Lyla June Johnston on Leadership for the Future
Words by Dorothee Royal-Hedinger, Photos by Josué Rivas

It’s dawn and Lyla June Johnston is sprinkling cornmeal on the earth. “Hozho nahasdlii” are the words she speaks to the rising sun, “beauty is restored.” Standing on the eastern side of the New Mexico State Capitol building, it’s an unlikely place to see a person praying, especially one that is running for office. But Lyla, a 30-year-old woman of Diné heritage, is not your average candidate.

“I never imagined I’d become a politician,” says Lyla. Born and raised in New Mexico, Lyla overcame addiction to drugs and alcohol before pursuing a degree at Stanford University. She went on to become an internationally renowned educator, author, public speaker and PhD student. Known for her powerful spoken word performances and her penchant for beatboxing into any mic check, Lyla transcends boundaries with a disarming ability to connect. 

I was socialized to become an addict and started doing drugs and alcohol at age eleven,” says Lyla. After hitting rock bottom in her sophomore  year of college, Lyla turned to traditional ways for healing. She says, “I prayed to the Diyin Dine’é (Navajo deities) to please help me get free from the cage of my addictions. Turns out the Diyin Dine’é were listening. They sent me incredible messengers and helpers. Within ten months of making that prayer I quit all the drugs I was doing. I have since completed seven years of complete sobriety and dedicated my life to making up for my less than glorious past and helping others.” 

When community members and youth climate activists came to her for help with New Mexico’s outsized dependence on the oil and fracking industries, she felt the call to step into the political arena. “I could see what was at stake. I could see how using oil revenue to fund our children’s education was destroying the future of those same children,” says Lyla, “according to leading climate scientists, with business as usual we would destroy the planet before current kindergartners graduated high school.”

I could see what was at stake. I could see how using oil revenue to fund our children’s education was destroying the future of those same children.

A month after announcing her candidacy for New Mexico House of Representatives, Lyla began a 7-day “fast for the future” to unveil her climate strategy; a working plan created in consultation with climate scientists and indigenous elders. For a full week, she held daily speeches and invited community members to voice their solutions, dreams and concerns for their shared home. Lyla was visibly excited to pass the mic from one person to the next while facilitating dialogue in what she called “an authentic practice of democracy.” Meanwhile, she remained clear in mind and strong in spirit despite eating only buffalo broth stew made by her mom.

Leadership As Service

In an increasingly divisive political climate, a person who demonstrates sacrifice and service can feel like an anomaly. Lyla pledged not to take one dime from corporations and made it clear that she doesn’t believe in an “opposition.” According to her Diné ways, she calls the incumbent she had hoped to replace her “big brother.” But that hasn’t stopped the pressures of public life from wearing on her, not to mention the challenges of disrupting an entrenched political system. 

When she first met her opponent in person, Lyla recalled that he said, “This is a small town. Word gets around. I don’t want you to have to go to the grocery store and have people point at you and say, ‘Look, there she is.’” In other words, Lyla was being warned that she should brace herself for a negative campaign. 

“I gotta admit, it’s a little scary going up against oil and gas armed with nothing but truth, faith and love,” says Lyla. Some in her Indigenous community expressed concern about the fast because ceremony is typically done in private. “Traditionally we do not fast in public or pray in public and so this is not normal,” says Lyla. “But I think that we’re in extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures. I wanted to use this fast as a public prayer only because it could get people together, it could get people thinking and it could get people motivated.”

The media was largely receptive to Lyla’s message though they seem to struggle with the idea that a “poet” would run for office. In response, Lyla suggested that times of great urgency require creativity, collaboration and new ways of thinking. So who better to lead than those who weave beauty and meaning into their daily work? “Everything we do is poetry,” says Lyla. “Everything we do is to lift up and inspire and broaden horizons. I am a poet, yes, and I am many other things.” 

Given the many challenges we as a people face, Lyla’s run for office questioned our readiness to accept a political leadership that looks and feels so different from the status quo. Are we ready for a candidate who can invoke the ancestors on one hand and quote science and policy facts on the other?

The Sitting Bull Paradigm 

“We need to shatter the paradigm of leadership that we’ve lived by and recreate it completely from the ground up,” says Lyla. “It elevates us as leaders to be compassionate, to be selfless and to be a part of the people, not above the people.”

We need to shatter the paradigm of leadership that we’ve lived by and recreate it completely from the ground up.

