We often only see the success and work of a community leader only after they have spent years in their field. However, emerging leaders and young professionals make up a large part of organizations and help to push missions forward with their hard work and perseverance.
We caught up Tonisha Begay, a young professional working in Grand Rapids to hear more about her career and life in the midwest.
RG: Can you tell us a little about yourself? How do you identify?
TB: I’m from Gallup, NM and have lived in Grand Rapids for the last 6 years. I’m a Diné (or Navajo) woman. In Diné culture, we identify ourselves by naming our four clans, starting with our mother’s clan, then our father’s clan, our maternal grandfather’s and paternal grandfather’s clan. My clans are Tó Baazhní'ázhí, Kinlichíi'nii, Dziltl'ahnii, and Haltsooí Dine'é.
RG: Where did you study and how was your experience? How did it shape who you are?
TB: I studied sociology at Calvin College. I grew up in the CRC and went to Rehoboth Christian School in Rehoboth, NM. My experience at Calvin was shaped by the CRC and the relationship between the CRC and the Diné people. CRC missionaries began the Rehoboth Mission in 1903 with the intention of evangelizing and assimilating the Diné people.
I chose to go to Calvin because a few of my high school teachers are from Michigan and went to Calvin. I liked how my teachers who went to Calvin thought about and engaged the world around them. I could see a difference between them and the other teachers who went to Christian colleges and universities. My experience at Calvin was bittersweet. I loved learning and thinking critically about what I believed and the knowledge I was gathering. However, I often felt isolated and powerless on the predominantly white campus. I eventually found supportive and caring people who helped me to resist and find my voice. For that, I am grateful to Calvin.
RG: What is your current work?
TB: I work at Calvin College in the Service-Learning Center and at Grand Valley State University in the Office of Multicultural Affairs. I work primarily with students, helping them to engage with issues and challenging them to think critically about their surroundings. Part of my work in both places includes helping the institutions I work with recognize and advocate for marginalized students in higher education. As a first-generation Diné college student, I needed all the support I could get, and my biggest goal is giving that to students on the margins.
RG: As a woman of color (WoC) what current issues are most pressing to you?
TB: Right now, I’m interested in amplifying the voices of Black/Indigenous/Latinx women/femmes in Grand Rapids. Reclaiming, maintaining, and protecting spaces for us in Grand Rapids, at Calvin, and GVSU is what I’m working towards. This work includes raising awareness about intra-cultural patriarchy and sexual violence, while holding the surrounding communities accountable to our wellbeing.
RG:As a millennial, what has been your career path, growth, and obstacles?
TB: I hope to continue to push for equity in higher education as I continue my career. At GVSU, I work a lot with the local indigenous communities to help keep Native students rooted in tradition. Additionally, I work with Native students to help them feel supported, heard, and empowered in higher ed. I’ve learned a lot and sometimes it’s frustrating to advocate for Native students within these institutions.
RG: How has Grand Rapids faired in helping support you as PoC?
TB: My lens of Grand Rapids is mostly shaped by LGBTQ Black/Indigenous/Latinx thinkers/activists/creatives. Grand Rapids is home to a lot of brilliant voices who are so often overlooked and undervalued. I learn from and with them, and my hope is that the rest of the city can acknowledge and listen to these communities. I am thankful and honored to know them.
Begay can be reached at [email protected]
for further questions or collaboration.
Ken Miguel-Cipriano is Rapid Growth’s innovation and jobs editor. To reach Ken, you can email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter and Instagram.