Looking ahead by giving back

ASU alum Mary Kim Titla empowers Native youth after groundbreaking news career

Mary Kim Titla gets an embrace at a Native ceremony


The woman who broke barriers as Arizona’s first Native American TV news reporter has recently guided the nation’s foremost Indian youth empowerment group to new students, communities and sources of income. It’s a testament to the perseverance Mary Kim Titla learned at home.

Born prematurely to a pair of young parents on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in central Arizona, Titla said she was nearly given up for adoption. Her father, however, couldn’t go through with it. He “put his hand in the incubator, and I grabbed his pinkie,” said Titla, now 55. “He felt like that was a sign and that he and my mother needed to do something to reverse the adoption.”

Titla said that her parents refused to give in to difficult circumstances. Instead, she said, they went on to get married, raise four other children and earn degrees.

“It’s never too late to go to college,” she said. “It’s never too late to accomplish your dreams.”

Titla’s career has spanned broadcast journalism, a run for Congress, a stint as a kindergarten teacher and now a three-year stretch as executive director of United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), the largest and oldest such organization in the U.S. She said all of her experiences have helped her excel in this latest role, which focuses on doing what she has always wanted — giving back to her community.

“There’s a saying in Indian Country, ‘The honor of one is the honor of all,’’’ Titla said. “So when a Native person is honored, it brings honor to us all. We help young people pursue their dreams, and there is no greater honor than that.”

Breaking into news

Her career began three decades ago at KTVK, 3TV in Phoenix. She recalled walking into her boss’s office and telling him, “I’m going to be a very good newsroom receptionist, but that’s not the reason why I’m here. I’m here to work my way up, and I just want you to know that.”

But to move into a newsroom job, she needed to pass a writing test. Despite holding a master’s degree in mass communications from Arizona State, she failed the station’s exam three times. Titla said she had experience writing for newspapers, but she wasn’t familiar with broadcast style. She didn’t give up, however. She went back to ASU for a TV news writing course, then promptly passed the test to become a production assistant.

“I was so excited when the news anchor read a 30-second voiceover for the first time on the air,” Titla said. “I said to myself, ‘I wrote that story!”

A short time later, Titla moved to Tucson for a job with KVOA-TV where as a general-assignment reporter in 1987 she became the first Native broadcast journalist in the state, a distinction honored by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication when she was inducted into its hall of fame in 2006. Titla said her family and friends back in San Carlos gathered to watch her on air “like it was the Super Bowl.”

Mary Kim Titla speaks with students at a UNITY conference

Mary Kim Titla, executive director of UNITY — which focuses on developing Native American youth leaders — speaks with students about the projects they have done in their home schools during the UNITY midyear conference on Feb. 13. Titla has led the group for three years. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Titla said she faced challenges as a Native journalist in the mainstream TV news industry, but her background played to her favor when Pope John Paul II visited with about 16,000 Native American Catholics in 1987 in Phoenix because it allowed her to cover the event with more depth and context than other reporters.

“I was utilized as an expert because I could talk about what was happening in the arena,” Titla said. “I could speak to a lot of the key players.”

'A voice for the Native people'

She stayed in TV news until 2005, when she left citing fatigue and apathy. She was looking for a new way to make a difference and decided to campaign for a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives. She said she was only the fourth Native person to run for an Arizona congressional seat.

“I wanted to be a voice for the Native people and speak to our issues,” she said. “I had lived their struggles and knew their poverty and felt I could make a difference.”

The district sprawled across seven reservations and stretched into northern and eastern Phoenix. Among her campaign strategies was going door-to-door to rally support.

“I remember going to homes in the middle of the summer and there was no electricity or air-conditioning,” she said. “These people were struggling to survive.”

She said their immediate needs proved too great a barrier to overcome.

“They asked me, ‘How is my voting for you going to help me today? Can you help me put food on the table today? Can you help me get my cooler back on so my kids can be safe?’ Those were tough questions, and I could only answer, ‘I may not be able to help you today, but I can help you down the road,’” adding later, “It was tough to get anyone to vote when they already had so much to deal with at home.”

Titla lost the 2008 race to Ann Kirkpatrick, but took the setback as an opportunity to start over again. She went back home to San Carlos to teach kindergarten. 

“Being a kindergarten teacher is 10 times as challenging as running for Congress, and running for Congress is intense,” Titla said, laughing. “Being in a room with 25 kindergartners and no experience … wow! That was a humbling experience.”

It was also enlightening.  She said she learned that one of the biggest challenges to education on Indian reservations “is that most of the schools do not have administrators who are Native American, and most of the educators are not Native American.”

She said it’s “hard to teach our children with culturally appropriate curriculum when a lot of the teachers couldn’t relate to the material or to the students they’re teaching. We are rapidly moving through the 21st century, and many of our children do not know or comprehend what it means to be American Indian in this modern age and what it will take to save our language and cultural way of life.”

“There’s a saying in Indian Country, ‘The honor of one is the honor of all.’ ... We help young people pursue their dreams, and there is no greater honor than that.”
— Mary Kim Titla, ASU alumna and UNITY executive director

She moved into an administrative role within the San Carlos school district and assisted with communications and lobbying. Titla “could turn a negative situation into a positive outcome in a matter of minutes,” said Mary Kay Stevens, who worked with Titla in San Carlos.

The district’s superintendent, Richard Wilde, suggested that Titla participate in a principal training program. To meet the requirements, she returned to ASU for a second master’s, this one in education administration and supervision. It wasn’t easy, she said, but her persistence got her through. 

“It was probably the most stressful year of my life, and my body was responding. I broke out in hives and was hospitalized a few times,” Titla said. “It was also the most exhilarating and rewarding time in my life because I truly understood the educational system and the challenges everyone faces on an Indian reservation.”

A new challenge

By 2013, she was ready for the challenge that would mark her greatest success in advocating for Native youth. She became UNITY’s second executive director, stepping into the top position of a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating young leaders through focusing on the social, spiritual, physical and mental development.

It’s another return home. Back in 1978, Titla said, “I begged my parents to take me to Oklahoma City” for a UNITY conference. “My parents saw a spark in me, and they wanted to fan the spark, so they drove me and two of my younger siblings all the way to Oklahoma from San Carlos. Nearly 40 years later, here I am as executive director. Who would’ve thought?”

Under Titla, the group’s number of youth councils has expanded from 135 to 160, and its national conference attendance has increased from 1,200 to about 1,800 young people. She also has helped raise money, more than doubling new revenue over the past three years, averaging about $250,000 each year in new money.

She also created the “25 Under 25 Youth Leadership Awards” program to recognize young people dedicated to serving their communities, and this year she launched an alumni association for UNITY to create stronger ties to its past.

The group will hold its 40th anniversary national conference next month in Oklahoma City. The organization expects record attendance. 

“Mary Kim literally rebuilt the legacy of the program from the ground up,” said Nataanni Hatathlie, a Stanford University junior who has held a leadership position in the organization. He called Titla “a dedicated leader, very strong-willed and tenacious in the most passionate way.”

Titla’s alma mater has noticed her accomplishments. Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, President’s Professor, director of the Center of Indian Education and ASU’s special adviser to the president on American Indian affairs, said he envisions a long-term relationship with UNITY and Titla because it’s aligned with ASU’s overall mission.

“We believe in youth leadership, in assisting young people in creating their own futures, in organizing big ideas led by youth,” Brayboy said. “In short, it is easy for us to get behind a program and project like UNITY that is future-focused.”


Top photo: Mary Kim Titla holds her grandson Matthew Howell tightly after a community member's coming-of-age ceremony on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in April. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now