2023 Fainting Robin Distinguished Scholar
The state of New Mexico holds the unwelcome distinction of ranking last in the United States in both K-12 education and overall child well-being. "My late mother, an educator for 30 years, taught me to do what I could for all of the children in our community, not just my own," wrote Wilhelmina Yazzie, one of the plaintiffs in the landmark education lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico and Fainting Robin Foundation’s 2023 Distinguished Scholar.
New Mexico’s underfunded, understaffed Gallup/McKinley school district sits on the edge of the Navajo Nation, where 30% of the households live below the poverty line, without electricity or running water, much less computers or online access. The schools in this district lack textbooks, qualified teachers, counselors, AP classes, computers, after school programs, and social workers. When Yazzie’s son Xavier, an ambitious straight-A student in that district, did not score at grade level on a standardized national achievement exam, she asked his school for a tutor to help bring up his scores and was told that there were none.
When Wilhelmina Yazzie began to speak to other parents, she realized that other students were in far worse shape than her three children, who had laptop computers and broadband. "The struggles they encountered and the limited access: not enough books, limited computers, even teachers asking students to help bring classroom materials," wrote Yazzie. "We’d have substitute teachers for half or the whole year! Limited programming and social services are nonexistent in some schools."
Yazzie worried that her three children, despite their best efforts, were being left behind by a broken, top-heavy educational system and remembered the words of her Navajo grandmother and mother. They taught her that "children are sacred and it’s our responsibility to prepare them for ‘iina,’ what we call ‘life’ in Navajo." Inspired by her mother who raised four college graduates on a schoolteacher’s salary, Yazzie, a paralegal, spearheaded a lawsuit against the state of New Mexico and its governor.
In March 2014, she and others filed Yazzie et al v. New Mexico. The plaintiffs argued, "The state of New Mexico is failing its public school students and has failed them for so long that there now exists an entire generation of children in this state who do not possess the basic capabilities to meaningfully function in modern society." On July 20, 2018, First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton handed down a withering decision that declared New Mexico’s public education system a "dismal failure" that violated students’ constitutional right to a sufficient education. "When I heard the news that we won, I really couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I looked up, and I said, ‘Mom, you know what? We did it.’"
Today, Wilhelmina Yazzie continues to advocate for the rights of all of New Mexico’s students. After four years of waiting, the state’s Public Education Department finally released a draft of their plan to improve education in that state. "We’re such a diverse state, we’re such a beautiful state, we have such beautiful cultures and backgrounds," said Yazzie. "We could actually climb back up to the top, if we really work together."