J.Y.: Hello, and welcome to the 7Sage podcast. I'm J.Y. Ping, and on today's episode, David talks to Lexie Holden, the runner-up for the 2020 7Sage 7K Scholarship. Lexie received an admissions consulting package and a $1,000 scholarship to defray her law school tuition. Her story is inspiring from both a personal and an admissions standpoint. In this fall, she'll begin her studies at Yale Law.
David: Well, Lexie, it's so nice to talk to you. I'm so glad that you could join us for the podcast.
Lexie: Yeah, absolutely. Thanks so much for having me on.
David: So Lexie, I want you to start by taking us back in time and just tell us a little bit about where you grew up, how you grew up, what was your life like before you decided to apply for law school?
Lexie: Absolutely. So I was born in and spent the first 15 and a half years of my life living in Germany. I'm an army brat, so I spent my almost first 16 years of my life growing up overseas, attending the American schools on the U.S. Army posts, while also living simultaneously in German villages and attending ballet classes with other German students. So I had sort of the best of both worlds, but I also, I'm a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
So that sort of threw in that third world. Military brats are often considered third-culture kids, because, you know, when you ask them where they're from, it's like, well, where did I live the longest? Which place did I like the best? You know, what's the answer you're looking for? So I was sort of a fourth-culture kid when I throw in my Native American culture and heritage as well.
David: Did you feel like it was something that separated you from other military brats?
Lexie: Oh, definitely. So having spent so much time in Germany and having been fluent in German, I was often considered too German for the American kids. And I also lived off post in German villages, so hanging out with me after school was usually a challenge because, you know, I'd have to coordinate, you know, having my mom come back to pick me up if I went over to a friend's house on post.
The opposite was true for the German students who, even though I spoke German, I didn't necessarily know the dialect or the slang, so I was too American in their eyes, and the other American students that they knew, you know, moved pretty frequently, so it was always a question of like, when was I going to leave? And then trying to tell either side, you know, that I was Native and that I'm, you know, a citizen of Choctaw Nation blew their minds, just really threw another wrench into their plan of trying to figure out which culture to put me into. So it made for an interesting upbringing, to say the least.
David: Well, I'm going to go out on a limb. Please tell me if I'm just totally in the wrong, but I would guess that there aren't a whole lot of Native women or members of the Choctaw Nation in Germany, where you were. Is that the case?
Lexie: So Native Americans actually serve in the military at a higher rate than any other demographic group. So there are a lot of Natives relative to other demographic groups. However, we are still a very small population overall. So in terms of other Native students that I knew of growing up, I really can't think of any off the top of my head. There were a couple more once I moved to Washington State when I was in high school, but then none again when I moved for college to Chicago. So yeah, it's, we're a pretty elusive bunch, but then, you know, I feel like once you find Indian country, you kind of find everyone, because we all sort of tend to congregate near one another.
David: Well, I want to get to that, but first I just want to ask you how you fostered your identity as a member of the Choctaw Nation growing up in Germany.
Lexie: Absolutely. So I'm very thankful to my mother because, so she's a historian and she was the one who really kept the family stories alive, the, you know, our ancestry, you know, telling me about, you know, who my family is, what we used to do, where we come from, you know, stories that had been passed down from generation to generation. And that's not something that everyone who is Native, you know, has the privilege of.
You know, a lot of folks are separated from their families, a lot of folks have traumatic family histories that are difficult to bring up, but I was very lucky and fortunate in the sense that my mom told me everything. So I, even being thousands of miles and an ocean away from my tribe, always felt at home in the stories that she would tell me. And then coming back to the U.S., it was much easier to just fit right back in. It's like I'd never been away at all.
David: And you say that it's easier to connect with other Natives once you get to Indian country. How did you get to Indian country?
Lexie: Yeah. So I always knew I wanted to do something that would ultimately serve other Native Americans. I, again, as an army brat, you know, service is something that I'd always seen in my life, something I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing, not in the military sense. I wanted to do it through policy and law, and it wasn't until my first year out of college that I was finally able to do a fellowship where the bulk of my work was centered on tribal communities.
I always tried to sneak it into previous internship opportunities or other things I'd been doing, or even, you know, for papers and classes or research projects, but it was never, I was never able to make it like the center focus of what I wanted to do and the work I was doing until after graduation, when I was serving as a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow and was placed with the Native American Agriculture Fund for my field placement.
