How One Navajo Nation Young Woman Is Creating Jobs In Her Community

It’s about 50 miles between the Northern Arizona University campus and the drop site where Philandrian Tree, who goes by Philan, and her fellow Coconino Rural Environment Corps (CREC) members were working. But Tree made the trip back and forth in spite of her full course load, carpooling with co-workers and family to “make ends meet.”

Tree’s work at CREC, a program affiliated with AmeriCorps, focused on retrofitting low-income homes in the Navajo Nation to make them more energy efficient. To complete the work, she assembled the first fully Navajo crews that were hired and employed by CREC.

Philan Congressional briefing

“Basically the only jobs on the reservation were working at one of the schools or in the tribal government or at the convenient store,” said Tree, a member of the Towering House Clan of the Navajo Nation. “A lot of the young people we were working with had done basic carpentry, but some were right out of high school with no skills. There were also a lot of people I ended up hiring who were overqualified but there weren’t a lot of jobs [on the reservation] and the pay isn’t the best.”

Tree represents a unique member of the larger Opportunity Youth demographic. Her community is one of the most disconnected, partially because of fiscal disparities but largely because of a cultural ignorance.

“I saw a disconnect between my home community and what I was being taught at school and I wanted to find a way to bridge that,” she said. “A lot of my peers were seeking out tribal scholarships, and then they’d search for jobs but there were no jobs there. I wanted to create jobs and employ them to take advantage of the [AmeriCorps] award.”

By the end of her AmeriCorps term, Tree and her crew had individually earned an extra 45 hours of service each on top of the base corps member requirement. In addition, when all was said and done, Tree had secured the county’s first (and second) Memorandum of Understanding, employed 17 Navajo Nation AmeriCorps members and repaired over 200 homes on the reservation. It was a huge success in a state struggling to reach a significant sector of the population – Arizona has the largest population of Navajos of any state in the U.S. – both in terms of employment and services.

“About 30 percent of our population is Navajo and they’re some of the most underserved people in the country,” said Dustin Woodman, a member of the local Coconino government and Tree’s manager during her time at CREC. “When you live here you feel like there’s the Nation and then there’s the rest of the county, and not in a good way. Philan provided that bridge of understanding between cultures and changed how we were communicating and providing services.”

That essential connection ultimately landed Tree an internship with the Coconino County Board of Supervisors. She continued to bridge the gap between the Navajo’s robust independent government and the state government and was eventually hired by the District 4 Supervisor as the tribal and program liaison. That position will end come November when the supervisor retires, but maybe not completely: Tree has been encouraged to run for the vacant seat.

“[If she wins] it will be because of her strong passion to connect communities,” Woodman said. “She knows how to build understanding and create partnerships and coalitions.”

Nothing seems to be stopping her and Tree has an interesting and humble philosophy as to why:

“Ignorance is bliss,” she said, seemingly contradictory to the literacy with which she was able to implement her program. “A lot of young people don’t see barriers as barriers. They’re always thinking of new ideas on how to get things done. I think we understand the barriers but we find creative ways around them.”


The GradsofLifeVoice Forbes team provides thought leadership, research and expert commentary on innovative talent pipelines and related issues such as the skills gap, income inequality, workforce diversity, and the business case for employment pathways. We seek to change employers’ perceptions of young adults with atypical resumes from social liabilities to economic assets. This post was originally featured here.


Hiring & Retention Practices, Income Inequality, Personal Story,
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