Lyla advocates for a return to a model of leadership that she calls the “Sitting Bull Paradigm.” She explains, “right now we have a paradigm of the king. The king is the leader and has special treatment, a nice house, a nice car. Everyone caters to them. That’s how a lot of leadership positions are seen, that the leader has elevated status. Now, that is not necessarily normal. And if you look at the word president, it has that word “preside” in it where you are above looking down onto the people. 

But there’s an older and much more efficient and beautiful form of leadership which I will call the Sitting Bull Paradigm. It has to do with leading from below and leading from behind. Leading from behind means you center the voices of the people, the desires and dreams of the people and you support the creation of their ideas. That’s very different from a top-down approach where you have experts set the policy.

This is important to consider because in a so-called democracy, where the people rule, you want the people’s voices to create the world around them. Elected leaders need to understand the people’s vision. We all know climate is an issue and we’re all a bit daunted about what to do. I believe that the solution will not come from the top. The people must create and implement the solution. Otherwise, as a society we will not transform.”

I believe that the solution will not come from the top. The people must create and implement the solution. Otherwise, as a society we will not transform.

Growing Grassroots Support 

As news about Lyla’s 7-day fast spread, supporters from all walks of life came to the capitol to hear her speak about ecological restoration, indigenous science and systems change. She woke up each morning before sunrise to pray and then sit on the capitol steps with a sign that read, “think seven generations ahead.”

Lyla remained at her post each day through rain, snow and wind. Legislators and other government officials walked by on their way to work, some stopping to shake her hand and ask how she was feeling. As she got quieter through the final days of the fast, people came to sit with her, bring her little gifts and even offer songs for strength. Dolores Ara, a former preschool teacher and grandmother of 11 explained, “I really trust her as a politician. I think she’s a real person. She has a heart for the people.” 

“What we need are indigenous women leaders,” said Erin Mitchell, a local holistic healthcare practitioner who showed up every day in support. “She brings the spirit and the inspiration. She’s not afraid to go up against some of the most dangerous and huge industries out there. I think we’re all being called to realize that we can’t say it’s too big for us anymore. We just don’t have that luxury.”

On social media, hundreds shared their solidarity by posting the food and drinks they dedicated in Lyla’s honor. By the final day, she had amassed a large crowd of locals and those who traveled from as far as California and Texas. Even though she hadn’t eaten, Lyla insisted that all the prayers from around the country kept her going. 

Lyla broke her fast on a sunny afternoon while standing at a podium created for her by a local woodworker. She was adorned in her traditional Diné clothing and took bites of homemade stew while the crowd cheered. Elders honored her sacrifice with a blanket ceremony and songs. Everyone joined in a celebratory potluck that included a blue cornmeal dish made with cedar ash known by Diné midwives to restore minerals in the body. For Lyla’s small team and medical crew, it was a relief to know she made it through without complications to her health. 

Looking to the Future

After the fast, Lyla began to face real challenges to her campaign. Whisper campaigns started to spread and a key staff member turned on her and wrote a false police report. The press ran a story on the police report to capitalize on sensational news. “One thing I’ve learned in my crash course on politics,” Lyla said, “is that the truth does not matter. What matters is who has more money and power to tell a certain story the most times to the most people. With the cards stacked against me on all sides, I decided that instead of using my resources in a game I’d likely lose, I’d rather funnel them to more constructive and fruitful places such as the youth-led climate movement.”

Lyla is now in the process of generating a “Just Transition Convergence” of frontline communities to create policy demands. Together, a group of climate activists plan to pressure candidates throughout New Mexico to adopt these policies.

“Our movement for bold climate action has taken on a more powerful form,” says Lyla. She will continue to center Indigenous ways of leading and being in her work. She explains, “I know that my experiences will help many other native candidates to break through the walls of power.”

I know that my experiences will help many other native candidates to break through the walls of power.

Despite these setbacks, Lyla doesn’t rule out running for office in the future. More importantly, her work for the health of people and the planet has only just begun. “I don’t care about my legacy,” she says. “My name will be forgotten just like everyone else’s. What I care about is the way that my actions echo through time. Every hero is forgotten, every rockstar goes out of trendiness. It’s the effect of our actions that lives on like a butterfly wing can affect things around the world. That ripple that we send out, is it going to be depriving and energy depleting or is it going to be beautiful and nourishing?”