When Adrian Lerma’s grandmother passed away in 2011, she reflected on her life and legacy as she grieved. Lerma, senior director of development for tribal nations at the ASU Foundation, was suddenly struck with a sense of responsibility. Who would guide and shape her to become the leader her community needed?
Lerma, born and raised in the Navajo Nation, knew she wanted to positively influence and impact Indigenous women the way her grandmother had. An undergraduate at Northern Arizona University studying women and gender studies, she applied for an internship with the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals in renewable energy solutions.
She interviewed for the role with Beth Osnes, a theater and environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado. During the interview, Lerma and Osnes formed an instant connection and began brainstorming projects and solutions that would serve the Navajo Nation. Lerma got the internship, and together with Osnes, co-founded the Navajo Women's Energy Project in 2012, incorporating interactive aspects of theater, improv and poetry to envision a clean energy future. The project brought together women of all backgrounds from ages 5 to 90.
Lerma's path and passion led her to work with Eagle Energy, which provides small-scale solar technology to off-grid communities in the Navajo Nation.
Later, she co-founded the Native American Business Incubator Network, which focuses on diversifying local economies and reducing dependence on resource extraction.
In 2019, she took on a role with Diné College and continued her community development and empowerment journey.
Throughout her career, she has combined her deep roots within her community with a passion for education, environmental sustainability and economic development.
ASU News spoke with Lerma during Native American Heritage Month to learn more about her commitment to shaping the future of Indigenous excellence.
Editor's note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: You said your initial goal when you began college was empowering Indigenous women. What sparked that goal?
Answer: I am Diné, born and raised on the Navajo Nation in the small community of Tuba City, Arizona. My clans are Naakai Dine’é — Naash't'éezhí Tábaahá — Tł'izhíłání — Táchiinii. This identity is my guide in everything I do. The tribe I’m from is matrilineal, meaning that women carry the bloodline. This uniquely positions women as pillars of their clan, their home and their community. When I was an undergrad, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I understood that I had a responsibility as a young lady to do something meaningful.
A professor of mine, Tom Holm, once said, “Every breath you take is a political statement!” He expressed that the system is not set up for Native American people to thrive, so we have a responsibility to use our breath and the life we’ve been given to change the system so it benefits us. I remember feeling the enormity of the responsibility he was setting on our shoulders to think, strategize and act intentionally. But his words inspired me. So I set a simple goal: Do work that was going to empower Indigenous women. And that is what led me to do the work I’ve done over the past 11 years. And it’s expanded beyond just women to include all Indigenous people from all nations.
Q: What brought you to the ASU Foundation?
A: This role at the ASU Foundation is new. Nobody has ever been seated in this position before. I was attracted to it because it was an opportunity to advocate for and bring much-needed support to Native American-serving and Native American-led initiatives.
Arizona State University has a long history of collaborations with Native American people. For example, the Center of Indian Education is celebrating their 65th anniversary in 2024. The Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law has been generating scholarship in the area of Indian law and has undertaken public service to tribal governments since 1988. They are celebrating their 35th anniversary this month.
There are other initiatives that I am aware of that are making a great impact in Native communities, such as American Indian Policy Institute’s Indigenous Leadership Academy and the Labriola National American Indian Data Center. These are just a handful of incredible programs that ASU has committed to. I made the choice to join the ASU Foundation because I want to see these programs flourish. I believe in their collective mission to strengthen Indigenous communities through higher education and research.
Q: What have you been up to in this role?
A: When I joined, I was tasked with four goals:
- Develop a comprehensive strategy to increase engagement with tribal communities nationwide.
- Build a case for support to identify funding priorities.
- Identify and engage with tribes that have a history of philanthropic giving.
- Build out a portfolio.
I began by evaluating the value systems of tribes. If you're looking at wealth through an Indigenous lens, the value system is distinct. It comes down to the health of the people, the family, the community and the nation. The gauge of wealth is not how much you can acquire, but how much you can distribute back to your people. By linking philanthropy back to the cultural ideology of generosity and resource distribution, it can then be discussed not only as a privilege but also as a responsibility.
Being cognizant that Indigenous value systems are historic and sacred in nature while acknowledging that philanthropy is not anything new to tribal nations is the approach I am encouraging at the foundation. Over the summer and into the autumn season, I’ve engaged in hundreds of conversations about this with my colleagues. And I’ve worked with various teams to craft messaging for Native American Heritage Month that will help guide internal and external communication about how tribal nations are contributing to the strength of ASU.
To meet the goals that have been set out for me, I plan to expand the visibility of Indigenous excellence at ASU; increase program stability by securing multiyear programmatic and operational funding for Native American serving programs and initiatives; and build out a support network that will strengthen relationships and expand partnerships with Native American tribes, leaders and enterprises. It’s a big task, but it’s a task that I’m excited to take on. I am assured knowing that I am not alone because I have the support of the foundation behind me, as well as the backing of the Native American staff and faculty on the university side who’ve been amazing to work with over the past few months.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share?
A: If anything I said resonates with the readers of this interview, I’d like to encourage them to reach out to me. I am here at the Tempe main campus. I am motivated to make a meaningful impact here at Arizona State University and I am committed to bringing in philanthropic support for the Native community here at the university. There are many ways to give, to donate, to collaborate, to partner. So let’s talk over coffee about how we can fund the important work being done at ASU!
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