The Portal Series: Reflections on Feminist Leadership Through Crisis with Kanyon CoyoteWoman Sayers-Roods

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the U.S. and the rest of the world, there can be no doubt that we are in a moment of crisis. As Arundhati Roy writes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal—a gateway between this world and the next.” This moment of crisis is also a time when feminist leaders are stepping into their power and purpose. We were particularly interested in understanding what new practices leaders are putting in place for themselves and their teams, and which of these they think will be permanent vs. transitory. So—we asked them. Here are their answers.

How have you led your organization, community, constituency through this crisis?

Kanyon CoyoteWoman Sayers-Roods, activist, artist, educator: There are a range of crises—COVID, the fires [in the Bay Area]—which have affected the Indigenous community and me as an Indigenous woman, as well as personal health crises that I have experienced. A lot of these crises have told me that I need to slow down and reconsider where I put my energy and where I ask others to put their energy.

Many social, spiritual, and emotional engagements have become very laborious, particularly the increased number of requests for Indigenous perspectives following the racial justice awareness that we are building as a community. I am now entering new and different environments than before, but also sometimes starting to feel more commoditized or tokenized, without necessarily having more power—for example, doing land acknowledgments at the beginning of conferences, but not being invited to speak at those same conferences.

Which of these practices or principles do you think have most significantly unmasked or reduced inequities in your organization, community, or constituency?  Why?

More and more people are asking for a perspective without actually being able to hear those perspectives. I believe in saying “nothing about us without us.”  I would encourage people to really listen to Indigenous perspectives (especially if they solicit them!) and if you are not Indigenous, really try and minimize what you say about native lands, cultures, impacts, etc. Unless you are an anthropologist, really consider whether you should be speaking about these things. This crisis has revealed inequities in even who speaks about these things.

What do you think should “stick” about how you’re leading or we’re behaving through this crisis?

I really hope that what will stay is the idea that racial equality is a journey. People shouldn’t feel like at any point they have finished the journey. In the Bay Area some people like to use the word “woke.” I do not believe that there is a final state; I do believe that we are all in a state of waking. There is always and will always be more to do.

I also honestly believe that if we acknowledge Indigenous protocol and lean in to Indigenous pedagogies, we can strategize sustainable futures. That means we need to acknowledge and recognize how we can have our integral relationship and responsibility to place by becoming familiar with the Indigenous peoples of that land and the histories, and that can influence are we caring for our watersheds and our ecosystems.

And I believe we need to continue to have more difficult conversations, and be willing to be in these difficult positions for those conversations to transpire.

How have you changed as a leader through this crisis?  What have you learned about yourself as you spoke up, prioritized, or taken risks?

I’m a bridge-builder between the traditional world and the modern world, and that has really meant that I’ve been busy in this time. I’m actually OK stepping into roles where I know I’m being a little tokenized (for now!) because that door has just opened for the first time. I don’t mind being the “go-between.” My elders and the culture-bearers of my community may have one perspective, and non-Indigenous community members may have been brought up in another perspective, and I recognize that there need to be conversations helping people acknowledge we don’t know what we don’t know. However, when we are informed and when we are learning, it then is up to us about how we go forward in a positive way.

I think stepping into spaces as a leader is very much in the spirit of what my mother and my ancestors would have done. What I’ve learned about myself is that I am comfortable being that leader, being the first mover in order to build a bridge for my community.

About Kanyon CoyoteWoman Sayers-Roods

Kanyon Sayers-Roods is a Costanoan Ohlone-Mutsun and Chumash public speaker and consultant. Kanyon also goes by her given Native name, “Coyote Woman” (Hahashkani). With a background in web design and interactive media, Kanyon has been using her knowledge of indigenous insights and leadership to initiate and facilitate conversations that bridge the gap between indigenous pedagogies and corporate and state entities.

Kanyon has spoken, giving land acknowledgements, keynotes and talks, at venues including the 2020 UN Youth Summit for the UN Ocean Decade, Bay Area Youth Climate Summit,  SF Asian Art Museum,  San Francisco State University, Sonoma State University, Oakland Museum of California, SF Moma, SF City College, the DeYoung Museum and was proud to open the SF Women’s March in November 2020. Kanyon has served on the Native Advisory Committee at CSUMB, as a consultant for EEOC (Environmental Educators of Color) and serves as a board member for NACRI (Native California Research Institute), California Oratory Resource Network, ACORN.wiki and as a core committee organizer for Strength and Beauty Table Talks.

Kanyon is a Cultural Representative and Native Monitor (MLD Most Likely Descendant) for Indian Canyon Mutsun Band of Costanoan|Ohlone People.  She is OSHA10 certified and works alongside Archeologists in the field offering cultural perspective on today’s common practices as well as traditional sacred site protections. Kanyon has worked as a teacher’s assistant for Earth Activist Training’s Permaculture Design Certification and uses her knowledge of indigenous pedagogies to inspire transformative climate conversations and strategize for sustainable futures.