David: So what did you actually do as the Hunger Fellow?
Lexie: Absolutely. So the bulk of my work with NAAF, and it's a six-month placement with a field placement and then six months with a policy placement in DC, but while I was with the Native American Agriculture Fund, I was tasked with writing a report about a very small but very important program under the USDA called the Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program, which, while I have a lot of family members in the past who were engaged in agriculture, my great-grandparents on one side were sharecroppers, there were farmers on another side.
You know, agriculture has since skipped a few generations. So I was being tasked with, you know, studying this very small group of folks, helping farmers and ranchers do their job better, as a total outsider. So I asked my supervisor, I said, "Oh, great, great. Okay, so the FRTEP, that's what I'm working on. What's extension?" And she was kind enough to say, "Oh, you know, it's the person you call up when you, you know, want to figure out what type of soil you have so you know what to grow, or maybe to build a hoop house."
David: Yeah, of course. Come on, Lexi.
Lexie: What's a hoop house, though? I just Googled that one on my own. I didn't ask her. I was like, okay, I've already proven myself like ignorant enough in the realm of agriculture, but I'm coming at this with a good heart, I swear. So, and then over the next six months, I got a chance to interview these agents, to learn about the communities they serve, the work they do, and also the ways in which the way the USDA is currently structured fails them in their communities, and really come up with a lot of policy recommendations out of that, that I'm still currently working on today.
David: Can you give me a small example of one way that the USDA is failing them?
Lexie: Yeah, absolutely. So there are currently 36 FRTEP agents. They were created as an alternative to the traditional cooperative or county extension system, which has 3,000 agents across the country, one in every county. If you do the math, there are about 80,000 Native American farmers and ranchers across the U.S. So if a traditional county extension agent is looking at serving about 200 farmers each, these FRTEP agents are looking at serving about 2,000 each, which is completely unsustainable.
And I can't even keep up 2,000 names in my head, so I can't imagine keeping up 2,000 names and operation plans and all the things necessary to, you know, helping someone make their agricultural operation work. So figuring out how to get more funding for the program is one of the number one priorities, so that they can actually hire more agents to be able to do more good in Indian country.
David: So what does it actually look like when you're trying to get more funding for the program?
Lexie: Yeah, well, it's a farm bill provision, which is very convenient because the connections that I made while I was a fellow with NAAF led to me being hired as a policy assistant with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, which led to me becoming the Associate Director of Policy and Government Relations. We're one of the founding members of the Native Farm Bill Coalition, which is the largest coalition of tribes working together for a single policy purpose ever, as far as our history records indicate.
We represent 270 tribal nations, inner tribal alliances, and native organizations, and their Farm Bill priorities, which is, you know, the Farm Bill's a huge piece of legislation, comes up every five years, and essentially, if you eat, the Farm Bill affects you. So, thankfully, this little program that I was researching as a fellow is now something that I get to continue working on and advocating for in this larger Native Farm Bill Coalition work that I do.
David: Can you give me an example of a typical day or maybe two? I'm sure that no day is typical, but maybe like a typical day in the office, as much as you can approximate it, in a day in the field that's not atypical?
Lexie: Absolutely. So a lot of my work that I do in the office, let's say, I work remotely, but is connecting to our stakeholders. So reaching out to tribal leaders and Native ranchers and farmers to tell them about opportunities to engage with USDA, for opportunities to meet with us, also having conversations to hear about how particular programs are working or not working in their communities.
I also do a lot of outreach to allied organizations or non-Native organizations who are interested in supporting our work. That involves a lot of like Indian country 101 conversations where we strip it down to like bare bones basics of like, this is what a tribe is, here's how long agriculture has been going on in this area. So it's a lot of relationship building and sort of education, I would say. And then a lot of writing as well.
So I do a lot of writing for our comments that we submit whenever, you know, a different federal agency is trying to propose a rule change, submitting testimony. I've gotten to testify in front of Congress a couple of times so far. So preparing comments and things like that. Sometimes writing up blog posts or articles, though that not as much anymore as when I was a fellow.
