell people, because they always have this kind of idea of what youth are like. “You works with teenagers, you poor thing” and I’m like, “no you don’t understand, I’m taught by teenagers,” because when I look at them and I look at how they are so hopeful and they really critically analyze things that are happening around them. They have such a world available to them that we never had and even the way they looked at this past election, and how they perceived it. They were hopeful for the future and they were saying things like, “Oh you know, Cara, it might not look good right now but you never know. I think the people will rise up and they will come together.” I always tell people, look, if you think that teenagers are one way you’ve got to think again because they make me feel hope in the world when I hear them, you know what I mean?
Cynthia: Absolutely. I think what happened, especially in the United States, our political system energized a lot of people, there were a lot of people becoming very apathetic. Now, if they want their voices to be heard, they realize that they have to get involved. So I think the young people have a lot of hope and I’m very glad. My perception is, that the young people actually are more tolerant, they embrace diversity, they embrace women in powerful positions. So I’m very hopeful and you know it’s like you said, I learned so much from them, so it’s a two-way street.
Cara: It’s true, I went to a conference in the spring and I couldn’t believe these teenagers were coming together, and it was actually for Gay Straight Alliance, for the LGBTQ+ community, and the workshops had topics like Racism and Diversity and Journalism and Social Justice. I thought, “wow, these kids are coming here voluntarily and learning this stuff. It just makes me excited, truthfully.
Cynthia: Yeah, I’m excited too. I think sometimes I get a little naive because living in the city of Los Angeles is so diverse. I assume that every place else is diverse but when I travel, I realize, OK, there’s not a lot of diversity everywhere. I love the diversity but you know, like we’re talking about the Millennials are just really so smart and so engaging but I think one of the challenges that I’ve seen with the different generations is the communication.
I recently did a leadership workshop for Latina business women owners and the young people were saying that they didn’t really feel respected or that their skills are respected in the workplace. I said, “Well, have you talk to your boss?” and they’re like, “No!” I said, “OK well, how do you communicate with your boss?” And they answered, “Oh we just send e-mails.” I told them that’s one way to do it but if you really want them to get to know you, you need to have a meeting face to face. I think that’s one thing that I think that the Millennials can learn from, is that yes, text messaging and e-mails important but nothing substitute a phone call or that face to face meeting for people to really know yours skills and know who you are as a person.
Cara: It’s true, communication has really changed a lot in all of our communities with technology, I mean gone are the days of the bulletin boards in the community where you knew what was going on, right? Like, where we all came around together to look at the bulletin boards and had conversations and talk to a stranger …, but now we have slacktivism, you know with Facebook. Like, “Oh yes, I’m going to go to your event” and then nobody shows up, right? I think that what you’re saying is really valid because I do notice that with the youth that I work with they have such great ideas and they’re very ambitious but they are learning this new way, new for them, of communicating. It’s easy for us, because that’s how we grew up but for them it’s new and so it’s great that they have mentors such as yourself to just gently pointed things out to them.
Cynthia: It’s powerful. I learned a lesson how powerful social media is through the whole issue in North Dakota at the Standing Rock Sioux tribe. The pipeline basically was an issue that was not really taken up in mainstream media. It was an issue that was driven by social media which went worldwide. I was doing a radio interview in Australia and they brought up the issue of Standing Rock, and I am like “wow” you know that it’s so powerful. Eventually, I think the mainstream media got on board but that whole thing was driven by the social media, the videos were really getting the message out to the public. That’s the first time in my lifetime I’ve seen over three hundred Native American tribes come together in social justice and civil rights. It was just so powerful.
Cara: It really was, I felt like I was there, even though I couldn’t be there. One moment really stands out for me, that was so magical in amongst all of the chaos, was that moment when the buffalo ran across the field, wasn’t that incredible? I just kept thinking about White Buffalo Calf Woman and how that was just such a symbol. I thought God, that’s incredible and I would have never seen that in social media.
Cynthia: One thing I think is important to talk about when we talk about Standing Rock, it was not a protest you know, they self-identified as water protectors and it was all through peaceful prayer and believing in spirituality. To me, it was a great example of how you can have this peaceful movement that’s powerful with a good message.
Cara: I see that you were honored, at the Southern California, Indian Centre Pow Wow for being the highest ranking Native American working for the city of Los Angeles. You really painted it so magical and hot, really hot.
Cynthia: It was almost like a surreal moment in my life because one of the things we’re taught as Native Americans is to be humble. So the that I’ve received over fifty awards and accolades in my life, it’s almost kind of, it’s weird I have to really be comfortable with that and really own it. I’m not better than anybody else who had worked hard and done a lot of things but I don’t feel like sometimes I deserve these awards. Not that I deserved, that’s the wrong word. There’s a lot of other people who should be acknowledged as well. It was such a magical moment because my mom was with me and she was just so proud and you know I just felt like the end gestures were with me. I have always loved PowWows. PowWows are very special to me and really, when I hear the Native American drumming to me, that’s like a symbol of the heartbeat of Mother Nature and I just so beautiful and so powerful.
