In Monument Valley, residents who need to send an email or print a document often have to drive over 70 miles, one way, to Blanding.
That’s changing with a new community center in town.
The center, located within the Monument Valley Welcome Center, offers a business center with WiFi, computers, printers, and scanners, as well as a library, conference room, and classroom. All the amenities are provided for free.
It’s an initiative of the nonprofit Yee Ha’ólníi Doo, which does business as the Navajo & Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. The fund was started by Ethel Branch early in the pandemic to provide food, personal protective equipment, and other resources to Navajo and Hopi families.
A Need and an Opportunity
A $10 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Jeff Bezos, boosted millions of dollars in smaller contributions and opened up options to fund bigger projects.
Shandiin Herrera, director of the center and cofounder of Yee Ha’ólníi Doo, believed a community center in Monument Valley would be an effective use of the funds, and she had evidence to back it up.
Herrera grew up in Monument Valley, where she experienced firsthand the difficulty of being a student without having access to consistent WiFi.
“I would have to travel out to Blanding to go to the library there sometimes, or even all the way out to Cortez to go to a coffee shop,” she said. “I think that definitely contributed to a lot of misinformation, missed opportunities for people in our community.”
Herrera returned to the area from Duke University in 2019 with a fellowship from Lead for America, a nonprofit that provides funding for young leaders to work in their hometowns. Through the fellowship, she worked as a project consultant and policy analyst with the Oljato chapter, which includes Monument Valley. One of her first projects was to conduct a listening tour of the area, spending four months meeting with people in the community to identify needs and desires.
“After that report, it was crystal clear the number one thing people wanted was a community center,” she said.
“So many people just did not have, not just access to resources, but access to space, access to points of convening or going for information,” Herrera said. “And on the Navajo Nation these access points normally are the chapters.” She noted that Monument Valley does not have a chapter house. The Oljato Chapter House falls within the census-designated place known as Oljato-Monument Valley, but is 11 miles away from the grocery store, schools, and other amenities.
Another source of inspiration was Herrera’s research with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) while working as an intern in then-New Mexico Senator Tom Udall’s office in Washington, D.C. “Once you get down past Blanding onto the res, it was…less than 5% of households have access to fixed broadband,” she said. “That number has always stuck with me. “And so when I came back home, I was like, ‘Okay, if we’re gonna offer anything, it has to be WiFi.’”
2020 data from the FCC indicate that 7.28% of the “tribal” population in San Juan County have access to non-satellite fixed broadband, compared to 45.44% of the “non-tribal” population. That’s for a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second, the FCC’s benchmark for assessing access to advanced telecommunications capability.
Helping People Connect
Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii Community Center, named using the Navajo phrase for Monument Valley, held a soft opening in Aug. 2021, a matter of months after initial talks. Rather than erecting a new building, Yee Ha’ólníi Doo has an agreement with the Monument Valley Welcome Center to use otherwise vacant space that was originally intended for vendors, according to Herrera.
As of Jan. 18, the center had 812 visits, with 355 unique visitors and 133 repeat visitors, according to Herrera. The 2020 Census estimated there are 797 people in the Oljato-Monument Valley census designated place, which straddles the border of Arizona and Utah, but some potential users fall outside that boundary.
“We’ve been able to serve 33% of our community within the five months that we’ve been open, which I think is really great,” Herrera said. “And I’m excited to see what that number looks like a year from now.”
The numbers only tell some of the story.
“With the air conditioning, a nice, quiet place to sit and the unlimited WiFi I can use to work with my website…communicating with customers with emails, chat, zoom and whatnot, it’s just been a godsend,” said Sabrina Rodriguez, who owns Navajo Guided Trails and helps run Navajo Guided Tours. Before the center’s soft opening, she managed her website from her car in the Welcome Center parking lot using her phone as a hotspot, and made copies at the grocery store or the high school.
Herrera recounted a story of a high school student who used the center even before the official soft opening. The student needed an internet connection to finish a scholarship application by the deadline that night, and rather than attempting to use her phone hotspot in the parking lot or driving over 70 miles to Blanding, she worked in the center during construction. She made the deadline.
“I remember that, being in the parking lot at the school late at night on their WiFi trying to apply for scholarships. So I’m happy that we were able to provide her a comfortable space to do that,” Herrera said.
Another student regularly used the center after school to get homework done and charge his phone. His house has no electricity. Having access to the center also allowed his grandmother some peace of mind, since she couldn’t pick him up until 5 p.m.
“Before, she was constantly worrying,” Herrera said. “Seeing that family aspect and how we’re able to bridge that gap for them was really cool for us.”
The center offers sewing classes, beading classes, and computer classes. Herrera said that the computer classes have helped grandparents with little computer experience learn how to use email and keep up with their grandkids.
“It’s very inviting,” said Lorissa Jackson, who teaches beading classes at the center. “It’s just someplace fun for [people] to go and learn something new. And at the end of the session, they have a product that they have actually made themselves. They’re really happy about it.”
Herrera noted that the Navajo Nation American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Hardship Application, which provides $2000 for adults and $600 for minors who are enrolled members of the Navajo Nation, is open now. People are using the computers and internet access in the center to apply.
“As we continue, we want to offer more robust programming,” Herrera said. She expressed hopes to start a community garden, coffee shop, wellness room, and a gift shop where local vendors (and participants in crafts classes) can sell their merchandise.
Language classes, cultural knowledge workshops, more support for entrepreneurs, youth leadership opportunities, and financial literacy programming are also on the docket.
“We’re aiming for a grand opening, hopefully this year, just depending on how things go with COVID,” Herrera said.
Yee Ha’ólníi Doo is a nonprofit with the goal of making Navajo and Hopi communities pandemic-proof and climate change resilient. To learn more and to donate, visit navajohopisolidarity.org.