And then a day out in the field, that, you know, depends on the community that I get to visit. This past year, I did a six-week-long road trip across Indian country to meet with our producers. So that took me everywhere from Alaska to Montana to Arizona. So a lot of different climates, a lot of different environments.
Sometimes I was, you know, riding around in a Jeep, going off on crazy trails as we did tours of olive groves. Sometimes it was wading through cow poop in a field in Montana so I could see what their regenerative agriculture practices looked like, or fending off mosquitoes in Alaska, because I don't know how they do it up there, but the mosquitoes are the size of dogs up in Fairbanks. And hearing about, you know, how they're doing traditional foraging or, you know, fishing. So it's a pretty cool job. I get to do a lot of different stuff and it's all in service to Indian country, so that's what makes it so great.
David: What was your best and worst moment on the job?
Lexie: Best on the job would probably be some of the incredible opportunities and meals I've gotten to have with folks. A lot of these round tables we do for work involve traditionally made foods made by Native chefs, featuring food items that are from the local producers, and getting to sit down and eat bison meatballs and different corn, beans, and squash stews, and things like that, and sit down with a producer and have them tell me all about their life story and why their operation is so important to them and their families, and how many generations back they've been going.
Probably worst day would be not wearing long sleeves in Fairbanks and getting eaten alive by mosquitoes and looking like I was doing interpretive dancing while I was trying to explain to people what the Farm Bill is and why it's important to Alaskan Native communities. That was not one of my shining moments in professionalism, but I think they understood I was an outsider, and they were kind and took pity on me.
David: Well, you're already doing really substantive stuff. So, you know, how is a law degree going to let you do more?
Lexie: Absolutely. I have been so lucky in this job because I have so many mentors around me who are attorneys working in the field of federal Indian law and Native food and agriculture law and policy. However, at some point, I'm sure they would love for me to not have to call and ask for their advice about something. Having a legal training that lets me know how a particular piece of legislation needs to be worded in order to have the impact it needs to on the ground to actually help producers in the way I want it to is something that I need a formal legal training around.
You know, it's one thing to be able to take stories from the field and turn it into something that legislators can really get behind and tugs at the heartstrings and really shows them how important Native agriculture is, but if you don't have the ability to craft the legislative language in the very precise way it has to be done to target Indian communities, that's a problem. That's where there's a disconnect and that's where a formal legal education and going to law school is going to make me that much more of a better advocate for the communities I'm hoping to serve.
David: Well, you have a really developed motivation. How did you end up shaping your background and your motivation into a coherent application? I guess what I'm really asking is, what did you write your essays about?
Lexie: Yeah, absolutely. So I took my personal statement and diversity statement in a little bit different directions. My personal statement really focuses on what it means to be a Native American woman and to be a Native American woman wanting to do food and ag law and policy, whereas my diversity statement was about my experience as a survivor of domestic and sexual violence in college and how I use that experience to help me essentially be more empathetic and how it helps me in my work and how I can use my experience as a survivor to try and create better policy to help folks who are survivors of other traumas, so that hopefully it won't happen again. So that's what I did.
David: Yeah. I feel like most people would've been tempted to flip-flop those. I just feel like, like my first instinct is, you know, your identity as a Native woman sounds like a diversity statement, and being a survivor and being motivated to help other survivors sounds like a personal statement. So how did you settle on this allocation of the story?
Lexie: Absolutely. Well, I knew I didn't want my identity as a Native woman to be just a box that's checked, a, you know, something like, oh, this is a diverse candidate coming in. She identifies as American Indian, she meets this core demographic that perhaps we're trying to target in her admissions decisions, versus being a survivor, I know that I do not have it in me to go specifically into domestic violence and sexual assault survivor type of law.
I know that that's not a field that I can work in. It's work that's incredibly important, and the people who can do it, like, more power to them, but where I see myself having impact is in tribal communities, doing this food policy, which is what I'm passionate about, and frankly, what I have the mental, emotional, physical capacity to be able to deal with right now. So that was sort of my reasoning for flip-flopping the two. Plus I had a lot more to say about my identity as a Native woman than my identity as a survivor, which is one facet of me, whereas being Native is who I am.
David: Would you feel comfortable reading us any portion of your essay?
Lexie: Yeah, absolutely. Which one would you like to hear?
David: I'd love to hear the personal statement.
