The SIP: Episode 4 Transcript

Justin J. Pearson (2013), Isabella Madrigal (2020), and Jolene Loetscher (1997)

Learn more about The SIP and its fourth episode, Reclaiming the Indigenous Narrative with Playwright and Actress Isabella Madrigal (2020), here.

[Intro music plays]

Justin J. Pearson:

Welcome back to The SIP, the podcast that shares a taste of the Coke Scholars around the world who are igniting positive change. My name is Justin J. Pearson, and I am a proud 2013 Coca-Cola Scholar originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and now living and working in Boston, focused on social and economic justice.

For those who are listening and may not be a Coca-Cola Scholar, welcome. We’re glad you’re here. To give you a little background, the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation is the largest achievement-based and corporate sponsors scholarship program in the country. Each year, it awards $20,000 to 150 high school seniors across the country who share a unique passion for service and leadership. It’s a competitive program to get into, but once you’re a Coke Scholar, the benefits go far beyond the money for college. You become part of this bigger family for life. If you want to learn more, you can visit their website, coca-colascholarsfoundation.org.

In our fourth episode, 1997 scholar, Jolene Loetscher, will be talking with Isabella Madrigal, a brand-new Coke Scholar from the Class of 2020. I have the pleasure of knowing Jolene as a personal friend through the Coke Scholars network, and she’s truly incredible. She’s an entrepreneur, advocate, community builder and social change maker. As one of the Midwest’s leading voices for protecting children and advocating for survivors of child abuse and sexual assault, Jolene Loetscher has put purpose to the pain of her childhood.

Jolene started her career as an award-winning television reporter, but in sharing her own story, she learned the power of public policy to change lives. She’s worked to repeal the statute of limitations on rape in South Dakota, and is the namesake for Jolene’s Law, which has created the Center for the Prevention of Child Maltreatment, and guides South Dakota’s plan to end child abuse by 2026.

As an entrepreneur, Jolene is the CEO of the most honored same day documentary and advertising agency, Mud Mile Communications and its newest division, Adrenaline Sports Marketing. Jolene graduated top of her class from Northwestern University and received her MBA in global executive leadership from the University of Nebraska. She’s also South Dakota’s first Presidential Leadership Scholar. She lives in Sioux falls with her amazing husband, Nate Burdine, their beautiful daughter, Liberty and pug, Mayhem Awesome.

Now, let’s learn a little bit about Isabella. Isabella Madrigal is an enrolled member of the Cahuilla Band of Indians and is of Chippewa descent. An avid writer and storyteller, her play and production of Menil and Her Heart earned Isabella her National Girl Scout Gold Award. The cast of the play consists of community members giving voice to the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. She is the co-founder of the Native Storytelling Project, which seeks to reclaim the narrative surrounding the indigenous experience.

Isabella spoke at the United Nations Girls Speak Out event to address violence against women. Isabella is a 2020 Champion for Change through the Center for Native American Youth. Her passions include medicine and change-making storytelling through writing and performance. It’s so amazing to think about the impact Isabella is already making in our world and she just graduated high school. I’m curious to hear what it’s like to graduate in the midst of a pandemic while also creating change-making stories. Here’s Jolene and Isabella.

Jolene Loetscher:

I am so excited to welcome to the podcast and of course, to the Coca-Cola family, one of our newest family members from the Class of 2020, Isabella Madrigal, who is in beautiful Southern California. Welcome, Isabella, first of all, to the Coca-Cola family, and then also to the podcast.

Isabella Madrigal:

Thank you.

Jolene Loetscher:

So you are from the class of 2020, which when we started organizing all of this, we had thought that I would get to meet you and do this interview in person at Scholars Weekend. Then, obviously, there was a global pandemic, which none of us had obviously anticipated happening. So we’re doing this virtually now. But we want to of course, have a chance to welcome you and I know the Class of 2020 did get to have a little bit of a virtual meetup. How was that for you, and coming into the Coca-Cola Scholars family experience?

