AFRL employee embraces Native American heritage
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — November marks National American Indian Heritage Month, a time dedicated to celebrating, educating and raising general awareness of the unique challenges the people have faced. Lenell Kern, the lead for Strategic Engagements at the Air Force Research Laboratory or AFRL, celebrated her story as a proud member of the Native American community.
In 1975, Kern went to work for the Susquehannock American Indian Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. While there, she focused on seeking others with Native American heritage and registering them for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which provided healthcare and financial assistance.
“Native Americans demanded to be seen and heard during this time,” Kern said, speaking of the turmoil in the 1970s.
“Just like Sept. 11 impacted my son, inspiring him to join the Marines, my experiences impacted me, Kern said. “I wanted to join in my own way and do something that would make a difference for Native Americans.”
Kern started her Air Force career in 1987 as a secretary but knew that the career field was difficult.
“Not having the formal education my coworkers had created a lot of barriers for me when trying to move up in the industry,” Kern said.
Kern joined the civilian workforce because she wanted to provide a better life for her family and knew the opportunities the Department of Defense provided since her father was a prior service member. She was determined to advance in the career field while embracing her Native American heritage.
Accordingly, Kern worked on projects in all four of the original labs at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base known as Wright Lab, one of the predecessors to the current AFRL.
“I worked in all four labs, not because I couldn’t hold a job but because when I would go somewhere and did well, I would be discovered and get pulled out to another lab,” Kern said.
In 1993, Kern moved to AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate or RX and stayed there until 2019, earning the title the ‘engineer whisperer’ from her coworkers.
“I got discovered in RX for my ability to translate why RX should matter to the Air Force, to Congress and whoever,” she said.
While at RX, Kern focused on setting up tours for VIPs and served as a mentor, teaching “the three levels of communication: the eighth-grade level, scientific level and congressional staff level.”
Kern said her ability to know the audience and her sales mentality allowed her to communicate the worth of the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.
In 2019, Kern became the Air Force Science and Technology Strategy outreach lead. To build partnerships and creditability, Kern traveled to different locations and spoke on behalf of AFRL, advancing the goals of the strategy, which was designed to secure technological advantage.
“One of the greatest things about Lenell is her passion – for the AFRL mission, our people and the impact we have to our warfighters,” said Brian McJilton, AFRL Small Business director. “As Lenell travelled the country doing outreach with universities, small businesses and industry, she became the face and heart of AFRL.”
Kern said her favorite thing to do is promote her fellow lab members to ensure they receive recognition for their efforts. In 2021, she accepted a job with AFRL Public Affairs, serving as the team lead for Strategic Engagements and continuing to promote the accomplishments of her colleagues.
Growing up, Kern had a strong knowledge of her father’s Italian family history, but only learned about her mother’s heritage after she was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness when Kern was 14 years old. Her mother, Betty Raymond, was predominantly of Native American and Irish descent.
After Kern’s mother got sick, she shared her heritage with her four children, packing them into a station wagon and driving them to what Kern describes as “a little piece of Oklahoma” called Twin Oaks, part of the Goingsnake District.
Kern explained she saw a community facing poverty in Twin Oaks, many lacking basic amenities and was shocked seeing the treatment of the people living there. While Kern’s father served in the Army as an enlisted soldier, she never felt her family was wealthy; however, she felt privileged compared to those in Twin Oaks.
Kern’s exposure awakened her, “It wasn’t this sense of pride, but this sense of reality check.”
Growing up in a military family, Kern missed out on the opportunities and stories common at holiday celebrations. Later, she learned more about her family, including her grandfather, who changed his name from Ernest Ray Man to Ernest Raymond to not be identified as Native American after leaving Oklahoma to purchase a gas station and land in New Mexico.
Most of what Kern learned about her family history came after her relatives died. She learned her mother had little knowledge about family history after her grandparents moved away from relatives when she was a young girl. Her grandparents chose to “put away” their heritage to provide a better life for their children due to the prejudice faced by Native Americans during this time.
It wasn’t seen as an advantage to be Indian,” Kern said. “It wasn’t because they weren’t proud but rather that it was best unspoken.”
Seeing the adobe hut her grandmother lived in and hearing the stories of her relatives made Kern more curious about the livelihood of her people. It was not until much later, after her grandfather died, that she truly felt a need to learn and share the stories of her family.
“I needed to learn more about my family heritage because they were dying and if I did not learn about them, their stories would be lost forever,” Kern said.
To learn more about National American Indian Heritage Month, visit: https://www.afmc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/3210146/celebrating-national-american-indian-heritage-month/
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.