Sacred Pipe Resource Center

Report date
September 2017

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

The work of community engagement in problem-solving is difficult, especially with the American Indian population. While all of the aspects, components, and activities of our work were an integral part of the whole project, I believe some of them were especially pertinent. I believe our work in conducting the survey was important because it helped the community realize the importance of their input and I believe the monthly Community Engagement Team meetings were an integral part of making progress because it demonstrated a commitment to the population. Many times, American Indian populations are somewhat distrustful of "new" programs that make promises but then fail to keep them or the program goes away when the funding runs out. For our project, the meetings allowed us to make each one an event in itself in order to draw people out of their shells. For the American Indian population in urban areas, it is even harder to get community engagement because we are used to being marginalized; to being silent and sticking to ourselves and our own little networks. Our work with the survey and the monthly meetings helped us feel like a community as they got to see and network with others.

Key lessons learned

The primary lesson we learned is that this work is harder than it looked! I think we believed that, because we are a Native-based non-profit, our work with engaging Native populations would be easier. However, we experienced some of the same issues with community members who were not always consistent with attendance, some events being very well-attended while others were not, and being subject to the dynamics of busy lives. At the same time, I think we were extremely successful in getting the Native community to be excited about projects and being willing to participate. Our events were able to see many volunteers step forward and this, we believe, was a win in the sense that the community was willing to step out of their comfort zone. Since I am the type of person who wants to see great results in a short amount of time, I have to continually remind myself (and the Board reminds me as well) that incremental progress is also good. We have a solid foundation of support and they have been helpful in introducing new members of the community to the organization, which is a great benefit.
Another important lesson learned was the importance of good partnerships. Our American Indian Health Issues Community Engagement Team came together with a large group of partners who were all, on the surface, critical partners to getting a community health clinic for American Indians in the city. However, some of them were very dismissive of our efforts or outright told us "that won't happen here". It was through perseverance that we found the partners who helped make the dream become a reality. That process taught us to put more critical thought into the types of partnerships we need to be successful. There are many "politicians" who make promises and want to be involved for the photo ops but really bring nothing to the table in terms of positive contributions or support. We also learned to look for the partners that may be less obvious but who have similar dreams or missions. These partnerships, for us, were more meaningful and helpful.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

The collaborations necessary as a part of the community innovation process have been critical, although all elements are important. SPRC reached out early and often and it was only through these partnerships that we were able to make such great progress. We have tried to work with as many community members and organizations as possible in order to make sure that we are filling gaps in programs and services rather than duplicating efforts and we do that by really getting to know the community. The CET meetings allow us to check in periodically with community members. So when we know their vision and needs, we begin by looking for a partner. This was part of the CET process from the beginning because we knew we would need to work with others. Our partners help us much more than financially; they are illustrations of the importance of community-building and being a member of a community. We have been lucky in that only one partnership was somewhat damaged because of the #NoDAPL protest movement.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

I think persistence is a huge key. As I mentioned, we were told that our plans would not come to fruition but we kept with it and kept looking for ways to make it work and it ultimately happened. I think as we move forward, this will continue to be a key. Just because something doesn't necessarily work right now, it might just mean the time is not right. If we have a common vision, we have to persist in making it happen.

Understanding the problem

The #NoDAPL movement that occurred in our community was difficult at the time it happened and there was definitely some backlash for us. At the same time, it provided some silver linings. One is that we have a lot more work to do in creating awareness and communication about our value systems and how we can get along. Another silver lining is that it has helped clarify which partnerships are worth pursuing (who is open) and which may not be as fruitful or may be more difficult and long-term. In terms of the specific grant work we've done, we have also gained clarity about the ingredients needed for community engagement work. We know that a greater awareness has led to individuals wanting to be more involved in their local community. But we also know that they need more education and training and awareness about HOW to do that and how to be effective at it. For example, we know that there are still many ways Natives and non-Natives "miscommunicate" and there are gaps in knowledge about how systems work. I believe we need a new model for engagement that anticipates and addresses those potential threats to working together.

If you could do it all over again...

The one piece of advice that I would give to myself is to be more fluid and flexible. I think some of our early interactions made assumptions about where American Indian people were in their knowledge of community and working together. I think I would also tell myself to think more about THEIR motivations for getting involved rather than my own. I think I began with the assumptions that people would get involved out of a sense of altruism. I don't think that is the case. Native people, especially, who have a history of being marginalized in the community, have other motivations and I would tell myself to learn more about that in the beginning so it wouldn't take as long to understand that and adjust strategies.