As closures tightened at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Shandiin Herrera ’19 knew she had to do something to meet the special needs of her community.
Eighteen million dollars raised later, Herrera can say she helped do just that – and more.
The former public policy specialist and Lead for America has partnered with local tribal governments and donors to raise money to create a Navajo Nation COVID-19 Relief Fund, a reservation spanning parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Thanks to Herrera’s efforts, nearly 100,000 households have received weekly distributions of food and other basic necessities. The response from supporters has been overwhelming, she said.
“Four days later, we already had $100,000,” Herrera says. “We have started recruiting field volunteers to help distribute supplies.”
For many residents, getting food was a 60-mile round trip, so food, protective gear and cleaning supplies arrived at their homes just when they were needed most, says Herrera.
After graduating from Duke’s Sanford School, Herrera returned to her hometown of Monument Valley, Utah, where, through Lead for America, she joined the 110 tribal chapters that make up the government of the Navajo nation.
“We felt that tribal governments might not be able to move quickly enough to help our families through this time,” she says.
Herrera mobilized a group of women – Navajo and Hopi women from the community, as well as her mentor Ethel Branch, a former Navajo Nation Attorney General.
The group discussed how they could help reduce the transmission of the COVID-19 virus in their community, where residents have to travel far to get basic services such as access to running water, electricity and broadband internet. If the group could reduce the number of trips away from booking, it could reduce viral spread, Herrera says the group has discussed.
Almost overnight, they set up a COVID-19 relief fund to support the community with food, water and basic necessities so people can stay home safely.
Today, Herrera has extended her work helping her community as director of the Tse Bii Ndzisgaii Community Center, a new center in her hometown funded by a $10 million donation from MacKenzie Scott. It guides community members through its offerings, including: computer and internet access, communal meeting spaces, literacy and computer literacy classes, small business support, and library featuring Native American and Indigenous authors.
“It’s important for the young people in our community. I never read aboriginal authors until college. With our library, they can see themselves in the books,” she says.
The confidence to lead is something Herrera attributes to her time at Duke, a place where she sometimes felt like a Native woman attending a predominantly white institution. “I’m super proud when I think about my time at Duke,” Herrera said.
Incredible mentors and classes taught by women of color, like Deondra Rose, director of Duke’s POLIS: Center for Politics, opened Herrera’s eyes to the power of leaning into all that makes her who she is. is. Soon she discovered the inner strength that had always been there. Before graduating, Herrera advocated for better support for Indigenous students on campus with the Native American Student Alliance, she forged stronger bonds with alumni by launching Duke Native American and Indigenous Alumni (DNAIA), and she urged Duke to hire more native faculty.
“At Duke, I wasn’t just a student. I was an educator who taught people about my community and the issues we face,” she says.