Vanguard University student body president Matthew J. Holgate is a visionary leader. While many students are just trying to navigate their way through classes, Holgate is taking a lead in fighting against human trafficking in Navajo Nation, working to make lasting change.

While a senior in high school, Holgate attended a Native American youth leadership conference workshop about human trafficking among Native American tribes. Holgate, a Navajo from Flagstaff, Arizona, sat stunned as he listened to the lecturer talk about cases such as grandparents who exploited their granddaughter for water and firewood.

Hearing the stories and learning the fate of this innocent girl and others of his people tugged at Holgate’s heart. He comes from a culture of community care, having grown up the son of Native American Assemblies of God pastors Jackie and Lenora Holgate, who lead Mountaintop Church in Flagstaff and are involved in compassion relief efforts with Native Americans. But this exposure to the depravity of trafficking affected Holgate more deeply than anything else, and he knew he had to do something with the knowledge he received.

As a freshman at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, California, Holgate signed up for a women and justice course.

“He had such a kind and tender approach to those who are marginalized,” says Sandra Morgan, director of the school-affiliated Global Center for Women and Justice (GCWJ).

From that point, Holgate became actively involved in the center’s work, educating himself and attending their yearly Ensure Justice conference. In 2019, he traveled with GCWJ to Argentina as part of the annual study abroad human trafficking course, where students and faculty collaborated with local leaders to host an Ensure Justice conference. The two-day event educated government officials, law enforcement officers, teachers, social workers, and church leaders. While there, Holgate discovered excellent learning resources that he knew would translate well to Navajo Nation.

“Human trafficking is not just a singular issue,” says Holgate, 21. “There are so many different issues that tie into it.” Those concerns include alcohol, drugs, mental health, and even a desperation for much-needed survival resources.

“I saw how all those were the same big issues taking place among my own people, which I realized probably meant that human trafficking was happening there as well,” he says.

Navajo Nation is the largest Native American region in the United States, covering more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. It is also the largest by population, with nearly 400,000 tribal members. Yet no research has been done to determine the exact scale of trafficking among Navajos, and no task force has been set up to fight it.

On the flight back to the United States, Holgate approached Morgan with the idea of doing that same kind of conference for Native Americans.

She immediately agreed, and they got to work figuring out the logistics. Holgate reached out to Navajo Nation first lady Phefelia Nez and second lady Dottie Lizer, seeking permission to bring Ensure Justice’s resources to their people. Both caught the vision and approved a mini-conference initiative to educate Native American youth about trafficking.

Holgate took on the responsibility to plan and host the online conference in December 2020, bringing in as the speaker U.S. Ambassador-at-Large John Cotton Richmond, who leads the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The event had an impressive 88 people attend.

Seeing Holgate’s dedication to the work, Morgan has been impressed with his efforts.

“Matthew studies these issues and he’s very committed to sharing his knowledge and empowering the people around him, especially his community,” Morgan says.

Holgate, a communications major and an official GCWJ intern, plans to graduate in May 2022, and he remains steadfastly focused on educating Navajo Nation. He is working closely in partnership with Morgan, GCWJ, and Navajo Nation’s first lady’s office, along with participating efforts by the Assemblies of God Native American Fellowship. His goal is to bring anti-human trafficking educational resources and a study abroad-type program to Navajo Nation, beginning next summer in which a GCWJ team will provide training to raise awareness and actionable program information.