November is Native American Heritage Month and we are proud to spotlight April Fournier! April is the National Program Manager for Advance Native Political Leadership and an At-Large Councilor in Portland, Maine.
Can you give a brief background and introduction about yourself?
AF: I am Diné or a citizen of Navajo nation, but living in Portland, Maine, which is the territory of the Wabanaki Confederacy. My dad is a Mainer and my mom is Navajo, and they met when he was in the Air Force, so I was born in Arizona, but grew up in Maine.
We actually moved back to the Southwest after my mom was reunited with her family, so she was one of the children that was taken in the 1960s from her family and placed with a non-tribal family, who then moved them to California. And so she grew up within a white household in a white neighborhood, not knowing her culture or her language, and not being able to really reconnect with her family until she had children of her own. A lot of her story and reconnection journey is really what drove a lot of my story and reconnection journey.
I am the National Program Manager for Advanced Native Political Leadership. I primarily oversee the Native Leadership Institute and our national trainings, where we’re recruiting and training native leaders all across the country to run for office, everything from school board up to Congress. We really focus more on local and state races rather than Congressional races, but really just trying to build the skills so that we do have more representation in Indian country.
I am also an at-large counselor here in Portland, Maine; the first native woman to be elected to the largest city council in the state. I got elected in 2020 and just finishing my second year, and have one more to go.
How has the political field in Maine shifted for Indigenous people since you’ve been elected? Have you seen more Indigenous people wanting to run for office in the state?
AF: So in the eighties the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act that happened between the state and the tribes, and as a result of that and kind of the imbalance of power; and I think not necessarily contacting with tribes in the most honest and best way by the state the tribes eventually pulled their representatives out of the Legislature, because the relationship was harmed, and the ways in which the state really just has consistently not treated tribes equally, or recognize their sovereignty.
And so the representation that the tribes do have is they have tribal representatives to the legislature, and so they can craft policy, but they don’t have a vote, and that’s that’s the tribes decision. There was a bill this last year that would have recognized tribal sovereignty and reversed some of the harm that was done in land claims, and it made it through the legislature. It made it through the Senate, and then the Governor vetoed it. And I think there’s still just this history of mistrust and challenges between the Maine tribes and the government that has definitely made it difficult, I think for tribal members to want to step into political office.
What made you want to get involved in politics?
AF: It wasn’t until one of our twins was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old that I really had to like, take an active role in advocacy and understand that he needs services and support, and I have no idea how to go about getting any of that stuff for him. And so I just started reading everything I could from articles around autism to who are the state agencies that can help with providing services? And then ultimately, what are his rights as a child with a disability to receive services, to receive funding, and to have the right things in place for him, as he grows from being a two-year-old to three-year-old, to a kindergarten and higher?
Being able to work through that was hard. It was a new skill set that I had to grow as a mom, but I, of course, was going to do it. And then in 2016, the appointment for the Secretary of Education was someone who wasn’t a teacher, was in a for-profit business, knew nothing about public education, and very clearly knew nothing about special education. So I was watching her confirmation hearings and literally yelling at the TV. I just couldn’t believe that we would allow someone who was so under-qualified, run the Federal Department of Education.
At that point I was like, who’s gonna step up and protect these kids? Who’s going to step up, and advocate to make sure that what’s decided on a federal level doesn’t hurt us in the state of Maine and in you know Portland schools.
What does your day-to-day work as a councilor look like, as well as at Advance?
AF: I am the chair of the Legislative and Nominating Committee. We do appointments for all of the city committees and boards that are council appointments; we interview and then make decisions on who to appoint to those different boards. My goal in coming onto the council was to try and expand how many people are running for these positions, so that we could see a greater diversity. We’re still not quite there yet, but it has been nice to see a consistently full slate of interviews.
Also what I was very interested in is the legislative piece. It’s supposed to be a partnership between our city legislative delegation that serves like the House Representatives and our Senators with our city committee, so we could talk about policy together and figure out, “how do we move this forward together?” And it had not quite functioned as I had hoped. As chair, I worked with the legislative delegation to try and ensure that they could come once a month, so we could have a joint meeting, and then we could talk about the policy that was being crafted, what are the city priorities, what can they sponsor as the legislators, and then how can we support them. So we’ve done some really incredible work together to be able to advocate for some great policies like for housing for the homeless, and standing up against some of the anti-trans legislation that has come out this last year.
With Advance, we are trying to recruit, get curriculum set, do planning and strategy for this next year, as we get ready for different trainings. We’re working to grow data experts and also training native campaign staff. So we’re building these different skills in Indian country, so we have a more accurate look at what our population looks like, where are they voting, how do we help them find each other so that they can mobilize, and, you know, really move into spaces where they can make decisions that affect them.
What are some of the toughest challenges you’ve had at work?
AF: I think one of the biggest challenges I have is not responding to the trolls, because I think all of what we want to do is refute it. You want to say you’re wrong, and here’s why you’re wrong. But, this comes back to when I did early childhood special education for ten years before I ever moved into political stuff. As I was teaching my son, I was learning that myself, and what you do to change behavior. You don’t want to continue. You ignore them, and you try and find a replacement, or you try and find a different avenue for a conversation to go. And so when I’m attacked by these trolls, whether it’s online or in chambers, and they challenge your character or question your authenticity, it’s not feeding into that and giving it air to breathe.
I think the other piece is the challenge of being a first. You are the one that’s stepping into every one of these conversations as “all right, here we go.” You are really constantly in education mode; it’s really taking the call-in opportunity instead of the call-out opportunity.
I think the last piece is, there is no room for error when you are a person of color, a first in one of these positions. If I make any step outside of expectations, I am immediately attacked for it; or if I am anything less than perfect, I’m not qualified. We have to plan and prepare, so people know what they’re getting into when they are stepping into a public role like this.
Lastly, for fun, if you could do another job for just one day, what would it be?
AF: I would love to be an herbalist, or an apothecary, but like a nature-based apothecary. I would love to be able to take natural elements and make it into this incredible medicine and have that plant knowledge.