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Bridging the Gap Between Traditions and Afterschool: A Personal Journey

By: Dawn Marie Johnson, Community Advocate, South Dakota 

Life weaves beautiful moments that define who we are, nudging us to act from the heart. For me, the journey of bringing together the wisdom of our past with the excitement of modern STEM education isn’t just about academics – it’s deeply personal. Growing up on the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Reservation, this mission became a part of me, shaping how I see the world and what I stand for.

Imagine those moments when the world was bursting with possibilities. That’s when I got to witness the incredible strength of Indigenous youth on our reservation. They faced the challenge of limited afterschool programs, yet their hunger to explore their own potential was unstoppable. What struck me the most was their determination to learn and grow, even when the odds weren’t in their favor. Their fierce spirit and resolve are evident and meeting that need is where we all have a place to create opportunity.

As I stepped into the world of education, I carried this realization with me. The journey ahead wasn’t just about passing on information but sparking curiosity and nurturing cultural pride. It was about breaking down the walls between what we’ve known for generations and what the modern world offers. This wasn’t just a task but a calling, a deep-rooted sense of purpose. That purpose only grew when I saw those same children who inspired me in the eyes of my own daughter, Rhayn. 

This mission and purpose blend seamlessly with our goals at South Dakota Afterschool Network, a collective endeavor, a call to action rooted in the belief that afterschool programs are more than spaces – they’re lifelines. They keep our youth safe, they nurture growth, and they allow parents the peace of mind to pursue their work knowing their children are in capable hands.

Wacipis (powwows) – lively celebrations of our culture, felt like a natural place to start creating that bridge for the youth that helped to define my purpose. Amidst the drums and the swirling dancers, something magical was happening when we engaged with children in that space. I saw young ones, with eyes full of wonder, diving into the STEM activities we brought in our Mobile Lab. At that moment, it felt like the gap between our traditions and modern life was closing. It was as if our relatives were whispering to us, telling us that our culture isn’t meant to be locked away but to be part of our ever-evolving world. 

This revelation hit me like a lightning bolt – by honoring our past and the future, we could create a path that shines brighter than anything we’ve seen before.

We know change doesn’t happen overnight. It begins with a small shift in how we see things like ripples spreading across a pond. This shift isn’t just about closing an educational gap; it’s about creating a bridge between generations, connecting the past with the future, and combining our relative’s wisdom with our kids’ dreams.

Here in my home state of South Dakota,  a state boasting over 300 afterschool programs, there’s a need for more. A gap exists between the availability of these transformative spaces, the demand that families so desperately need to be filled, and a desire to explore and learn embodied in our children. In South Dakota, 1 in 3 children (around 34 percent) are without access to afterschool programs and long to be a part of them. Imagine that – over 42,000 kids eagerly waiting for their chance to join programs that nurture them academically, socially, and economically. Disproportionately we know this disparity is highest on our Native reservations. 

As we look ahead, let’s remember that progress doesn’t erase where we come from – it enhances it. Woven with the threads of our heritage, STEM education becomes a guiding light, leading us to an exciting and sustainable future.

This journey isn’t without challenges, but there are steps to be taken and small bridges that can be built, helping to create pathways to more. It’s bringing STEM engagement to the Wacipi and creating more opportunities from there. 

And speaking of the future, I see my daughter Rhayn, a spirited 9-year-old, as a testament to our path. Her eyes dance with curiosity, and I’m committed to giving her the opportunities she deserves just as South Dakota Afterschool Network is committed to reaching kids like her, where they are with the access they need. As a mom, I’m determined to offer her robust STEM experiences, nurture her inquisitive nature, and blend our heritage seamlessly into her education. These are things as a movement we have the power to provide. 

I want to see us create a legacy of innovators who will carry the torch forward, bridging gaps that once divided us. This journey isn’t just for the here and now; it’s an investment in a legacy that will stretch across time, connecting the footsteps of our relatives with those of the generations yet to come.


Led by the South Dakota Afterschool Network, in partnership with STEM Next Opportunity Fund, the Indigenous STEM in Afterschool Project is creating a robust foundation for transformative out-of-school time STEM programming in Indigenous communities.

By creating a community of practice for statewide networks, the Indigenous STEM in Afterschool Project will serve as a collaborative hub to disseminate powerful resources, facilitate knowledge exchange, and foster innovative ideas to drive policy changes and elevate the role of afterschool STEM to yield a more equitable future for Indigenous youth.

The post Bridging the Gap Between Traditions and Afterschool: A Personal Journey appeared first on STEM Next.



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