As shutdowns tightened at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shandiin Herrera ’19 knew she had to do something to respond to her community’s particular needs.
Eighteen million dollars raised later, Herrera can say she helped do that exactly—and more.
The former public policy major and Lead for America fellow partnered with local tribal governments and donors to raise funds to establish a COVID-19 relief fund for the Navajo Nation, a reservation stretching across parts of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Because of Herrera’s efforts, nearly 100,000 households were provided with weekly distributions of food and other necessities. The response from supporters was overwhelming, she says.
“Four days in, we already had $100,000,” Herrera says. “We started getting volunteers on the ground to help distribute the supplies.”
For many residents, obtaining food was a 60-mile round trip, so the food, protective equipment, and cleaning supplies arrived at homes just when it was needed most, Herrera says.
After graduating from Duke's Sanford School, Herrera returned to her hometown of Monument Valley, Utah, where through Lead for America she partnered with the 110 tribal chapters that constitute the Navajo Nation’s government.
“We felt the tribal governments may not be able to act quickly enough to help our families through this moment,” she says.
Herrera mobilized a group of women—Navajo and Hopi women from the community, along with her mentor Ethel Branch, a former attorney general for the Navajo Nation.
The group discussed how they could help reduce the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in their community, where residents need to travel away from for basic services like access to running water, electricity and broadband internet. If the group could reduce the number of trips away from the reservation, they could lower viral spread, Herrera says the group discussed.
Almost overnight, they established a COVID-19 relief fund to support the community with food, water, and essentials so people could safely stay home.
Today, Herrera has extended her work helping her community as the director of the Tse Bii Ndzisgaii Community Center, a new center in her hometown funded by a $10 million donation from MacKenzie Scott. She guides community members through its offerings, including: computer and internet access, communal meeting spaces, computer literacy and cultural classes, small business support, and a library featuring Native American and Indigenous authors.
“It’s important for youth in our community. I never read Native authors until college. With our library, they can see themselves in books,” she says.
Confidence to lead is something Herrera credits to her time at Duke, a place where she at-times felt she was a Native woman attending a predominantly white institution. “I’m super proud when I think about my time at Duke,” says Herrera.
Incredible mentors and courses taught by women of color such as one with Deondra Rose, director of Duke’s POLIS: Center for Politics, opened Herrera’s eyes to the power of leaning in on everything that makes her who she is. Soon, she discovered the inner strength that had been there all along. Before graduating, Herrera advocated for better support of Indigenous students on campus with the Native American Student Alliance, she forged stronger alumni bonds launching Duke Native American and Indigenous Alumni (DNAIA), and she urged Duke to hire more Indigenous faculty.
“At Duke, I wasn’t just a student. I was an educator teaching people about my community and the issues we face,” she says.