WHITERIVER – Derrick W. Leslie, only 33 years old, knows about work-life balance.
“Life is a delicate balance,” says Leslie. “We maintain it as best as we can. Sometimes one side is heavier than the other, especially now with the world we are living in. Still there are some bright spots.”
In his work life, Leslie is the coordinator for the White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT) Office of Higher Education and the policy coordinator for the Emergency Operation Center (EOC).
His work responsibilities have far reaching effects and are part of his overall web. Each thing he does gives him further reach to expand his web from the Tribe outward and back again.
He is on many committees and boards such as Summit Healthcare Regional Medical Center’s Institutional Review Board; State Indian Education Advisory Board; Northland Pioneer College District Governing Board; First Things First WMAT Regional Partnership Council; Fort Apache Heritage Foundation; and Bureau of Indian Affairs Budget Council.
Outside of work, he finds balance in his life with several things that bring him joy. He loves watching anything Harry Potter. He and three of his friends are Harry Potter fans, known as Potterheads. They give each other Harry Potter gifts, dress up like Potter characters for Halloween and even celebrate Harry Potter’s birthday. He has read the J. K. Rowling novels thousands of times and says every time he reads one, “it is like reading it for the first time again.” He also loves watching Asian dramas, and though he doesn’t understand a word of what they are saying, he reads their body language. He also loves to travel — even if it is just a drive to Tucson or Flagstaff. And, these days, due to COVID-19, he enjoys walking.
Leslie was born and raised in Whiteriver. He and his sister grew up in a single parent home. He had younger brothers down the road. He went to Head Start and then to Seven Mile Elementary and Whiteriver Middle School. He attended an Indian boarding school in Salem, Oregon and upon graduation got his associate’s degree at Chemeketa Community College. He came back home to Whiteriver and completed his Bachelor of Science degree in psychology at Grand Canyon University. He went on to earn a graduate certificate in public health from John Hopkins University.
When he was young he wanted to be a lawyer or psychiatrist. But, by the time he got into high school his interest changed to psychology. He had a relative that worked as a social worker for the Tribe and his goal was to become one also and obtain an LMSW — Licensed Master’s in Social Work.
He said his mother was, and still is, quite the character.
“She was 18 when she had me — a high school drop out, and always told us education is important. Just watching her and seeing her work through some challenging situations motivated me and still motivates me today,” said Leslie.
Last March Leslie was in Washington, D.C. at a BIA budget meeting when he received instructions that Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood had rescinded travel orders for anyone away from home to return to the reservation. He cut his trip short and, having read about “the mysterious illness” that was going around, he came home and self quarantined. That was before an Emergency Declaration for the Tribe was issued. So, he was the first mandated quarantined person on the reservation — before it was actually mandated.
“I love my family and community and so I knew I needed to quarantine for 14 days,” said Leslie. “I did not want to bring anything home to my people.”
The day he was off quarantine he received a call from the health director who had recognized his involvement with policy, and asked for his help. He had been involved in the Tribe’s budget policy and had even done their social media policy. It was an area of work that he loves.
“I like to be a part of solutions for my people,” said Leslie. “Policy, if done right, protects the organization and employees or participants. It’s what makes the world go round.”
The Tribe’s EOC was established on March 12, 2020 after the Tribe declared a state of emergency, and the job that Leslie thought he would be helping with for about two months has turned into 18 months and it appears it will be longer.
Leslie sees his web of connectivity continuing to grow.
“On the reservation we are all connected,” said Leslie. “We are connected in multiple ways and points of contact regardless of where we are.”
He knows that what happens in Cibecue and McNary affects all the other areas of the reservation and vice versa.
He was brought up in the Lutheran church and today is learning more about his Apache culture and identity. He says there is a constant in all of it.
“There are universal truths in all regions and spirituality,” says Leslie. “Some of the hardest times of my life I have relied on prayers. Different people were praying for me from all over the world, and there were Apache prayers on my behalf. We are so focused on the divide on anything that we forget to see the good and the positive.”
Leslie sees himself as a citizen of his Tribe and wants what best for the over all good of everyone. His goal is to be as positive and optimistic as he can.
“Life is busy. The storms will come, but dance in the rain. At the end of the day, we all want the good life for ourselves and I see more and more that we want it together,” said Leslie.
His motto, “Destruction blossoms creation.” Not a surprise from a Potterhead or a policy maker.
Author Mitch Albom said, “... there are no random acts, that we are all connected. That you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind.” That being the case, here in the White Mountains there are people you need to meet and places you need to know about it. And, on the last Friday of each month, I will connect you with some of those as I go ‘Round the Mountain.