Kelsey Lansing, an employee at Sexual Assault Services Organization, started getting text after text Monday saying, “Congratulations!”
“I’m like, ‘For what? I haven’t checked my email yet,’” Lansing said.
It wasn’t until Lansing stopped by the office in Durango that she fully understood the news. She was going to be the 2020 Colorado recipient of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s Visionary Voice Award.
The national organization gives the annual award to one recipient from each state for innovative and impactful advocacy work. The state’s 2019 recipient was state Sen. Faith Winter, an ally for survivors of sexual violence.
Lansing, a Navajo Nation tribal member, earned the award for raising awareness about violence toward Native Americans. She will receive the award in April.
“I was just keeping my head down, doing my job,” she said. “I just do my best trying to bring awareness to issues in our community, especially working with different tribes.”
Since 2018, Lansing has worked with the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College to host an annual Violence Against Native American Women symposium.
She also presented at the 2019 Colorado Advocacy in Action Conference. There, she helped build statewide awareness of violence against Native Americans and emphasized historical factors that contribute to the issue, such as boarding schools, forced relocation and forced sterilization.
“When we consider this award every year, we are looking for somebody who is doing something innovative in our state ... and just having an impact in our state. For us, that’s what Kelsey is doing,” said Brie Franklin, executive director of Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. CCASA nominated Lansing for the award.
Native American women and men are more likely to experience violence in their lifetime than their non-Hispanic, white-only counterparts, according to a 2016 report from the National Institute of Justice Research.
Native women are also significantly more likely to have experienced violence caused by someone of a different race, the report said.
Native men, boys and elders are also trafficked and victims of violence, Lansing said.
“We always assume men can take care of themselves, but then nobody really talks about someone taking a job in a different location and then never coming back,” she said.
As a SASO cultural outreach coordinator, Lansing organizes educational opportunities to raise awareness of nationwide cases of missing and murdered women and girls.
She said two cases in the Four Corners motivated her career in victim advocacy: the murder and assault of Nicole Redhorse and the abduction, assault and murder of Ashlynne Mike.
“To me, it was like needing justice for her. Every situation I come across, I think of my family. What if this were my cousin or my aunt or someone close to me?” Lansing said.
Murder is the third-leading cause of death among Native Americans in the U.S., according to a 2018 Urban Indian Health Institute report. In Colorado, the institute recorded 12 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls cases.
But governments have not collected meaningful data on these types of cases. For example, of 5,712 cases nationwide, only 116 were logged in a Department of Justice database. That means the number of cases could be an undercount, the report said.
Locally, groups have raised awareness about the issue on Indigenous Peoples Day. The Ignacio girls varsity basketball team is doing an awareness campaign throughout the basketball season.
Lansing organizes workshops that are an extension of the national Sing Our Rivers Red exhibit of 10,000 earrings. At each workshop, participants paint or stitch an earring, then donate one to the exhibit.
Each earring represents a missing or murdered indigenous woman, and Lansing said participants have dedicated their earrings to grandmothers, sisters, aunts or sometimes young children.
She even arranged a multi-day exhibit at the Durango Arts Center, in partnership with Fort Lewis College staff. These are some of the actions that earned her the national award.
“Seeing some of the injustice in our community, I wanted to be that person to make some changes or be the advocate for those who can’t speak in some assertive way,” she said.