It was such a gift to spend time with Alexis and learn more about her work. She reminded me how important it is to live this work – not just see it as a list of action items to check off of a list. She is intentional with how she nurtures the work of youth in her community, and how she centers her elders in everything she does.
My name is Alexis Saenz. I go by Lex, she/they pronouns. I’m originally from the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Ute territory of Denver, Colorado, and now reside in Tongva territory of Los Angeles. I am a community organizer, activist, professional dancer, actress, artist, filmmaker. I’m also a dance teacher and a Pilates instructor. I’m 29 years old.
I’m really inspired by the work of IIYC in Los Angeles. Can you tell me a bit more about how it started and what you’re working on now?
I started organizing the International Indigenous Youth Council Los Angeles chapter back in 2017. IIYC began during the Standing Rock movement to protect the Cannonball and Missouri rivers in North Dakota. My sibling was one of the founding members and lived there for a few months. The first action for IIYC LA was a Round Dance, a traditional Native American dance for unity. We did that to raise awareness of DAPL. In 2019, for Native American Heritage Month, I did an event, and we ended up getting a lot of youth interested in being a part of the council, which was amazing.
Our mission is to protect land and water, and to help Indigenous youth become leaders of their communities. We are the International Indigenous Youth Council, which means we include Indigenous people from everywhere, from Mexico, from Panama, from Guatemala, all over. And the goal is to eventually have IIYC chapters across Unči Maka, Mother Earth. Initially, we were focused on frontline non-violent direct action. That’s how we started at Standing Rock. Civic engagement is definitely a part of our roots.
In 2019, we got a lot of opportunities to speak and talk at marches and all this stuff, but it felt very tokenizing. We wanted to do something ourselves and demonstrate how important it is to include the first stewards of the land.
We started 2020 with a Four Directions Climate Strike with our Tongva relatives because this is their territory, and we are guests on their land. We also wanted to introduce ourselves to the four directions and let Unči Maka, Mother Earth know what we’re doing here and how we want to help. We referenced which climate crisis is happening in each direction because it’s different, depending on which area you’re in. If you’re in West Los Angeles, you’re close to the ocean. That’s very different from East Los Angeles, and South Central, and North Hollywood. We did a month of action and strikes every Friday. We presented demands that were specific to each direction. We also invited other BIPOC organizations to join us and speak from those areas.
For the 50th anniversary of Earth Week last year, we collaborated with a bunch of different organizations across Los Angeles to do an entire Earth Week led by Indigenous folks. Each day had some sort of ceremony tied to it. The entire event had to be moved online because of the pandemic. And then the racial reckoning started. We really wanted to be there for our community and our Black relatives, so we teamed up with Black Lives Matter Youth Vanguard Los Angeles and Students Deserve, who have been doing amazing work around policies with schools and the police. We also did an artivism event, blending art and activism, creating a community gathering for people to create art and connect with each other. A few months later, we did it again with Black Unity, a 24-hour action camp in front of city hall that got raided. We raised funds for the encampment and the folks that got raided. We also did a few smaller actions, like standing in solidarity with Wetʼsuwetʼen, a tribe up in Canada, by hosting an action at the Canadian consulate here in Los Angeles.
This year we’re focused on our foundation and our programming. We want to do more things for the community because what we’ve realized from last year, and even what’s still happening today, is that we need more spaces to come together as a community and heal. We’ve been doing traditional talking circles, which in Indigenous beliefs is a way to foster healthy ways of communication and healing together. We do those once a month for different groups. We do a femme circle, a masculine circle, and a two-spirit, non-binary circle. We’re hoping to do more in the future – maybe a mixed-race circle, because lots of us are mixed, including me.
We’re supporting the LA community fridge group by doing drop-offs and deliveries to different community fridges for our houseless relatives. We also launched our California Native Plant Program with our Chumash relative Nicholas Hummingbird to help people reconnect to the earth. One of my favorite Indigenous wellness advocates, Thosh Collins, always says that “the health of the people reflects the health of the earth and vice versa.” So if we’re not healthy ourselves, the earth isn’t healthy. We have to cultivate that reciprocal relationship.
I feel like the youngest generations are carrying a lot of the stress and anxiety of today. How else do you see healing become a part of how you organize?
We really want youth to understand that rest is resistance and that taking care of ourselves is taking care of each other. Because we are all related, everything is a relationship. Our relationship with ourselves is reflected in everything else. We want to remind youth that it starts with ourselves, and hopefully, they can work on their individual healing, which in turn heals the planet.
You can’t be a leader if you’re not leading by example. That’s what we really try to practice. We’re practicing transparency and honesty, and conflict resolution in our spaces so everyone feels safe and included. All that work starts with us, and we want to make sure our youth have that understanding. Some of them do because they grew up in this way, but some are now reconnecting to their roots. We also invite our Black relatives, other POC relatives, and our white allies, even if it’s not their cultural way or practice, to join in, too.
