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A Native New Yorker Fighting for Indigenous Justice
An Interview with Cassandra “Bean” Minerd, Indigenous Justice Strategist, NYCLU Racial Justice Center

This year, the NYCLU strengthened our commitment to eliminating racism in every corner of New York with the launch of our dedicated Racial Justice Center (RJC). The RJC leverages our litigation, community advocacy, legislative initiatives, and public education efforts to challenge the ideologies of white supremacy and the lasting impacts of systemic racism. Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities have never experienced the Constitution’s full protections, and the NYCLU works to confront the legacy of this oppression and generational harm in housing and transportation policy, education, and law enforcement. In the next few years, the RJC will prioritize securing fairer treatment for Black people in the criminal legal system, fighting to end the environmental racism baked into infrastructure projects, and widening our advocacy for fair funding in predominantly Indigenous schools.

Indigenous Justice Strategist Cassandra “Bean” Minerd joined the NYCLU’s Education Policy Center in January 2023 before moving to the Racial Justice Center a year later. An Eel clan member from the Onondaga Nation, Bean spent several years organizing to improve the lives of Indigenous students and she has worked with youth groups on the Onondaga Nation since 2015. A graduate of SUNY Brockport and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF), she is an active member of the Sloan Center for Native Peoples and the Environment and has spoken about Indigenous justice at the United Nations and conferences around the country. She has also traveled the world as a member of the Haudenosaunee women’s national lacrosse team and now serves as assistant coach of the girls’ lacrosse team at LaFayette High School.

We spoke with Bean about leading our Indigenous Justice work, the fight for funding equity in Nation schools, and her hopes for generational change.

NYCLU: How would you describe your current role at the Racial Justice Center? What does the work look like?

Bean Minerd: I come from the Onondaga Nation in Syracuse, and right now it’s a lot of building relationships with the community, with title holders, and building out our work with other ACLU affiliates that also handle Indigenous justice work. It’s groundbreaking because we are doing it from scratch. There are a few of us in our Indigenous justice working group within the Racial Justice Center. I got to carry over my school equity campaign from our Education Policy Center because it involves the Onondaga Nation community. I’ve received phone calls from people in my community about racial situations happening to their kids within the school district, so I’m trying to handle that, as well. Indigenous justice is a big umbrella, so I’m very spread out. I don’t mess around when it comes to my people and my community. I’m trying to make sure that things change.

Indigenous justice is a growing area of the NYCLU’s work, as well as the ACLU’s more broadly. What are some of the issues this touches?

BM: Everything. Health care is huge within our Indigenous communities. But it’s also environmental justice, housing, systemic racism, racism in schools, education equity.

How does the NYCLU’s work here fit in with the broader landscape of racial justice efforts across New York?

BM: It’s the core of it. We’ve been around since the beginning so whatever we touch, it’s going to affect the Indigenous community. Everyone who lives in the U.S. lives on stolen land so it’s going to hit every aspect. Also, we’re going to work on reparations for Black communities, and it could lead to reparations for Indigenous communities. People who got forced out of their homes on their lands and live in the city now—we’re all related in that way. It’s going to crisscross a lot. I’m super grateful for it but it’s going to be a lot of work. I know how long it takes for things to change, and it’s tough because the systems in the U.S. are not set up in a way that allows for people of color to prosper.

Looking ahead at this next year, where do you see the greatest opportunity for progress?

BM: Within the next two years, I’m striving for building stronger coalition relationships within the ACLU and all over the world. That’s one thing about the beauty of Indigenous justice, we don’t know where it could take us. My focus is building a strong relationship with Indigenous communities and making sure they’re being heard and seen. Indigenous communities are constantly working hard for sovereignty and rights, and I’m hoping that the NYCLU can step into those spaces to support them. We need strong relationships to make sure we have that loyalty and trust to create change, and it can flourish from there.

Addressing equitable funding for predominantly Indigenous schools is a priority of the RJC moving forward. Can you talk about that?

BM: The Onondaga Nation School is in the LaFayette Central School District. It’s on Nation territory, sovereign land, but the state owns the building. The building is in disrepair, a lot of environmental and safety issues going on. It’s important to make sure our kids are safe in their schools, they’re being fed right, and the state is doing its part in making sure they’re a success. Because if our kids are safe in the school then they’re going to want to continue learning, but if they’re worried about a door being busted open because the state took 20 years to fix it or the roof caving in one day, then how are they going to sit there and learn? I want them just to worry about school, not their surroundings or the school climate. You see private schools—they’re funded great! You don’t have to worry about anything security-wise, food-wise, education-wise. So if New York State owns the building at the Nation school, why won’t they make it beautiful and safe for our kids? It’s because the people in charge don’t really want our kids to succeed and be in those roles for change.

You have a history of working with students and youth groups. What do you like about working with young people?

BM: In our culture, we always look forward seven generations. What I’m doing is I’m walking on hot rocks, and I want to build cool pavement for these kids to walk on so they don’t have to fight as much. I’m okay with fighting—in a peaceful way—but it’s just making sure this is a good place for them so that when they have kids it’s even safer. So I see how the kids are, and it makes me want to be a role model for them. I think about our Indigenous teachings to leave behind a good world for the next seven generations so they can prosper. Kids are great teachers, too. That’s why I used to love being a youth group leader, especially with Native kids. We have our own sense of humor, and being around your own people makes a difference.

Do you see any crossover between your activism and how you approach being an athlete and coach?

BM: Oh, yes. I’m on the women’s senior Haudenosaunee lacrosse team, and I play internationally, and as women players we are always fighting for equity. Especially being Native. We play against Team USA and Team Canada, and it’s making sure they recognize where the history comes from. We don’t play for ourselves, we play for each other, we play for our future youth coming in, we play for our program to get better, and we play for the kids who never made it back from residential schools. We play for bigger things than us—showing up and being on the big stage, we’re doing activism.

You just finished graduate school. Do you have an idea of what kind of work you’re hoping to do down the road?

BM: I just graduated in December ’23. When I was at ESF as a graduate student, my work was indigenizing outdoor education and fighting for it. There were only a couple of us Native students, and we had to fight for our environmental Indigenous mindset within the Westernized education. I feel like it’s just embedded in me to be an activist. All our people are activists. We’ve been fighting for our Mother Earth, for the waters, for people, for everything. So it’s a natural thing that I was born into, it’s my calling. I hope I’m at the NYCLU for a long time, where I can become a director of Indigenous justice work and hire more Indigenous people to do this. What I’m looking forward to is being able to make a change throughout my time here, and I know it’s going to happen.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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