Isabella Madrigal:

That was just a couple of weeks ago and that was the first time that we got to see everyone, at least see their faces, which was something that was nice even if we couldn’t be altogether in person. It was kind of an hour long, just meet up with everyone. We did some pop questions, not everyone got to be introduced, but it was nice just to see beyond Facebook what everyone was like, and more about the foundation as well.

And seeing that it’s more than just a scholarship, which was something that was really neat to me. But this network of alumni and current scholars who can help you out, and who have advice and who have obviously, gone through a lot of the same things that we’re going through right now.

Jolene Loetscher:

For some of us, it was a little bit longer ago, but yes, we’ve all gone through. Though your end of senior year, start of college may be different than anyone else’s, I think.

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes, I think so.

Jolene Loetscher:

But one of those things that is always universal to being a Coke Scholar is the moment you find out.

Isabella Madrigal:

When I found out, it was actually around the same time that some of my college decisions were coming out. And so I remember getting the email with my family. I think my mom was the first one to see it, which was so funny. She was like, “Check your email, check your email.” And I was so shocked because I had not really expected it. When you look at it and it’s something like 90,000 applicants, it just seems like winning the lottery or something. It was just almost like getting accepted into another university. It felt like that similar thing.

Jolene Loetscher:

Now, I had the chance to read through some of your essays and your background, and some of the things that you’ve done. And one of the things that I think is amazing when we talk about highly selective and very few things that people end up being able to go through and get to the end of, and that was your Girl Scout experience, and some of the things that you did that I think really speak to perseverance. So tell me about that, and what made that experience exceptional.

Isabella Madrigal:

I had an unconventional journey with that, with the Girl Scouts. I had this project that I really wanted to do, and it was something that I’d been thinking about for a long time. That was the Native Storytelling Project, which ended up taking off and being a really exciting thing. What the Girl Scouts offered is this gold award project path, and it has all these different mentors and steps, and things built in to really help you be able to achieve success and be able to see your project realized. For me, it was the perfect way I saw to get this thing started.

So for that, I ended up writing this play that had a lot to do with social justice, with my own identity as an American Indian. Putting on the play with community members was a huge part of it as well. So it ended up being performed for the first time under that gold award project to a small gathering call, and we ended up getting over a 100 audience members. And from there, the interest in the community sparked because I think there was a need and a calling for it.

I was able to take it to the Dragon Kim Foundation and they’ve been sponsoring it for this past year. We’ve been able to tour the play. With the current situation, we had to take a step back, but it’s definitely been something that has been incredible and, I think, life changing for me, and I think hopefully doing good in my own community as well.

Jolene Loetscher:

I think too, when I hear about that and your play, it’s also doing so much good in making people aware of the diversity of the American Indian experience. Were you surprised by any of the reactions that you got, or people that just weren’t aware?

Isabella Madrigal:

The issue that the play deals with is missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, and I think that’s definitely something that is hugely below the national consciousness. People don’t know that indigenous women and girls they’re going missing and being murdered at rates 10 times higher than the national average. I think it’s not that people don’t care or that a lot of people, if you bring the issue to them, they wouldn’t be outraged or upset about it, but it’s just that they don’t know.

And I think today, a modern form of bias or prejudice against American Indians is simply our invisibility, the fact that people aren’t aware that we even exist or that we’re still around. That’s why these things are allowed to continue to happen. So the play for me, and I think art is just this incredible way to bring forward these untold stories and help people become visible. So it was a two-part project.

One, healing in the community, bringing art to the community that was done by the community for people inspired by our old stories, because we do have so many stories that tell of our creation, our journey here and how we fit into the present, which is so incredible and something that I feel a great responsibility to carry forward. But it was also about reaching this larger audience. And I think that the play has been a great way to do that because it deals with these fundamental issues of loss and continuation. And that’s something that everyone, I think, can relate to on some level.

Jolene Loetscher:

What’s your writing process like? Because I think that’s so unique to every artist. Do you have a certain place that you go? What does that process look like for you?