How has your idea of advocacy or activism changed over time?
I don’t look at myself as a leader, even though people look at me that way. I’ve been taught that you don’t decide that you’re a leader. Your community decides you’re a leader. What I’ve come to realize is that there’s always work to be done, and we’re going to mess up at some point on this journey. I used to be so hard on myself, like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe I said this.” But the biggest thing that I’ve learned that I hope folks take away is to hold ourselves accountable and give ourselves grace. That way, we can move forward.
I have so many more things that I need to work on and things that I need to continue to unlearn and relearn. Even when I think I’ve unlearned it, there’s something that comes up that I need to unlearn again. And that’s okay. Having that mindset of knowing that there’s always space and room to grow is key because everything is constantly evolving and changing. We have to have the flexibility to move and change with it.
The biggest thing that I’ve learned is intention versus impact. I remember a few years ago, I was like, “it’s all about intention.” As things have evolved for me, I’m like, “Oh, no, it is all about impact – and how you hold yourself accountable and move forward.”
What do you hope to leave behind for future generations?
I hope to leave an Earth that is healthy and can help future generations in whatever they want to do. We need to go back to that healing, reciprocal relationship with ourselves, the Earth, and the people around us. Everything we need is provided by Mother Earth. We don’t need to create new things and look outside of her for resources.
What do you recommend to other people interested in approaching climate justice in their community?
Look into making connections with Indigenous folks in your territories. Those are the first caretakers of this land. They should be at the forefront of the climate justice movement. Permission should be asked for, and there are certain protocols for different tribes. Do your research and understand whose land you’re on, and build a relationship with those people. Show up for them, because a lot of times they are forgotten about.
There are so many horrible things happening throughout California and throughout the entire Turtle Island, the so-called United States. People don’t even know that lands are being taken from Indigenous folks to this day, sacred sites being dug up, all kinds of things. Help protect and save these sacred sites because it’s all that some of our Indigenous relatives have left. It’s really hard for those tribes to continue without these sacred places that they grew up in.
I think that an insidious form of white supremacy is disconnecting ourselves from our elders.
Yeah. That’s been lost for sure. People will ask us to speak at actions, and I always ask whether they’ve even talked to an Indigenous elder to see if they could hold that action on their territory. A lot of people do these grand initiatives without even consulting them. We make sure to center elders and youth. It doesn’t mean anyone in between doesn’t have the right to speak their minds. But we believe in the seven generations behind us and the seven generations in front of us, and we move in that way. We were once youth, and one day we’ll be elders.
There are four phases of life: infant, youth, young adult, and then an elder. Respecting those phases and where you are within them is really important. Elders and youth are more connected to the Creator. The elders have lived a long life, and they’re growing closer to the Creator. And the youth, they just came from the Creator. Somewhere along the way, we get a little bit lost. Looking at those two phases of our life is going to help us remember. Before we are born, we know who our Creator is, where we come from, who we are, and what our medicine is. Once we’re born into this life, we forget all of that. Our entire process of life is remembering what we’ve forgotten. That’s why it’s so critical to work with youth and the elders to guide us as we’re remembering.
That’s powerful. Last question for you, what is bringing you joy right now?
What’s bringing me joy right now is taking pauses and seeking silence, giving space for myself. I think that when we’re a part of these movements, we forget just to pause. I have to remind myself to do that. And when I finally sit and pause, I’m just so grateful. It helps me center myself to figure out where do I move from here? Where do I go from here? What do I want to do? I don’t get those moments a lot, but when I do get a moment, that’s what brings me joy.
Alexis Saenz is a mixed raced womxn originally from the Cheyenne, Ute, Arapaho and Sioux Territories, known as Denver, Colorado and resides in Tongva, Chumash and Tataviam Territories, known as so called Los Angeles, CA. Saenz is Latinx, Indigenous and European, although she is not sure of her direct tribal nations, her great grandpa was from Juarez, Mexico and Grandma from New Mexico. Lex has been adopted into the Indigenous communities in the Diné and Oglala Lakota Sioux nations. She also organizes with the International Indigenous Youth Council LA Chapter as the chapter representative and volunteers for the EmBrase Foundation. Saenz, graduated from California Institute of the Arts with her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Dance and Choreography. Alexis is Project Manager for March On Foundation. When she’s not fighting for the Environmental, Racial and Social Justice movements, you can catch her teaching dance and pilates and pursuing a career in the entertainment industry as a dancer, filmmaker and actress. Alexis is very passionate about helping her community and people around the globe and hopes to continue this work to make the world a better place for us all. @lexxsaenz on Instagram.
What are your self-care practices? How do they help you be a better activist?
Who are the elders in your community that are advocating for environmental justice? How can you help amplify their voices?
Why is it so important to learn from our elders, and the youth? How may their perspectives differ from yours?