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Yvon Bergner on Native American heritage and leading new SGA committee collectively


Valparaiso, Indiana senior Yvon Bergner poses Oct. 23 in the Student Government Association Office in Bovee University Center.

Valparaiso, Indiana senior Yvon Bergner spent many of his middle and high school weekends traveling with his family in a trailer up, down and around the coast of Lake Michigan visiting powwows, participating in at least 40 by his count.

While making the rounds between powwows, where his family generally knew many of the elders and masters of ceremony, and attending a youth group where he learned Native drumming and beadwork techniques, Bergner was molded in ways he hasn’t even begun to process.

“It’s too much. It’s one of those shaping things,” he said. “I’m having trouble self-reflecting on it, because it’s like, where do I even start? … I haven’t gone there yet in my head.”

Bergner traces his heritage to native cultures of the Yucatán Peninsula but was raised with the stories, values and teachings of the people of the Great Lakes region. He sees himself as part of a transcontinental continuum of Native American culture that transcends the borders of modern nations.

Though he can’t yet comprehend the scope of its impact on his life, he knows how to apply what native culture taught him in his youth. Bergner is bringing his experience being raised in what he described as a “collectivist culture” to his leadership roles in CMU’s Student Government Association, where he is a senator representing Global Studies students and students with undeclared majors, and the chair of its brand new outreach committee.

As opposed to an individualistic culture, where leaving the house is an opportunity to make a name for yourself, Bergner said collectivist cultures, which are common among minority and low-income populations, see it as an opportunity to make a name for your family. Maybe you’ll send money back, or return when they need your help.

“You walk with your family with you,” he said. “You come back with money, knowledge – whatever it is of value in that household – you come back with it as best you can, so you can help each other out and lift each other up.”

Yvon Bergner speaks to the Student Government Association in native garb on Oct. 14, Indigenous Peoples Day. Bergner spoke about high rates of violence against Native Americans.

In practice, this means a leadership style focused less on leadership and more on facilitation. He said that collectivists conceptualize a ‘boss’ not as someone above you and in charge of you, but someone on your level who cares for you. 

“I was actually inspired by [last year’s diversity committee chair] Gabrielle Mason,” he said. “She was up on stage in the auditorium in the University Center and she said ‘I don’t like this dynamic being up here, let me get down on your level,’” before stepping down from the stage and speaking from the floor.

Bergner’s vision of the outreach committee is one of collaboration, understanding, and a flat hierarchy.

The outreach committee is a new feature of SGA this year, replacing the RSO growth and development committee. Bergner was approached by SGA president Jake Hendricks and vice president Lyndi Rose to chair the committee and worked with them to establish the new committee’s mission.

At SGA’s Sept. 10 meeting, Bergner distinguished the outreach and diversity committees by comparing the CMU community to a group gathered around a dinner table. You can diversify the composition of the group all you want, but what if some people are allergic to the food, or can’t make use of CMU’s resources as easily as others? 

For example, during one of CMU’s orientation exercises, new students and their parents are separated: the students go to a computer lab to create their first schedule of classes, and the parents stay in an auditorium to learn about financial aid. What if the parents don’t speak English well enough to keep up with the information?

That’s where the outreach committee comes in.

“What my thing does, is we acknowledge this talk and then we move from the talk,” Bergner said. “Having that groundwork there, outreach is going to build the scaffolding up. We know these things are happening, the conversation is there, now what about the actual change that comes from these conversations?”

The committee is working on three projects: an initiative to foster resource comprehension among off-campus students, a second “Let’s Get Life Smart” event to teach students "adulting" skills likely to be held in February, and an event for first-generation students, whose families don’t have a history of going to college. 

Bergner, a first-generation student himself, has consistently returned to that demographic as one he’d like to support through SGA. When he first came to CMU, he visited every office he could find and had them explain the role they could play in his academic success. Making sure other first-generation students don’t have to take the same self-guided tour is exactly what outreach is about. 

He expects the first-generation event to feature lucid explanations of FAFSA and student aid in ways that forego the jargon that typically comes with it. 

“By putting accommodations and inclusion at the forefront of our programs here, we can definitely increase the potential of what a student has to bring to this campus and to their own professional lives,” he said.