By Manveer Sahota | January 18, 2018
Community Outreach and Advocacy Specialist, ETR
Inspiration is powerful. From the time I was a teen, inspiring people have come into my life at just the right moments. They’ve given me encouragement to move forward, to grow and to give back, exactly when I was ready to do so.
Today, because of those experiences, I’m working with the California Clean Air Project (CCAP). We support American Indian communities in establishing smoke-free gaming areas in tribal casinos. The work itself requires listening, building relationships, working with local advocates and promoting the power and influence of the next generation—young people within the tribal communities.
My job title says I’m the “specialist” in this process. But it’s the people within the tribal communities, especially the youth, who are the true experts. Through their stories, their generosity and their understanding, they are helping me grow and learn in unexpected ways.
When I was about to start high school, my mom was working for the Sutter County Health Department. The county was establishing a Tobacco Youth Coalition and my mom asked if I’d be interested in playing a part. I said sure.
My first duty was to help them recruit participants for the Coalition. We got a good group of young people involved. We did survey work in the community. We checked local stores to make sure tobacco advertising complied with state laws (posters have to be placed above three feet high, for example). We monitored whether smoking was taking place inside or outside at bars. We increased community awareness of the regulations on smoking and the importance of tobacco prevention efforts.
These were fine achievements, but I’ll tell you something about the Coalition. The best part of it for all of us was just the chance to hang out, have fun and be together. My mom inspired me to get started, and the social connection kept it working for me.
I also became involved in the California Youth Advocacy Network. Their programs empower youth to promote tobacco-free environments and create positive change in their local communities. They had week-long retreats during the summer which gave me—a guy from a very rural community—a chance to meet new people and hear new ideas. That helped me realize that I really liked learning from diverse people and cultures.
During this time, I also worked in a program with our local church. Every year, we travelled down to Mexico to help build houses for needy communities. I learned from the people in Mexico, too. I saw a different kind of poverty than I had seen in Sutter, and I was given a new appreciation for the comforts of my own life.
On the way home from these trips, we always stopped for a half-day in San Diego. All the kids got to go swimming or play around in the city. It was a beautiful place and I thought I’d like to live there one day.
After high school, I made the move down to San Diego. I got jobs in the hospitality industry, starting as a busser and moving up to management. I enjoyed the work—helping people out, making sure customers had what they needed, doing my best to support staff.
Then I met a woman named Grace (we eventually married). As she got to know me better, she asked, “Where’s your give-back? That’s what’s in your heart. I wonder if you’d like to give in a more direct way than you do in your current work.” She was right. And there was my inspiration again!
I started to do some volunteer work with CCAP. This included collecting survey data and conducting air monitoring in tribal casinos. The work enabled me to begin building trustworthy relationships with tribal governments. When a paid position opened up, I applied. I thought, “Hey, I can really make a difference to a community. It feels wonderful to be a part of that effort.”
A year and a half ago, I attended a conference on tribal gaming and casinos with a colleague of mine, Theresa Boschert. I was introduced to Dr. Katherine Spilde, the Chair of the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming. Theresa encouraged me to enroll in their program on tribal gaming. I am now doing coursework to become more informed and capable in my work.
Once again, I was given a gift—someone who believed in me and inspired me to step up and do more.
Now, I am going into tribal communities to promote tobacco-free environments. I’m lucky that I get to work with talented people like my supervisor, Jennifer Geisler. She is teaching me so much.
The members of the tribal communities themselves may be the most inspiring people I’ve ever met. There are 109 federally recognized tribes in California. While each tribal community is different, many are dealing with extreme poverty. Everything they are striving for, everything they need to survive, they must achieve on their own. Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend how many barriers they face in areas the rest of us often take for granted—internet, paved roads, running water. Their resourcefulness and strength is impressive.
The youth we work with do not have the same upbringing I did. They aren’t given a lot of the opportunities I was. They usually have to seek out opportunity actively, across tremendous obstacles and barriers. We are hoping to help them open that door and find an easier path to different possibilities for their lives
I hope, because of my own experiences, I might be able to connect with some of these youth in ways that make their dreams seem more achievable. I know it can be scary when you’re on the outside looking in, but that’s the experience many of the youth have. I remember when I was younger and older people kept saying, “You’re so young and there is so much you can do!”
Now, I’m older. I get it. I understand what my elders were saying. Soon, I’ll be saying these things to tribal youth, and I hope I can have an impact.
I’m very new and still learning. I’m excited about where our team is going. And I am grateful to my mentors—my mom, my wife, Dr. Spilde, Jennifer Geisler and so many more. The work is rewarding. I am the happiest I have ever been. Thanks, all of you, for the inspiration!
Manveer Sahota is a Community Outreach and Advocacy Specialist with ETR’s California Clean Air Project. He can be reached at email@example.com.