Sacred Pipe Resource Center
What has been most instrumental to your progress?
The healing-centered engagement project brought Native and non-Native groups together to problem solve issues in the community. A component intended to be unique and instrumental was the development of two separate councils that could be prepared to work together and facilitated to decrease conflicts, misunderstandings, and blame. This component was instrumental to making progress in that having the two groups allowed the groups to learn from each other in a safe and dedicated environment before taking specific actions. This helped both groups in that the Community Councils (we changed the name) felt more assured that their actions would be impactful and the Systems Councils were able to help educate the public on their systems and where the Community Councils could be helpful. Bringing the two groups together was sometimes tense but the information shared was always helpful to the Community Council and helped them see that the solutions weren’t always easy and a lot of change needs more community members involvement.
Another aspect of the work of the healing-centered engagement project that was instrumental to making progress was the incentives for involvement. Because this area (especially the Native population) is still really scrambling to get back on their feet because of the pandemic, the incentives allowed us to keep consistent participation of Community Council members. Among the very low-income, it is difficult to get involvement because people are so focused on survival. In this case, we were able to get and keep people who are homeless, on the verge of homelessness, single mothers, grandmothers raising grandchildren, retirees, and working professionals together in the same room to discuss solutions. In other words, we had the involvement of the very people being impacted and that was invaluable to the conversation.
The third component of the work that was instrumental was the education/teachings that occurred between the two Councils in each area. The Community Council had a direct line to the professionals working directly in the areas of work and so had a critical sounding board for their ideas. The Systems Council had a direct line to the Native communities being impacted and gained insight into the needs of the local community. Although we did not formalize the “curriculum” the way we wanted to, there were important exchanges that occurred and Native community members have a much better understanding of how to inform themselves about an issue before taking on an action. I think this is extremely helpful because they learned that (1) non-Native professionals in these systems can be helpful and are not always barriers and (2) that actions should be strategic to making systems change rather than just being educational or performative.
Key lessons learned
The one key lesson learned was not to make assumptions. We assumed that the Systems Councils would be fairly easy to recruit and retain for involvement. However, this proved to be one of the biggest barriers. We had a steady and consistent group of Native community members sit on the Community Councils but the Systems Councils were harder to keep engaged. Specifically, the juvenile justice professionals were extremely difficult to bring to the table. In fact, we had more of a statewide representation than local because we could not get local juvenile justice professionals to be willing to serve. Our hope was to get professionals from the local courts or juvenile justice division but our partner found it very difficult, mostly because of the culture of the North Dakota system and their fear they were committing to something the leadership would not approve or go along with.
Another key lesson learned from this project is no surprise and that is that we perhaps were a little too ambitious with the Councils. We started with four Councils – housing, juvenile justice, civic engagement, and wellness – and we perhaps should have focused on just two to begin with. Trying to develop four Councils was a lot of moving parts and a lot of projects and we had a hard time with initial Community Council members who weren’t familiar enough with the process yet to decide which Council they wanted to participate in. We solved this by having one larger generic Community Council to start with each member having an area of emphasis. A key lesson learned within this as well was that the employment Council was too difficult an area to assist in given so many variables impact employment, so we did change it to wellness/suicide prevention. We were able to receive a small supplemental grant that would be helpful to this area so substituted this topic area, which is also a key area as it relates to the juvenile justice.
Reflections on the community innovation process
Going through the process of bringing people together, hearing their stories, learning together, and seeing a project through to execution – doing the process repeatedly – was most helpful. The Native community here has had an attitude of don’t-get-involved and this process allowed them to see that a committed group of individuals can make change. Early in the project, we held an event at which we invited community members to write e-mails to the Ethics Commission to reconsider rules for the Commission which would have basically gutted the ability of the Commission to hold legislators accountable. The citizen-led group that initiated the Ethics Commission and led the effort to get it passed personally called and thanked us for the advocacy because the Commission did note a significant response that called for reconsideration that was attributed to our work. It was a victory! We also brought paper and envelopes to an event and asked Native American community members to write in support of a name change Custer Health was considering. They sent a letter thanking us for that successful effort. Wins such as this as we work through this process help change the apathy to action.
Progress toward an innovation
The Community Council has become a close-knit group of their own champions. Council members are holding themselves accountable and they are even doing their own recruitment of new members. One of the Council members was instrumental in getting the juvenile justice council (our hardest Council to pull together) five new members! Given the prevailing attitude in this region, the breakthrough of self-determination for the Native community is critical to ongoing work. Making a transition from (sometimes token) limited representation on local boards, focus groups, or commissions to active mechanisms for involvement and long-term change can be monumental. When our organization receives phone calls from organizations that want to “partner” to check a box that they’ve conducted outreach with a minority community, we can now give them ways to actively address the disparities in their system (or acknowledge they don’t want sustainable systems change). Either way, it informs our work and allows us to have a more active say in how organizations and agencies serve the Native community.
What it will take to reach an innovation?
We believe that we have achieved a breakthrough and innovative process.
We have transitioned to separating the Councils into specific focus areas, we are seeking partnerships to fund administrative assistance for each of the Councils, and the Council members are continuing to recruit additional members. We will also be recruiting new members for the Systems Councils and transitioning the juvenile justice Council into a law enforcement/juvenile justice council so that we can address the overrepresentation in all sectors while still focusing on juveniles. We will try to find a way into the court system for a youth diversion project that was discussed but never found a way to discuss with actual juvenile court stakeholders. No
If you could do it all over again...
If we could go back to the start of the grant period, we would make a more concerted effort to be strategic about WHO should be at the Systems Council tables. We left the recruitment largely up to the initial members of the guiding committee and that was somewhat limiting and not as strategic as we should have been. It is not a criticism of the Systems Council members, who were all great with sharing input and advice, but a critique of ourselves and perhaps not thinking more strategically. While we couldn’t know the types of specific issues and projects that would emerge from the Community Councils, we should have known that we needed representatives from certain areas. We didn’t realize how closed the system is and that also cost us precious time and a little frustration in trying to get the right Systems Council to the table. The Systems Council members were a little frustrated with feeling their representation was too broad and more representative of the deep end of the spectrum rather than diversion (which is where the Council was thinking). It wasn’t a bad pairing but just a mismatch perhaps.
One last thought
One of the key projects that has come out of this effort is the on-going development of a Native Tenants Rights Association, a group that can provide education and solidarity for legislative action. This will be part of the on-going work with discussion of starting a specific non-profit organization to address on-going needs of tenants. This is an inspiring action of self-determination and autonomy that is noteworthy to share.