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Navajo life helped forge NGB diversity director's passion

  • Published
  • By Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka,
  • Nevada Joint Force Headquarters Public Affairs

CARSON CITY, Nev. – Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, named Col. Lawrence Yazzie the bureau’s director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in October. Lawrence is the top officer promoting Hokanson’s vision of a fair and equitable work environment for all National Guard Airmen, Soldiers and civilians.

Yazzie had the ideal resume — growing up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy, working in the civilian sector for Fortune 500 companies, commanding the Iowa Air Guard’s 168th Cyberspace Squadron. His diverse background prepared him to embrace and back the National Guard’s principles for equal opportunity and diversity and inclusion so the Guard can recruit, develop, and retain a competitive, efficient and highly lethal workforce.

Yazzie’s ties to Nevada run far deeper than his visits to Reno and Las Vegas to play the Wolf Pack and Rebels basketball teams between 1997-2000 while a member of the Air Force Academy team. As the director of the Office of DEI, Yazzie works closely with Nevada Adjutant General Maj. Gen. Ondra Berry, the National Chair of NGB’s Joint Diversity Executive Council. Also, at the behest of Hokanson, the JDEC works to provide the CNGB strategic policies and procedures to operationalize diversity throughout the National Guard.

Yazzie recently talked by telephone with Nevada Army Guard public affairs Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka about how his experiences influence his vision for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

Question: What is your overarching goal as the director of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

Answer: As director, I want the National Guard to represent the diversity of our nation, ensure equity for every current and prospective member of the National Guard, build trust, and achieve overall readiness, homeland defense and federal mission accomplishment.

I will bring everything that I am passionate about — all of my experiences, all of my background — to emphasize the importance of all of the National Guard equity and opportunity programs as well as diversity and inclusion efforts. Gen. Hokanson will receive a diversity, equity and inclusion strategy that is easily interpreted by any National Guard Airman, Soldier or civilian employee — and will also allow individuals to advance diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Q: How did your early life prepare for your military career and, ultimately, your position as the director of the Office of DEI.

A: As a young man growing up on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Arizona, I dreamed of becoming a warrior and armed forces officer, following in the footsteps of my father. Bringing that dream to reality would take persistence on my part, as reservation life included many obstacles, including alcohol, drugs and limited educational opportunities. However, I decided early on that I had a goal and there was no obstacle I would allow to stand in my way.

While a young man, I participated in many ceremonial traditions, including spending a great deal of time with my father in a sweat lodge. It was during these weekly gatherings that I grew to love the military. My grandfather, father and uncles would tell my brothers and me about their experiences and always provide us with the life lessons than could be gleaned from each situation. I was fascinated by the prospect of being able to help others, especially the individuals who were a part of my tribe.
My life on the reservation was difficult. My parents divorced when I was young. I endured many challenges, including poverty, physical abuse, alcoholism within my family, and suicides and homicides. Many individuals would have let these obstacles keep them from their dreams, but they only made me a stronger person.

Q: The Yazzie family has strong ties with the Air Force Academy. You and two of your siblings, Lamoni and Desbah, graduated from the academy. Your niece will swim for the Air Force next fall. How did your Air Force Academy education build the foundation for your military and civilian careers?

A: At a young age, I realized that, in order to help others in the future, I had to help myself and gain a solid education. In order to make my dream a reality, I involved myself in sports, especially basketball. Through my participation in sport, I received the opportunity to attend the Air Force Academy.

At the time, I had never even heard of the U.S. Air Force Academy. I played basketball for four years and was one of only a handful of Native Americans to graduate. The academy was difficult, but I persevered because I could see my goals were within reach.

Q: After completing your degree at the Air Force Academy, your career path included stints in several highly visible civilian and military positions. How did those roles add to your preparation toward ultimately becoming director?

A: After graduating, I served in the Active-Duty Air Force and worked for Fortune 500 companies Procter & Gamble and Wells Fargo. I became a fully qualified cyber effects officer, held two command positions, and supported two deployments during operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.

Throughout my career, I continued to give presentations to youth on the issues of abuse, peer pressure and self-esteem. As an American Indian, I know what it is like to be different. However, I have never let that hold me back or discourage me in any way. Basketball, the Air Force Academy, and my positive outlook have always provided me a way to bridge differences and relate to people of all races and backgrounds. My warrior ethos and pursuit of excellence has earned me the respect and friendship of many, both in the military as well as the civilian sector.

Q: What would you like to see the Office of DEI accomplish during your tenure, and do you have some future personal goals you would like to achieve?

A: Within the office, of course we want to see our metrics and strategies move in a positive direction. Our office already has several markers that are already improving. We have other numbers that are poor. By the end of my tenure, a priority is to report and submit everything required of my staff and, subsequently, have closed out every finding and deficiency.
By the end of my time, our numbers in demographics will improve. We’ll have more female and minority general officers. We’ll have employment barriers identified and removed.

My ultimate goal is to be a success story — one that tells of overcoming adversity to realize a childhood dream of becoming a flag officer. I want to be a positive role model for youth on the reservation and show them any dream they have is within reach. My desire is to give back to my community and the armed forces and instill values of service, education and success despite the initial long odds.