Longtime First Nations supporter Mark Habeeb knows what it takes to change the world: A bottom-up, top-down approach that tackles the big picture and the everyday details. When it comes to uplifting Native communities, he sees the need to both change the overall narrative of Native Americans and create opportunities for every child born on a reservation. This dual approach is what drew this Washington, D.C.-based educator to First Nations and continues to fuel his dedication.
Rooted in Education
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Mark went on to graduate from Georgetown University, and then obtained his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. He served as an international consultant and foreign policy advisor to a U.S. senator before becoming a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, focusing on negotiation and conflict resolution. Mark has written several books on international affairs, world history and culture.
This broad educational and professional background has given him an enhanced ear to issues in humanity and the plight of marginalized populations. One of those populations has been Native Americans.
“There’s so many conflicts in the world that are based on identity – over who people are,” explains Mark. “Fundamentally it’s race and prejudice based on an underlying theory that some humans are worth more than other humans.”
Mark notes that prejudice in America dates back to “Day 1,” when Native people were declared illegal in their own land. “You often hear slavery described as America’s original sin. While yes, that was horrific, I would say that the original sin was the genocide of Native Americans,” he asserts.
With this in mind, Mark knew he wanted to give something back to Native American communities, and he sought an organization that aligned with his approach to effecting change.
For Mark, First Nations’ focus on enriching and sustaining Native cultures and traditions through investments in communities was especially appealing. “Because when you empower individuals and communities, you dramatically increase the potential for impact and sustainability.
“Even if you think about it politically,” he says, “Your local school board actually has more influence over your child’s growth than the U.S. Department of Education. The local level is where things happen. And that’s the bulk of First Nations’ work.”
Mark and his wife, Wendy – who shares his admiration for First Nations’ work – were able to see the empowerment in action when they joined First Nations on its Southwest Tour of some of First Nations’ grantees in the Santa Fe, New Mexico, area. First Nations conducts the tours to show first-hand how First Nations supports homegrown solutions to community needs. Here, Mark and Wendy could see the preservation of cultures, language and food, which Mark says sustains communities and makes them interesting.
At the same time, Mark sees the need to address racist policies and attitudes that prevent opportunity and progress. He refers to the First Nations-led “Reclaiming Native Truth” study conducted with support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and others that set out to transform the “enforced invisibility of and racist narratives about Native Americans through unprecedented national research.”
One of the things the study showed was that many people polled didn’t think Indians exist anymore. He said he was disappointed and shocked by that finding, but that it is indicative of what Americans are taught to believe.
“The lack of awareness and respect shows how racism is still rampant in our country – against Native Americans, blacks and anyone whose skin is not white,” he says. “People think we’ve worked through it, but we haven’t.”
Mark talks candidly about what he sees regularly in Washington, D.C. – Outrage over racist remarks by an American president, while at the same time city-wide cheers for the Washington NFL team with a racist name. The accepted use of such a derogatory word shows how enduring and pervasive racism is in our lives, he says, noting how the imagery of Native Americans is portrayed in our advertising, food products, cigarettes and mascots.
“It’s just a seed that keeps growing,” he says. “It again stems from the belief that some people’s lives are worth more than others. And the only way to fight this racism is to change the narrative from the top down.”
A Combined Strategy
Still, Mark concedes that shifting the narrative at the national level is not going to solve the effects of racism in the immediate moment. “If they changed the racist nicknames tomorrow, it’s not going to change the lives of people on reservations,” he says. “You have to do both.”
Mark sees racism as something based on a fear of people who are different from ourselves. We see difference as frightening or as something less good, he explains. But instead, those differences should be celebrated. “That’s what makes our species interesting. Our expression of art, music and culture make us different from any other creature,” he says. “Those differences shouldn’t be seen as a source of stereotyping or a human flaw. They’re universal, and they should be celebrated.”
And this is another reason he and Wendy gravitate to First Nations.
“They approach things in a celebratory way,” he says. “With First Nations, we’re going to own our narrative. We’re going to empower people. We’re going to build community. So that a Native American child has a decent chance.”
Working Together for a Brighter World
How would the world be if everything that Mark, Wendy and First Nations were striving for were complete?
Mark says it would be a strong world of sustainable communities. People would maintain a link with their heritage and their past, but everyone would grow up with opportunities to thrive and succeed, however that’s defined.
“You could be Native American without that bringing about any prejudice against you,” he envisions.
He says rightful owners of land would be recognized and respected even if they don’t “own” that land today. “Anyone who comes to this country from somewhere else knows that they’re living on land that at some point was taken from someone else. We’re all living on a confiscated continent. This means we all owe something back.”
“We can’t undo the past destruction of Native American life in this country,” he says. “But as much as possible, we can level the playing field for people today.”
By Amy Jakober