Isabella Madrigal:

I think for me, when I sit down to write, I know exactly what I want to say. What’s also really exciting is I think as I write, I make a lot of discoveries. So as I put down one thing, I’m thinking about how it connects to this and how it’ll resolve in the end. You’ll discover things even after you finished writing. Like for this play, I had written it all, and then we actually sat down with the cast for the first table read and something that was brought up that I hadn’t even realized was that there was this duality in the message of the play.

It tells a story of a young indigenous woman who was taken, but also the story of one who must make the decision to stay. It hadn’t really been so clear to me that it was a decision for my character, [inaudible 00:11:28], to continue her life. And it deals with the other issue that we face in Indian country, especially with our youth and with our young women, which is suicide. So I think you discover things even after you write, and you can just go back and hone in on it and figure out if that’s what you’re trying to say. And it all comes together. So it’s just been really exciting to figure out what works for me as a writer.

Jolene Loetscher:

Do you personally feel that struggle of leaving and going, and where do I stay and what does home look like and how do I take it with me, as you are at this point in your life where you’re looking to go out somewhere else that’s completely different?

Isabella Madrigal:

I’ve been lucky in that my family has been an incredibly supportive force. I don’t think that this project could have happened without them. In partnering with my sister, that was something. The play is actually about two sisters. She plays the other sister, and she does a lot of acting too. And so that’s been really incredible.

So it will be different to be away, but I think this play has been a lot about grounding me in my own identity, and who I am and who I want to be. And I think shifting the national narrative and reclaiming it, I think is huge for native people right now. There’s a huge movement to do that, and I’m incredibly inspired and want to be a part of it.

Jolene Loetscher:

What do you think people get wrong the most when you talk about the narrative that is out there? What do you think is the biggest misconception, or just a flat out wrong idea that people have?

Isabella Madrigal:

I think, well, one of them at least is the fact that we don’t exist anymore. That’s a huge thing that people are completely unaware of, that I think there’s a lot of portrayal of the native American experience or the indigenous experience globally as one of a victim.

I think that obviously, historical trauma plays a huge role into our lives today, and that’s something that it’s sometimes hard for people to understand and grasp, but I think there’s a lot of resiliency in our past. And I think it’s something that I would want to share at least is that we’re still here and that we’re continuing. And that the fact that we are still here to share these stories is so important.

And I think a lot of people are willing to listen, which has been incredible. So it’s just, I think, really important to acknowledge the fact that we have so much history and so much stories, and there is so much room to move forward.

Jolene Loetscher:

You said something earlier too about who you are and who you’re going to be. So give me one sentence of who you are now, and a sentence of who you’re going to be.

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes. I think right now, obviously I’m a 17-year-old starting out artist. I’ve done a lot of work in my small community, but as I get older, as I reach out, I hope that I’m able to have a larger reach. And I hope that I’m able to be more of a writer because I think I’m just starting out in that, and there’s so much room I have for growth. So I hope that I still continue to have this artistic presence, whether that be in acting or whether that be in writing. And that I can build that network and change that narrative.

Jolene Loetscher:

One of my favorite questions to ask new scholars is, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes. I guess by then I’ll hopefully, be graduated [laughing]

Jolene Loetscher:

[laughing] You’ll be way older, yeah, yup!

Isabella Madrigal:

Wow. Oh, it seems so far away, but I’m very interested in this idea of medicine and nonconventional forms of healing. I think that art can be a healing modality just in sharing your voice and processing things. And so I’ve always been really interested in going into medicine and bringing that indigenous perspective into healing. That’s what I hope to study at school, as well as art.

And I think they’re all interconnected. I think that there’s a new emerging field, seeing how the arts and how healing and how healthcare can really inform each other. So it’s so exciting that that’s in its early stages so I can help see it grow. And hopefully, there’ll be more out there by the time I enter the job market.

Jolene Loetscher:

Do you have a person that really inspires you, or has helped guide you to really look at that being, where you will be in the future?

