DUSP Grad Student Advocates for Native American Youth

When MIT graduate student Maggie Dunne was in high school, she witnessed the harsh realities of life for many Native American Nations in the US and she was compelled to act. The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the people of Oglala Lakota Nation, is considered by the UN human rights and poverty investigations to be one of the most historically wronged and marginalized groups in the world.

The facts are dire. At the reservation, only one in 100 Lakota youths graduate college, there is an average literacy of 5th grade, and a 70 percent high school dropout rate. In addition, there is an 80 percent unemployment rate and an alarmingly high suicide rate with youths—more than seven-10 times the national average. Many families lack Internet access or even running water.

Dunne first visited the reservation at age 15 on a spring break trip. She maintained relationships with peers, mentors, and educators on the reservation and with the help of her hometown community in New York state, started to send needed supplies to schools on the reservation such as books, school supplies, and winter coats. “What started as a grassroots effort,” says Dunne, “ultimately grew into my passion and a movement to build culturally competent and sustainable bridges between the Oglala Lakota Nation and foundations, corporations, and volunteers across the US and around the world.”

In 2008, Dunne founded Lakota Children’s Enrichment, Inc. (LCE), a nonprofit organization that provides resources and opportunities for Lakota youth in education, the arts, mentorship, and leadership on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In addition to helping the children and families at Pine Ridge Reservation, Dunne works to educate people and push the national dialogue around Native American history and advocacy efforts in North America. While still acting as CEO of LCE, Dunne attended Colgate University and studied Native American studies and religion. Dunne built partnerships across the reservation with schools, community organizations, a youth advisory board, and parent volunteers. Together, they provided the reservations with more than 100,000 books; medical support, clothing, housing and food to families in need; hosted youth educational summits; and have provided scholarships and grants to help further the education of the Lakota youth.

“The reservation system is both complicated and fundamentally unfair, primarily by design of our nation’s founders” says Dunne. “Our vision for the future is that every Lakota child is able to go to bed safe and sound and that they are able to prosper in their community and become leaders despite the circumstances of inequality that they face. Native youth should not have to leave the reservation in order to receive high quality education and opportunities.”

As an advocate for social justice at just 27, her work has just begun. After nine-and-a-half years at the helm of LCE, Dunne recently moved to a non-executive position—currently the chair of the board—to continue her education and expand her impact.

Dunne enrolled at MIT this fall to pursue a graduate degree in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. “I am passionate about community economic development as it relates to advancing opportunities for socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, particularly in rural settings,” says Dunne, who hopes to expand her impact of social justice and public service.

This fall, Dunne attended the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit where she joined a panel called “Empowering Women and Girls Around the World.” “I was incredibly honored to be invited to attend the Obama Summit, representing Lakota Children’s Enrichment and MIT DUSP. My fellow panelists and I discussed challenges facing young women and girls in our communities. I believe that it is essential that women support other women.”

Both in her work in the Pine Ridge Reservation and beyond, Dunne is an advocate for indigenous communities globally. She has been published in the New York Times and has received awards for her service including 2016 Forbes Magazine 30 under 30 (Education), 2014 President’s Call to Service Award from President Barack Obama; the 2012 Grand Prize in Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women ; and a Daily Point of Light from President George HW Bush. In addition, she has spoken in numerous venues including the White House Summit on the State of Women, Nexus Events at the United Nations and Capitol Hill, and a Rotary District Conference at West Point.

Story originally published November 8, 2017 by Julie Barr, MIT Alumni Association for MIT News.