Denisa Livingston named to class of Ashoka Fellows

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FARMINGTON — A Fruitland resident has been selected for an international program dedicated to helping individuals develop skills to continue addressing social issues in their communities.

Denisa Livingston was one of 14 social entrepreneurs from the United States and Canada named to the 2017 class of Ashoka Fellows.

Ashoka is a nonprofit organization that started in 1980 and it is dedicated to fostering and mentoring individuals who are working toward change in communities.

For Livingston, promoting change started with her role as community health advocate for the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance, through which she has been working toward healthy food accessibility and policies on the Navajo Nation.

Her work with the advocacy alliance lead to tribal leaders supporting two bills in 2014 that address food purchased from retail locations on the reservation.

The first imposed a 2-percent tax on foods that have minimal to no nutritional value, and the second eliminated the 5 percent sales tax on healthy foods.

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Revenue collected from the 2-percent tax will fund fitness and health initiatives in the tribe's 110 chapters.

As of June 2017, the tax has generated approximately $3.2 million, according to the Office of the Navajo Tax Commission.

"I was very surprised," Livingston said about her selection during a telephone interview on Jan. 17.

Ashoka evaluates more than 500 nominations each year and conducts in-person interviews across North America before selecting the final list of fellows, a press release from the organization states.

Livingston was nominated by 2014 Ashoka fellow Nick Tilsen, founder of Thunder Valley Community Development Corp. in Porcupine, S.D.

Tilsen and Livingston are also part of "Reclaiming Native Truth," a project working to dispel myths and misconceptions about Native Americans.

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Simon Stumpf is director of venture and fellowship for Ashoka in the United States. Stumpf wrote in an email the organization was impressed by Livingston's drive to shift the blame for junk food consumption from individuals to the underlying systemic problems.

"Through her various efforts, Denisa is shifting the conversation from diabetes and obesity and 'bad personal choices' and getting to the root of the problem — the need to expose and address corporate greed and build towards food sovereignty," he wrote.

Livingston said she would like to utilize the guidance offered by Ashoka to further develop her work and she sees herself eventually becoming a mentor for others on the Navajo Nation.

"I feel much gratitude, but I also feel this compelling spirit that our own leaders and our communities should be creating these kinds of opportunities for us," she said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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