Olympian Billy Mills Nurtures the Dreams of Indigenous Youth
‘Billy was a kid with a dream,' said Sydney Mills Farhang, Mills’ granddaughter and executive director of Running Strong. 'It's truly an honor to be able to make the dreams of other Native youth come true, in honor of my grandfather.’
Nearly six decades ago, Billy Mills achieved his dream, becoming the only American to win an Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 meter race. In April, the Oglala Lakota citizen passed the baton to 10 Indigenous youth – the latest of 80 he’s given funding and mentorship through his Dreamstarter Academy.
Mills’ foundation, Running Strong for American Indian Youth, launched the Dreamstarter Academy Grant program in 2015 with a mission to help young Indigenous people achieve their dreams and give back to their communities. Each year, Running Strong awards Dreamstarter grants to 10 Native youth and the nonprofit organization of their choice, to bring to life a dream they have for their community. The program also pairs awardees with a mentor.
In total, Running Strong has awarded over $1.5 million to 80 youth-led projects.
Over the next year, each awardee plans to complete a project focused on environmental justice. Project goals include opening community gardens, launching media trainings aimed at helping Indigenous youth tell their own stories and inventing and building a truly sustainable energy system.
“It's incredible to see so many youth coming together from all corners of the world, united under one passion – to improve and protect the environment,” said Sydney Mills Farhang, executive director of Running Strong and Mills’ granddaughter.
Mills Farhang, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, says investing in the dreams of Indigenous youth creates a ripple effect that benefits everyone, especially when it comes to environmental justice.
“Indigenous people have the answers to a lot of the crises in the environment that have been caused by globalization and colonization,” Mills Farhang said. “I want to see people looking to our Dreamstarters, their elders and their communities to see how we solve these really big and bad things going on in the world. Native people know how to do it. We've been doing it.”
In April, nine of the 10 Indigenous youth leaders in this year’s Dreamstarter Academy traveled to Alexandria, Virginia. The five-day academy provides training and social opportunities designed to help awardees navigate their grant year.
Mills was there to honor and award $20,000 to each of them. Here’s a visual snapshot of that week, and the Dreamstarters who were there.
All photos by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News & Report for America.
Lead photo: Dreamstarters pose for a group photo after they each had their individual photoshoot with their mentor and Billy Mills.
Jarrette is a multimedia journalist with experience in digital news, audio reporting and photojournalism. He joined Underscore in June 2022 as a staff reporter and photographer, in partnership with the national Report for America program. Originally from Montana, Jarrette is a proud member of the Aaniiih and Nakoda Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Prior to joining Underscore, he served as an associate producer for Nevada Public Radio’s (KNPR) “Native Nevada Podcast,” an eight-part podcast series highlighting the culture, issues and perseverance of the 27 tribal nations in present-day Nevada. He has been a member of the Native American Journalists Association since 2017 and has participated as a Native American Journalist Fellow four times, including once as a mentor-in-training. He has earned a national Hearst Journalism Award and regional Edward R. Murrow Award for his reporting.