Cara: We had an event here in the city for orange shirt day, which represented that all children matter and it was to talk about and honour the children that had died in the residential schools. We had a round dance, it was a short round dance but it was massive and all the people in the auditorium got together and took part in this round dance with the drumming. It’s really cool to see the city embrace the traditions of smudging as well, on city properties. You could feel the energy in the room of how everybody was united and sometimes when you experience something like that, you just wish everyone could experience it because I don’t think we connect enough on that level and through Pow Wows and round dancing I found that it really does bring the human connection together. It is a magical thing and you really captured that in your book, I loved it.
Cynthia: When we really think about quantum physics, we’re all energy…
To me energy is so important and when you’re involved in ceremony you feel that energetic field that connects you. Having that connection is so powerful, and you know, I love all the work that you do and I think that you’re one of those people who proves that anything is possible and I think that it’s so important to have shows like yours because there is so much negativity in the mainstream media and having that voice of positivity, and hope, and faith and perseverance, I mean, I just think that what you do is so special and I just wanted acknowledge you for that.
Cara: I just feel that sometimes especially when you work in the front lines of things in Human Services, it’s so important to connect with each other and to really value each other. In our stories, because our stories really become like that love song on the radio, you know when you’re heartbroken and you’re crying in your car and someone sings about the pain you’re feeling? Well, when we can share each other stories, we don’t feel alone and we feel connected and that means a lot to me. So, I’d love connecting with people like you because we start talking about quantum physics. (haha)
I’ve been working on a project with some friends of mine talking about their Indigenous Identity and I really couldn’t help but think of them when I was reading your book, because they considered themselves, well my friend Len always says, I’m an urban Indian, he said he always kind of felt like he was living with one foot in the urban world and one foot in the traditional world but he didn’t understand the traditional world. He had lost it and so they’re trying to find it again and they’re finding it through their children.
Do you find that a lot of people like in a lot of Native American people are re-learning their culture and finding themselves again?
Cynthia: Yes, and you bring up a good point because there is a divide between urban Natives and Natives that live on the reservation. My mom was fortunate up in Los Angeles, she worked as the American Indian liaison between the county of Los Angeles and the Native community. So it was a very splintered community because you have all these tribal differences in the United States. We have about five hundred seventy that are recognized tribes.
So there are tribal differences but then you have differences with the urban versus the reservation. So it was a challenging field to work with but I think what’s happening a lot of times is that urban Native Americans are feeling disconnected. So going back to their roots if you will, through Pow Wow, through ceremony, through the cultural things that we do, I think really helps you to feel connected.
I mean I love hiking, and most people wouldn’t think of city of Los Angeles being a hiking city, but there’s so many trails. Being out in Mother Nature and enjoying the beautiful wildlife, the trees and the Hawks flying, I mean, all of that allows me to really feel connected to Mother Earth and that helps me really bring my cultural values into the forefront of my mind.
Cara: I see that you are donating a percentage of your book to the nonprofit Girls Today, Women Tomorrow. I’m a huge, huge fan of mentorship and I’d love to know a little bit more about that nonprofit and why you chose it?
Cynthia: Well, I’ve actually been on the board of directors for Girls Today Women Tomorrow for many, many years and we have enough money where we purchased a home in East Los Angeles, in the Boyle Heights area. The young girls come to the house and we teach them everything from yoga to healthy cooking and how to support each other. A lot of the girls are surrounded by gangs, and drugs and alcohol in their homes and all this negativity, so coming to the house and learning organic gardening, and all this amazing stuff.. We take them on field trips, we take them hiking, we take them to T.V. stations, we take them to conferences, so by exposing them to different opportunities these young women gain drive. They go on to college, many of them study abroad and they turn into amazing leaders. So for me, it’s so important to invest in the next generation and really provide them opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have. So these young women are so amazing and I love working with them because like I was saying earlier, it’s a win-win situation. They get things from the mentors but I also you know, get so much from them and the great spirit that they have.
Cara: I was just going to ask you, if you could give any advice based on your experience around some of the lessons you’ve learned, leading up to writing your book as well as all the things that you do, what would you like to tell the young women out there that maybe you wish you hadn’t known at their age?
Cynthia:That anything is possible and my life is an example of that. In order for it to be possible, you need three ingredients.First of all, you have to believe it’s possible and that you have to do the work. There are some people who believe it but they don’t do the work or they do the work and don’t believe it. Believe it, do the work and never give up. If you never give up, your dreams can come true and anything is possible and I’m just so excited to share that with people because a lot of times there are people in this world that believe because of their life experiences there is no hope.
I have a spiritual practice in my life and I do three things every day.
The first thing I do when I wake up is I do my gratitude list, what am I grateful for?
The other two things I do throughout the day is I pray and meditate. I like to say, “prayer is talking to the creator and meditation is listening,” now I personally use the term Creator because of my native roots but I can say God, I can say universe or consciousness, it doesn’t matter what term you use but having that connection to that higher power is really so important. It helps me with my belief because I’m a Capricorn, I like to control things and I’m a hard worker, and like to plan everything, but at the end of the day I realize, I can make all the plans I want but if I surrendered to the Creator and let the Creator take control it makes everything so much easier.