Isabella Madrigal:

I would definitely say my family and in particular, my father. He has just been an incredible force in this project. It definitely could not have happened without him. He was one of three young men responsible for bringing back the Cahuilla Bird songs, and there were three elders that still remembered them. They were going to die and the songs were going to die with them.

So the story goes, he got together these friends, one of them was brother, and they went over and they asked, “Will you teach us these songs? We want to learn.” And they were like, “No, we will not teach you. You’re not ready.” Which I think is always so funny, and I think very typical when you try to go seek out the ancient knowledge. You have to do it in the right way.

So eventually they, they did. They did end up teaching him the songs, and he took that on. Now, you can search on YouTube and see them, and hundreds of young men can sing them at all sorts of gatherings. And so that’s incredibly inspiring and why I saw there was maybe an importance to share the stories. The play is inspired by about three traditional stories, pre-colonial stories, so it brings that authentic perspective in. So I get a lot of my inspiration from him and all the work he’s done in the community.

Jolene Loetscher:

You started dancing too, right? Doing some dance, involved in some of this when you were really, really little?

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes, that was how I started. I did a lot of ballet, I guess, was the major area that I did. Then it got to the point where I had to be on point and I thought maybe I’d rather do theater. And so I actually go to a performing arts high school –

Jolene Loetscher:

[laughing] Your toes said no?

Isabella Madrigal:

Yeah! [laughing] So yeah, something like four times a week, and I was like, okay, that’s a commitment.

Jolene Loetscher:

Explain to me, what is the bird dance?

Isabella Madrigal:

How it goes is the men sing the songs, and so they have these gourd rattles that are accompanying that. Originally, I think there were songs that could be sung from sunrise to sunset, over three days. And obviously, a lot of that has been lost, but I have many of them.

The women dance, and it’s a very, very simple dance. I guess, the best way to describe it is like a little bit of bobbing and jumping, but in place. It’s very beautiful. Depending on what tribe you are, you have different hand motions. It’s just part of the song, but there’s a lot of freedom in it too, which is nice.

Jolene Loetscher:

What do you feel when you’re out there? And probably even more so when you’re so young, what is that feeling like to be bringing in culture and history and your family to life?

Isabella Madrigal:

At first, it was really overwhelming. I was 16, I think, when I wrote the play, and it was the first thing I’d ever really done on my own in terms of spearheading a huge project like that. So it was really crazy how it all came together because all the cast was nonprofessional actors. They’re community members, most of whom had never done a play or been on stage. And so for –

Jolene Loetscher:

So, you kind of had to show them “stage left” and “stage right?”

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes, because it was a workshop process to get them comfortable with what performing is, and then directing it, and also being a part of it.

But those were things that I’d never done before. So it was really intimidating in many ways. We were only going to do it once, and it was going to be small scale in this small gathering hall that we converted into a theater space. But then with the reaction we got, which was that this calling and this desire for more, then it ended up having a whole other life. That was pretty incredible. And I think as we’ve done it more times, obviously it gets easier every time, and you get to live in that character or the play. It makes it a lot easier.

Jolene Loetscher:

What piece of art has personally inspired you the most? You’re creating, but what’s someone else’s creation that’s really influenced you?

Isabella Madrigal:

I love storytelling and in all forms, whether that be film or theater. I’ve seen some incredible pieces just this year, which is so exciting to me because I think that there is maybe a changing landscape. I was in New York over the summer and I got to see this play that was recommended to me, the way she spoke, which also deals with missing and murdered indigenous women in Mexico, which is a huge problem there. So it was a one woman show and it was just so incredibly inspiring and totally using art to change the audience and to take a stand, which was really interesting to me because not everything does that.

Jolene Loetscher:

As you have evolved as an artist, what’s been the biggest challenge or hurdle that you’ve faced in pushing your boundaries?

Isabella Madrigal:

Beyond just the fact that directing is in itself an art, I really had no idea, no plan about how to make this happen. I think I’m just so in awe by the fact that the community came together like this and decided to support me. Because I was at first unsure, I think, there’s always this question of … especially when you’re trying to maintain the authenticity of something that is old and so rooted in tradition. And then something that’s new, this place, my interpretation of these stories.

