A Q&A with William A. Mehojah, Jr.

Bill MehojahWilliam Mehojah, Jr. (Bill) is a member of the Kaw Nation in Oklahoma and is past Director of the Office of Indian Education Programs. He worked as a teacher, counselor, and administrator in the Office of Indian Education Programs, now the Bureau of Indian Education, for thirty-six years. During this time he helped develop the Family And Child Education (FACE) program. In 1990, NCFL was selected to provide family literacy training and technical assistance to the newly established FACE program and has continued to support its implementation process for over 25 years.

Bill will be speaking during the opening session at this October’s Families Learning Summit in Detroit, Mich. Here, he discusses his work with FACE and American Indian communities, lessons learned, and why he’s looking forward to NCFL’s Summit.

When did you first realize that family literacy and the FACE program were making an impact on the American Indian communities?

Bill: The first time it really hit me was when I made a trip to the To’ Hajiilee school just outside of Albuquerque. It was a progressive school and they were trying a lot of different things in reading, math, and science and technology. The principal and I were talking and he said, “Hey, do you want to meet the newest FACE students?” And I said, “Oh, sure!” We went to the classroom and there was an infant who was probably two or three months old and the principal said, “Here’s your latest enrollee in the FACE program!”

By going into that school and seeing parents engaged in the future of their children, it dawned on me that the FACE program was working. Parents were engaged in the program. Mothers were there with their young children and they were very enthusiastic about enrolling their children in FACE. They saw that the program and school provided a place where they could go and receive not only instruction but a brighter future for their families.

What is important for others to understand about the needs and goals of American Indian populations?

Bill: Schools historically were not where people felt very comfortable for numbers of reasons, and schools had not engaged parents in the educational process of their children. The FACE program is about engaging families in the education of their children from birth and continuing that through their educational careers. Over the years, the FACE schools have become community-centered and welcome the involvement of parents. The FACE program really engages parents in the education of their children and views the school as a positive place to be for themselves and for their children – not only in the early years of the child’s education but also in the longer term.

Thinking from the stance of parent engagement, what lessons and tips would you share with other schools, communities, and library educators that serve American Indian populations?

Bill: Engage parents in meaningful activities. So many times teachers bring parents into the classroom and it ends up being a time for copying materials or doing tasks that are not meaningful.I have come to realize that parents can really get involved in education through becoming involved with literacy activities.

Years ago, I was meeting with a group of teachers and I asked them what was the biggest problem facing them as teachers when the kids came to school for the first time. I remember one of the teachers said, “Language development is our biggest problem.” Everyone in the room was shaking their heads yes. That continues to be an issue that we need to address. The best way we can do that is through literacy activities like the sharing of books, having literacy events at the school and in the communities themselves, and holding literacy sessions for parents to convey the importance of reading and talking to their children.

The idea of just talking to your children is not something that has really been done in some Indian cultures. A lot of the education of children has just been done through observation, which is important, but I think allowing parents to engage with children through literacy activities is something that we really need to focus on. It is meaningful and necessary to improve children’s long term success.

When you think back to some of the students that you’ve known along the way, what lessons do you think you might have learned from them?

Bill: I’ve learned that many children just need a lot of support and if you give them that support, a path forward, and the vision that they can have a better life, along with some real practical ways to make that happen, they’ll really want to persevere and make a better life for themselves.

I’ve learned that many parents who are students in our FACE program have had rough times, but given an opportunity, given a way to make that opportunity into a better life, that’s really all they want. That’s all they really need. That opportunity and a path forward through education can make all the difference in their lives and produce a ripple effect that reaches out to future generations. That happened in my family starting with my grandmother and her vision of a better life for her son that was then transferred to me, and from me to my sons and grandchildren. It takes just one person to make a significant impact on a family.

Why are you enthusiastic about attending the 2016 Families Learning Summit?

Bill: Well, you know I have had a long history with NCFL and it is one of the premier organizations in the nation, perhaps in the world, that provides support to parents and families. I am a great admirer of the organization and I get re-enthused from attending NCFL’s conferences. You see all these people who are so dedicated to helping families and children and that enthusiasm is something we all take back from the Families Learning Summit to recharge our batteries and reaffirm why we do the work we do on behalf of children, families and communities.

NCFL: Thank you, Bill. We appreciate so much your dedication, not only to the FACE program, but to all families and to the teachers who strive every day to give families the tools that will help them design and create this path for the future.