On Dec. 15, hundreds of Lobos will become new alumni as they cross their tassels on their mortarboards. Fall Graduation is a day for celebration and reflection, and it is fitting that this year’s Commencement speaker will be asking students to reflect as she shares her experience using her voice to advocate on behalf of those who may feel they do not have a voice or feel misunderstood.
“Growing up on the Navajo Nation, my parents set the example that being a leader meant thinking of the people first,” says Faith Roessel, UNM’s Fall Commencement speaker. “I was expected to use my education to help others. It was the unwritten rule in our family. We lived the challenges we sought to overcome.”
Inspired by her parents’ pioneering leadership in the fields of American Indian education and self-determination, Roessel attended the UNM School of Law and became a lawyer who has had a diverse career in law, policy, government, education, and advocacy focused on persons and communities of color especially families, children, and youth.
Her current work focuses on building understanding and breaking down stereotypes about American Indians and tribal governments through communication, cross-cultural exchange, and experiential education.
“My responsibility is to break the cycle, the trope and challenge the national stories that we all perished and no longer exist." —Faith Roessel
“Misunderstanding is the root cause of so many of our issues and problems,” says Roessel. “How can we forge understanding when we are uncomfortable or scared to take the first step? It is a risk we all must take. We must know the ‘other’ for we are the ‘other’ to someone else. Ignorance is no excuse, but taking responsibility is the beginning.”
Roessel has spent her legal career advocating on behalf of American Indians before all branches of government. She is the recent past President of the Board of Directors of the Association on American Indian Affairs and serves on national non-profit boards.
Within these organizations, Roessel aims to engage youth, promote the educational and socio-economic attainment of American Indians and other at-risk communities and, most importantly, create dialogue and understanding as a basis for solving problems.
“What we learn in school matters—not just for achieving our goals, but because we learn about entire groups of people, are taught history a certain way, internalize the written word with our personhood and emerge either more enlightened or confused,” said Roessel. “As a lawyer, I am amazed how misperceptions of American Indians and tribal governments have driven the development and interpretation of Indian law.”
She added, “My responsibility is to break the cycle, the trope and challenge the national stories that we all perished and no longer exist; we are the 19th Century ‘savage’; the broken Indian warrior on the hill slumped over our horse defeated; or nowadays, we are so overcome with socio-economic ills we are incapable of governing or functioning as full citizens.”
Prior to entering federal service, under then Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, Roessel reestablished and directed the Navajo Nation Washington Office. With this role, she was the primary liaison between the Navajo Nation government and federal legislative and executive branch officials.
Throughout her career Roessel has sought to connect her professional work to her home community of Round Rock, Arizona on the Navajo Nation, where she and her four siblings were raised by their parents.
A decade ago, she and her three sons created a community service-learning trip to broaden the educational opportunities and experiences for native students in Round Rock and in Arizona and New Mexico and for high school students from the Washington, DC area.
As a family, the Roessels also organize school supplies and backpack drives for Navajo schools and work with the Round Rock senior center to provide clothing, care packages, and holiday dinners for Navajo elders.
“This is a season when we think of others. It is in that spirit that I am very happy and excited to come home to Lobo-country and be with the community that gave me my start in my career,” Roessel said. “The goodness and hope we have on Commencement Day is one we should carry outside The Pit into our personal lives and communities. We all need to grasp that outstretched hand of help and support. My hand will be reaching out to all the graduates and I seek their grasp in return.”