It’s part of a different telling, and so that was something that I was really hesitant about, and wondering if it would be well received. Because if it’s not well received in the community, then it wouldn’t have had a life beyond that. And so that was something I struggled with, definitely at the beginning. But then as we continued to do it, I see it taking off and that’s been so important to me to make sure that it was done in the right way, and that we had the right support that we needed.

Jolene Loetscher:

You are graduating at a time that is literally unlike any other. And I think for older scholars, probably even for some that are just a year older than you, it’s an interesting time for them to look back and go, “Well, I remember what my senior experience was in high school.” But this is going to completely different. Do you have any sense of loss or frustration that you don’t have that traditional end of senior year?

Isabella Madrigal:

Definitely. Someone just told me yesterday that it takes 28 days to break a habit, and so it’s getting a little bit easier as we move forward. But it was definitely just such a shock because we left school on Friday and expected to come back on Monday. And then we didn’t. There’s just so many things you missed out on.

And for me, the school I go to, it’s very artistic and it has a conservatory program built in. And so a tight community built in. So it’s definitely a disappointment not to be able to have hopefully, traditional graduation or all these milestones that you look to. And so that’s too bad. And then looking forward, maybe we won’t have that fall freshman year, so that’s another thing. But obviously, just taking it one day at a time and hoping that things clear up soon.

Jolene Loetscher:

How do you see this influencing your generation as you move, obviously into college, but then into your careers and furthering your influence?

Isabella Madrigal:

I think something, at least for me, has been that it’s just so unexpected. It’s something that is not even on the radar of possibility, and suddenly, it’s your new reality. So I think understanding that everything is so impermanent and there really are no guarantees. And so maybe you have some regrets and things that you wish you had done differently, maybe just finishing off your high school year. So I think that people are more aware of that.

And also, I’ve seen a lot of communities coming together during this time, whether that being sewing masks or just giving food or donating things, and realizing that your world can be so much different than someone else’. And you really have no idea what other people are going through our processing. So I think that at times like these, sometimes you can see the best of humanity at the same time that you can see the worst.

So I think that’s truly inspiring, that I see so many people trying to help others and trying to bring things to their own communities. And so I hope that people will remember that, what they’re feeling now in terms of wanting to help. People have so much more time to reevaluate what they want to do and who they want to be.

And I think it’s such a time that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Especially being a senior, thinking about what I want to do for the next four years and what’s going to be best for me. So I guess this time, in that way, can be a nice pause to be with family, to just be at home too.

Jolene Loetscher:

What struck you the most about you in that pause, in that silence that you’ve been given?

Isabella Madrigal:

I guess for me, it’s discovering that I really want to write. I think that any way I’m going to be able to create any change, it’s going to be, I think, through writing my own narratives. Because a lot of the things that I’ve done in acting, it’s been sharing other people’s stories. And there’s just not a lot of roles out there for indigenous people, especially non-indigenous women. I can’t think really of hardly anything that has that perspective at the forefront. I think that it’s definitely a valid one, and I think one that people would be interested to see it. And there’s many universal things that go across all backgrounds. So for me, that’s what it’s been.

Jolene Loetscher:

How do you get those stories and your stories out, literally? Are you a pen and paper person? Are you a typing person? I think that’s always interesting to see how an artist translates thoughts to paper.

Isabella Madrigal:

For me, I do do a lot of computer, and I think that’s just generational. Everything for school now is sitting online. It’s hard to remember the last time I wrote anything down on paper, but I really like to, before I sit down and write, just read something that I find really resounds with me, or something that I can really connect with, whether that be a poem or an excerpt from some sort of book or a chapter. To hear that voice really helps me … it just makes it easier to flow. So I think hearing other people’s words always is super helpful to me as well.

Jolene Loetscher:

All right. Are you ready for this?

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes.

