Navajo Nation: Danyel Marie Johnson's Story
When you meet Danyel Marie Johnson she will introduce herself as being from the Many Hogan’s clan (Hooghanlani), born for the Water-Flow-Together clan (Tó’aheedlínii), and her maternal grandfathers are Salt People (Ashjj’); her paternal clan, the Zuni Clan (Naasht’ézhí Din’e’é). Danyel believes that the work she is doing to improve the health of her Navajo community is the embodiment of a dream she had when she was just four years old. That was when she became a spiritual healer and shared her vision of becoming a person who does good things for humanity.
When Danyel was selected to serve on the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Youth Advisory Board in 2011, she felt that her vision had been realized. “I decided to join the Youth Advisory Board,” Danyel said, “because the Navajo Nation struggles with obesity.” The Alliance’s Youth Advisory Board is one of the only youth-led advisory groups in the country focused on childhood obesity issues. This group of youth leaders (currently 21 members) plays an integral role in advising and providing a youth perspective to guide the work of the Alliance. Board members also serve as national spokespeople for the Alliance and commit to initiating healthy changes in their own neighborhoods and school districts by engaging in service-learning programs in their communities. In exchange, these youth leaders are given the opportunity to connect with each other on monthly calls and in annual training sessions. They share challenges and successes, and bounce ideas off each other which build confidence, public speaking and leadership skills that they take back to their community.
Combining both her love for her Navajo culture and an active lifestyle, Danyel practices her traditional dances and songs in addition to playing soccer, basketball, baseball, softball and running. She hopes to serve as a healthy role model for her peers and for the young and old in her community. She is passionate about keeping her language alive and restoring harmony and health for Navajo youth.
Danyel gained some traction at Tohatchi Elementary School where she was a student. The school joined the Healthy Schools Program and after completing the Inventory, the online assessment available on the Alliance’s website, the wellness council was able to take a good look at what areas they were doing well in and what they wanted to change in the future.
The group created an Action Plan focused on increasing physical activity minutes per week and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. Danyel helped get her friends excited about new salad options, encouraged her peers to move more during recess and helped plan field days to show that physical activity could be fun.
When Tohatchi school counselor Sandra Ki received word that the school had met the New Mexico Annual Yearly Progress expectations she explained, “Success breeds success.” Ki, along with many other education and health researchers, believes that there is a direct link between health and academic outcomes and attributes the increase in school performance indicators to the school’s efforts to keep students active and healthy.
Since then Danyel has moved to a new town and started middle school and has learned the lesson that what works in one place might not work in others. At her new school the administration has been less receptive to starting a new program and the middle school students seem less interested in eating healthy and staying active.
If anything, these setbacks have only made Danyel more determined. She has decided to serve a third term on the Youth Advisory Board so she can make an even greater impact on her new school as she sees the need is great.
Danyel explains that in addition to her efforts on changing her school environment, she also works with her sport leagues to teach other kids about nutrition and fitness. She even has helped her family make healthy changes at home where, as the oldest of six girls, she feels a deep sense of responsibility. She rewards her sisters with stickers when they get enough minutes of physical activity, she fills up their water bottles every morning before school and has high expectations that the water will be gone when they come home. Danyel understands that the choices her sisters and friends make today will not only affect their physical health but also their cultural longevity.
Her mother, Bernita, shares that it has been difficult to sit back and watch her daughter feel rejected by her elders; many of whom did not seem interested in addressing the issues Danyel presented, or did not support her ideas to start new programs in the schools. She was only ten when she started this and I would watch her speak to a crowd of people and I would wonder if it had any value. It didn’t always seem like it was getting through to people. But as she has matured you can tell that her passion is real. It is not scripted.” Bernita describes how being a part of the Youth Advisory Board has helped guide her daughter. “She sees how other kids express their passion and that motivates her to continue to speak up, even when it is hard.”