Lexie: Sure. Okay. In Indian country, we don't ask where you come from. We ask from whom you come, because we care more about your relation to others than your zip code. Most non-Native Americans I meet like to ask the former, and my answer is always longer than they'd usually expect. As an army brat, my family and I have always lived wherever the military sends us. I was born and raised in Germany for nearly 16 years and graduated from high school in Puyallup, Washington. I attended the University of Chicago in Illinois, interned in Washington, DC, and worked remotely from my grandparents' home in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Yet I wouldn't say that I'm from any of those places.
David: That's great. And you don't have to read the whole thing, but just walk us through what happens next.
Lexie: Yeah, absolutely. So just talking a little bit about what I was speaking to earlier about being too German for the American kids, too American for the German kids growing up, and then throwing out the whole being Native American, and the American kids would be like, "Oh, you don't, you know, you don't look like the pictures of the Indians in our textbooks," or "Aren't they all dead?" And then the German kids would want to play cowboys and Indians with me.
So there's a lot of misinformation around what it means to be Native and about whether we even still exist today, which we absolutely do. And just growing up around the military and how that really instilled in me a sense of service, and how I was able to turn that sense of service into something that I wanted to do for my community and, you know, not just my tribe, although I hope that what I do impacts members of my tribe, but Indian country more widely.
I talk about my, one of my ancestors, my five-times great-grandmother who survived the Trail of Tears and how, because she was able to survive, I'm able to be here today and I'm able to be able to do this work and to serve Indian country. And so one of the things that's fundamental to being Chahta, which is the Choctaw word for Choctaw, is that we have a mission to honor our ancestors and to make the world a better place for our descendants, and so choosing to honor my five-times great-grandmother's history and her survival by choosing to do this work, to make sure that the type of starvation that our communities faced on the Trail of Tears, that that's never something that we have to go through again. And, you know, that's really what's inspired me to go into law and why I specifically want to work in food and agriculture law.
David: So did you know all of this before you started writing, and writing was a process of distilling that into words? Or did you figure some of this out as you wrote?
Lexie: Yeah, I think the story has always been there, and I knew what kind of work I wanted to do before writing my essays, but I think finding a way to tie together all of these seemingly very disparate places and very, you know, disparate aspects of my identity and, you know, the type of work that I want to do, and probably not a whole lot of people graduate from UChicago and are like, yeah, I want to work in agriculture. So trying to be able to show the connection between all of these different things.
And it just took a lot of asking questions about how one thing led to another in my life, and at that point, the story was very clearly laid out. Every decision that I had made or that the universe had made on my behalf, it led very naturally into the next thing. And that's, it was just a matter of finding the right words to convey that story. And that's where the essay came from, after many, many rewrites.
David: How many rewrites?
Lexie: Oh, I want to say the general outline and the core values about myself that I wanted to share, that only took one or two times to get it done. But I would say probably between six and eight, going through figuring out the right words I wanted to say. I tend to use far too many commas and like a lot of run-on sentences, so cutting those back, you know, that took a couple more times as well, but it didn't take too many in the grand scheme of things, but more than, say, my entrance essay for UChicago, which I somehow did in like two takes. I don't know how.
David: Did your other essays, like the diversity statement, take as many drafts?
Lexie: Diversity statement took a lot longer. It was a really difficult topic to write about, but one that I still felt I needed to share in order to really give myself sort of the credit for what I had gone through, and to be able to show that even though all of this was going on during my time in school, that I was still a great student, that I was still doing all of these, you know, extracurriculars, that I was still, you know, focusing on giving to others and focusing on service to others rather than just shutting down, which is also a perfectly appropriate response to trauma, but I wanted to be able to show how that wasn't something that happened.
And it took, that one took a lot more even just to decide, you know, what did I want to write about for the diversity statement, knowing that I didn't want to just, you know, duplicate what was in the personal statement.
David: Yeah. Are you proud of what you ended up with?
Lexie: Oh, incredibly. Yeah. Anytime someone is interested in applying to law school and hints that maybe wanting to read my essays, I'm happy to send them a copy. I think, you know, looking back on them a year after having written them, they're still great pieces. They're still, they still really tell my story and a safe version of my story, and so I'm always happy to share them with folks. And I think, yeah, it's, I think they were great. I did a good job and I've got to pat myself on the back for that one.