Jolene Loetscher:

Pop quiz. As we wrap up, we have something that we’re asking everyone that joins us on the podcast, and that is the fast five. Are you ready?

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes.

Jolene Loetscher:

Two apps or websites you can’t live without.

Isabella Madrigal:

I think that would have to be Instagram and probably Spotify for music.

Jolene Loetscher:

I love me some Instagram. All right. Have people followed you on Instagram?

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes.

Jolene Loetscher:

Cool. What’s your handle?

Isabella Madrigal:

It’s just my name, @Isabella.Madrigall with two L’s at the end.

Jolene Loetscher:

If I looked at the music on your iPhone right now, what would surprise me the most?

Isabella Madrigal:

I think what would be pretty surprising is that I love a lot of the classics. I love ’60s and ’70s rock, which is always so funny to people. I do definitely have a playlist dedicated to that genre.

Jolene Loetscher:

Next question. Favorite book or piece of music or art that has really inspired your life?

Isabella Madrigal:

I think that would have to be the book, Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko, and I read that before I wrote the play. It’s so lyrical and poetic, and it’s beautiful just the way she writes, but she parallels this story with poems, telling these old traditional stories, which was a huge influence for me in inspiring the play as well. But that book is amazing.

Jolene Loetscher:

Quote or motto you live your life by.

Isabella Madrigal:

I think that would also be a quote by her, and that’s, “You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories,” she says. And, “You don’t heal by forgetting, we heal by remembering.” And I think that’s so true.

Jolene Loetscher:

I love that because it’s-

Isabella Madrigal:

It’s beautiful, yeah.

Jolene Loetscher:

It’s so beautiful. And I think it’s true to the human experience, counter to what we think we want to do, right?

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes. Right, right.

Jolene Loetscher:

But how much healing comes through that? Now, I know that you are a new Coke Scholar. Your first experience with your class was a virtual one, but what do you think makes the Coke Scholars network unique? And I’ll modify it a little bit for you, or what are you most excited about now that you are a Coke Scholar?

Isabella Madrigal:

I guess when I applied for it, I didn’t realize that it was this whole network of people, or that there were so many past scholars, and so there are so many resources and just really incredible opportunities. It’s not just the $20,000 scholarship, which is what I went in thinking that it was, but it’s much more than that.

Just even though I haven’t met anyone in person, I’ve gotten emails and been able to connect to people on Facebook, which is a whole new thing for me because I don’t really use Facebook. So I’ve had to create one and then figure out how to use that. But this opportunity is something that’s so unique to this network and to this group of people.

Jolene Loetscher:

I’m going to ask you one more. I know we said fast five, but I’m going to make yours the quick six. We’ll switch it up here because I know you’ve obviously done a lot of theater and I think you’ve done quite a bit of Shakespeare.

Isabella Madrigal:

Yes.

Jolene Loetscher:

So, your favorite line from any Shakespeare play.

Isabella Madrigal:

I guess I’ll just go with the Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” I wish I was taller, so maybe that’s … I’m not incredibly sure, but I think that’s just a great line.

Jolene Loetscher:

Right. Well, I’m not even five feet tall so that is –

Isabella Madrigal:

So perfect!

Jolene Loetscher:

Yes, it’s always been one of my favorites. It was perfect. I love it. Isabella, thank you for joining us. Welcome to the Coke Scholars family. We are so excited to have you. And the other 149 scholars that I know have not had your Scholars Weekend, but it will be coming. We’ll all get to meet you and hear about all the amazing and wonderful journeys that you have ahead of you, and all the things you’re going to do to change the world.

Transitional music plays

Justin J. Pearson:

We hope you enjoyed the fourth episode of The SIP, featuring Jolene and Isabella. To learn more about the Native Storytelling Project and other things they discussed, check out our show notes or coca-colascholarsfoundation.org. Check back in a couple of weeks when 1997 scholar, Daron Roberts talks to a 2013 Scholar, Madi Pfaff who created her own company, With Madi Co, to empower people to grow more, do more and become more. We’ll see you next time on The SIP.