Alray Nelson is a 2012 YP4 Fellow and an advocate for Native American youth. He is a graduate of the University of Mexico with a bachelor’s degree in Politic Science. Born and raised in Arizona, he grew up in the small valley of Beshbetoh on the Navajo Nation. He has served as an executive assistant & adviser for two Navajo Nation Presidents. The LGBTQ community has recognized Alray for his effort to repeal the discriminatory Diné Marriage Act and honored him with the prestigious 2015 Rainbow Naatsíílid Champion Award. As marriage equality become law across the country, Alray together with his partner Brennen Yonnie founded the Coalition for Navajo Equality – one of the largest LGBTQ organizations in the country. Alray’s story has been featured in Details Magazine, the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Los Angeles Times, MTV News, Indian Country Today, and National Public Radio. Alray resides in Gallup, NM, and has served as the Director of External Affairs at Teach for America.
Location: Navajo Nation, Tohatchi, NM, United States
- Issues Areas:
- Trans* and Queer Liberation
- Native/Indigenous In Empowerment, Cultural Preservation, & Tribal Sovereignty
Campus: University of New Mexico - Albuquerque, NM
Fellowship Class Year: 2012
Featured Fellow Spotlight
Young People For: What experiences/opportunities lead you to apply to the YP4 Fellowship program?
Alray Nelson: I found out about YP4 when I was one of twelve native students chosen from across the country to be part of the Native American Political Leadership Program at George Washington University. It was during this time that I had the opportunity to work in the Office of the Majority Leader for Senator Harry Reid that I first visited the YP4 national office in Washington, D.C. My mentor Johnny, who is great friends with State Representative Kevin Killer (YP4 Alum), said that I would be perfect for a program called Young People For. As we talked for the next few hours, I learned that it was a fellowship opportunity for me to create long-term sustainable change in my home community located on the Navajo Nation. As the largest Native Nation in the United States, my tribe has a population a little over 330,000 people and a staggering rate of suicide among our youth. Something had to get done. By the end of that spring semester, I met with YP4 staff who shared the same values as I did. As a community organizer, I knew from day one YP4 was a place for me to grow. Johnny said ‘you are my recruit, you are a leader – so don’t let me down’. His words still resonate with me today in the work that I do in Arizona & New Mexico.
YP4: What are you passionate about/what motivates you to public service?
AN: I am motivated by young people working to create sustainable change. My passion is speaking out, organizing, and bringing the community voice together. It is my strong belief that young people need to be in the driver’s seat when we are talking about any progressive movement. As a community leader, the work I do every day has a profound effect on the lives of those I am committed to serve with honor, humility, and understanding. My community motivates the work that I do and we have much more work to get done as a country. So we need more activists, advocates, and movement builders – who share our progressive values – to be in strategic positions of influence at both the local and state levels of government. Our beliefs resonate with the majority of The People – like compassion, integrity, bold leadership, and family. My home on the Navajo Nation, where my ancestors have resided for millennia, is where my traditional songs, prayers, and way of life are lived every day. Holding onto my cultural teachings and my identity as a young indigenous man, all that I am is invested in what my home represents. So I believe that giving back to communities by stepping into leadership roles is an experience every Native youth can relate too. YP4 supports this, so I encourage more Indigenous young people to join our family.
YP4: What is the main goal you want to accomplish in your social justice work?
AN: I envision a Navajo Nation, where I grew up, as a safe, inclusive home for our LGBTQ family members and friends. Of the 566 federally-recognized Native Nations in the United States, twelve nations recognize the freedom to marry. The Coalition for Navajo Equality was founded by my partner and me back in 2013. It is now one of the largest LGBT-advocacy organizations in Indian Country. Despite the major leaps forward for marriage equality in 50 states, our Native communities and their families were left behind again as has been repeated in history – rather it is being last to get the right to vote in this country or having some of the highest rates of youth suicides nationally – we have more work to get done. The Diné Marriage Act is the discriminatory law that we are working towards repealing. This act sends a profound message to our younger generation that their Nation is not a supportive home for them to be who they are or to love who they choose. This law treats couples and the enduring love that we share as something foreign and non-Navajo. Even though we have always recognized and accepted our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender family members. We have sacred roles in traditional society – rather it was being caretakers, healers, warriors, and leaders – the LGBTQ community was honored by our ancestors since the beginning of our creation. This is what we are fighting for; our own survival post-assimilation policies while still experiencing the devastating impact of colonization. My partner and I want to raise a family where we both grew up – on the Navajo Nation. Until this shared dream becomes reality, we must first confront codified discrimination like the Diné Marriage Act. I am proud to know that my experience with Young People For prepared me for such a movement.
YP4: Can you give an example of how your YP4 Fellowship helped you accomplish something meaningful for your community?
AN: When I was a Fellow in 2012, YP4 was an organization that made me feel proud of being a young progressive. As an indigenous young man in America today, my personal experience of witnessing white privilege or growing up in a community where I was three-times more likely to experience suicide rather than attend college is still a harsh reality for the young people on the Navajo Nation. According to a survey conducted by the Diné Policy Institute, 40.1% of gay Navajo youth ages 12-18 years old have experienced physical harassment for their sexual orientation. I am passionate and believe in the work that we are doing now to address these numbers. For my Blueprint for Social Justice, I founded a small non-profit organization called the We Are One Campaign. With seed money from YP4, I was able to create a website to provide bullying & suicide-prevention resources to local schools, train teachers and make their classrooms Safe Zone areas, and to travel to rural areas on the Navajo Nation to work one-on-one with student leaders. Now when I return to my former high school, I know their Safe Zone program is sustainable and I was a part of this positive change. YP4 believed in me when I needed to be believed in – so by doing the work that I do, YP4 is credited for being my inspirers.
YP4: Tell me about a skill you learned through YP4 that you evoked when you were faced with a challenging situation.
YP4: What piece of advice would you give to a current YP4 Fellows?
AN: Share your story, be unafraid of calling yourself liberal and progressive, and have the courage to be who you are. Our Fellows and Alumni make their own YP4 experience. By truly listening to others as they speak and taking time to learn more about those different from you can you then work towards collective change. From the Black Lives Matter movement to the fight for our Dreamers, we are all connected and in this movement together. As one big YP4 family, be proud of where you come from.
YP4: Can you summarize in one sentence the impact YP4 has had in your life?
AN: Young People For believed in me and in turn, made me believe in the potential of our young people to create long-lasting, sustainable change.
YP4: Where do you think your YP4 training will take you in the future?
AN: In the near future, perhaps serving as a local or state leader in New Mexico. With the lessons learned from the Power, Privilege, and Oppression training – it is important to me to be from a community that believes in my work and my values. I must also take the necessary steps, as an effective change agent, to also know and be invested in the people I represent. In a few years, I would like to partake in the Front Line Leaders Academy (FLLA) – a leadership program developed alongside YP4 as well. The opportunities to grow as a progressive leader are here waiting for you to participate.
YP4: What do you want to be remembered for?
AN: I would want to be remembered as human being that has learned from failure, who has loved tremendously, and a person who gave everything to Live Life open, happy, and foolishly courageous.