David: Would you be willing to share the first paragraph of your diversity statement?
Lexie: Yeah, absolutely. So in my third year of college, I was working for Illinois State Senator Kwame Raoul when two advocates visited his office, looking for a senator to introduce their group's sexual assault survivors' bill of rights to the legislature. Instead, they found me. As they described the length survivors currently had to go to in order to receive justice, I reflected on why I had decided to not report my own year of sexual assault and emotional abuse.
David: So it's a sort of a frame story.
Lexie: Yeah. It's, it was, I want to say almost a year exactly after I'd gotten out of that relationship. When these two advocates came to our office, I was the only one in the office, and, you know, they were looking for the senator and they found me, and really wanting to introduce the sexual assault survivors' bill of rights, and hearing, you know, what other survivors had gone through, knowing what my own experience was like, you know, having been a survivor in the DeVos, you know, Title IX era, I just knew that barriers that I faced as being someone who was in a very privileged position when all of this happened to me could only be even more insurmountable for people who didn't have the same privilege.
So I, you know, listened to their spiel, I collected all of their one-pagers and takeaways and leave-behinds and everything, scanned them all in to the senator, and wrote up an email saying that, you know, I wish that something like this had existed a year ago, because I wasn't brave enough to tell my story then, but I'd like to tell my story to you now in the hopes that you will be a sponsor of this bill, which he ultimately was. And then when, a year later, he became attorney general for Illinois, it was under his office that they were responsible for actually implementing the various policies that fell under the survivors' bill of rights.
So even though I didn't necessarily get direct justice for what I had gone through in college, I was still able to contribute to a wider sense of justice for other survivors throughout the state of Illinois, and, in my mind, that was enough for me.
David: Yeah, that's a, I'm really heartened that it ended that way.
Lexie: It was definitely terrifying to send that all in an email to a state senator, but ultimately it worked out and he was the lead sponsor for the bill and it passed.
David: Is all of that in your DS?
David: So let's talk about another happy ending. What was the upshot of your applications to law school?
Lexie: Absolutely. So I ended up applying to, let me think about this, I think 13 schools. I was, I think, admitted to seven and waitlisted at six, and I will be heading off to Yale Law School this fall. So that was the final decision.
Lexie: Woo! I'm very excited about it.
David: When do you move?
Lexie: In about two weeks, actually. So.
David: Good for you.
Lexie: Move up to New Haven.
David: Well, I've got some pizza recommendations for you.
Lexie: Apparently, that's the big thing up there, is there's a lot of debate around the pizza, so I'll happily take those recommendations later.
David: Yes, it's a debate that I, when I was there in college, I played out nearly every week.
Lexie: That's good to know. Yeah, in Chicago, they had very strong opinions about deep dish as well, so I feel like I'll fit right in.
David: Well, I will actually also be interested to hear where you come out on. The New Haven pizza is sort of antithetical to Chicago's deep dish.
Lexie: It is. I mean, Chicago pizza really is its own institution. Some would even say it shouldn't be considered pizza. I would say that's blasphemous because I love Chicago deep-dish pizza, but I am excited to try the New Haven varieties, even if they aren't possibly as good as Lou Malnati's. I'm just going to go ahead and throw it out there.
David: I do know Lou Malnati's too. Well, I'm sure that experiencing both sides of the pizza debate is also going to make you a better lawyer.
Lexie: I hope so, yes. Have to examine all the evidence before coming to any sort of conclusions.
David: Well, Lexie, thanks so much for sharing some of your story with us, and a huge, huge congratulations.
Lexie: Thank you. I really appreciate having a chance to come and speak and tell you a little bit about my experience and hopefully inspire some other folks to shoot their shot and apply to whatever dream school they have.
J.Y.: Hi there. It's J.Y. again. Thanks for listening. If you're interested in applying for the 7Sage 7K Scholarship, head on over to 7Sage.com/7K-scholarship. That's numeral 7, the letter K, hyphen, scholarship. I'll also add a link in the show notes. Applications for 2023 will open in January.
If you're studying for the LSAT, applying to law school, or prepping for the bar exam, head on over to 7Sage.com. We can help.
That's it for this episode. Take care of yourself, and see you next time.