SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — It may be one of the toughest jobs in Santa Fe.
As the assistant secretary for Indian Education, Lashawna Tso is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's educational liaison to the state’s 23 tribal governments and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Education.
Her role since getting the job last fall bridges two worlds with centuries of fraught history: war and genocide that lasted until the 20th Century and a combination of indifference and neglect that Native American advocates argue lingers today in funding decisions and educational lesson plans.
“The tribes are depending on me, to make sure that their voices are heard,” Tso said in an interview.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Tso’s position was vacant.
There was no top state official to direct Indigenous education policy and New Mexico's tribal leaders were left frustrated at a critical time.
While many students have struggled with remote learning, Native American students have been disproportionately unable to access remote classes for lack of computers and decent internet connections.
Native leaders hope having one of their own high up in state government will help.
Since taking over in October, she has participated in a flurry of virtual meetings with other state education officials and tribal leaders. Tso was among the panelists at a recent town hall on ethnic studies. There also have been legislative committee meetings and discussions with state lawmakers about funding proposals to bring more equity to New Mexico's education system.
Tso, 33, is Navajo. She grew up in the tiny community of Smoke Signal, Arizona, where her nearest neighbors were a half-mile (0.8 kilometers) away and most were extended family. Her father transferred from four-year college despite earning a basketball scholarship to a welding program so that he could provide for his growing family. For most of her life he plied his trade at a coal mine a two-hour drive away.
Tso’s parents made education a priority and sent her and her older sister to a Navajo-run dormitory in Flagstaff, Arizona, so they could go to a larger high school with more opportunities. Sheltered in their culture at the dorm, the sisters were minorities when they stepped on school grounds.
School counselors tried to place them in remedial courses, even though the sisters had completed advanced placement courses during middle school.
“That was my first encounter of this pre-judgment of, you know, you’re coming from the reservation, you’re probably not going to do well,” said older sister Crescentia Tso, who is now a social worker in Window Rock, Arizona.
Lashawna Tso earned her undergraduate degree from Arizona State University, where she took courses in speech pathology, inspired by a nephew who had been diagnosed with mild autism.
Then while taking classes at American University through an internship program in Washington, D.C. she became close with a tight-knit group of Native professionals who watched out for each other in a town that hasn’t historically had their backs.
“I recognized that not only are we minorities among minorities, but there’s no one that looked like me that had a seat at the table,” Tso said.
She could have joined the ranks of teachers and social workers like her sister who are dedicated to shaping one student at a time.
Instead, she earned a master’s degree in public administration from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix and discovered her passion for crafting government policy and building consensus on difficult issues disputed by disparate factions.
Before she was appointed to the Native education post, Tso was chief of staff for the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council.
She worked to unite Arizona tribes in a collective bargaining effort to protect exclusive gaming rights. Countless meetings helped prevent tribes from splintering and striking disparate deals with the state directly.
Arizona tribes recently won the right to expand casinos and facilitate sports betting. It wasn't easy.
“Anytime money is discussed, it is always controversial,” Tso said.
Now that Tso is working for state government, funding for education is a constant tension between officials in Santa Fe and tribal governments.
State and federal courts dealt blows to the Lujan Grisham administration last year, ruling that efforts to educate Native students fall below constitutional standards. They also ruled that financing for school buildings and other infrastructure is discriminatory and that federal education funds were being improperly diverted.
The court rulings, which continue to be litigated, and tribal education legislation under consideration by New Mexico lawmakers have the potential to mark more historic shifts.
It wasn't until 1948 that court rulings cleared the way for tribal members to vote in New Mexico and Arizona, and it would take three more decades before more Native American communities gained authority over the schools serving their children.
The preservation of Indigenous languages also has been a challenge due to past assimilation policies and now a lack of teachers and learning material. Many Native American children don't have high-speed internet access.
Tso is the highest-ranking Indigenous person in a state education system that “has failed Native children,” says Regis Pecos, a long-time education advocate.
Pecos knows what it’s like to work across governments after serving as the governor of Cochiti Pueblo and as chief of staff for one of New Mexico’s most powerful politicians, former House Speaker Ben Lujan.
“It takes a lot of courage and strength to be able to contribute and guide a system that sometimes has not been good to you on behalf of the people from where you come from,” says Pecos, now co-director of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School. “So, just to accept and embrace this role speaks volumes.”
Tso frets over lagging graduation rates and the potential for the pandemic to deepen the learning divide. A key to overcoming those problems, she says, is increasing accountability, especially in public schools.
"What is the extra step that they’re taking to make sure that they’re getting the help that they need?" she asked, pointing to the need for after school programs and access to culturally relevant curriculums.
This article has been corrected to reflect that Tso's father transferred from a four-year college to a welding program; he did not drop out of school.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.