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Iowa Preparing Next Generation of Native Leaders
Iowa Ag Connection - 02/19/2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit one year ago, Jason Butler and his clients found themselves in a difficult spot.

Butler is the peer support recovery coordinator at the Four Directions Treatment Center in Fort Hall, Idaho, which works with members of the Shoshone tribe who struggle with substance use disorders. Dozens of clients come to his facility every day seeking peer support to complement their clinical treatment and participating in face-to-face programs that help maintain their recovery.

But the community center where he was located closed in March, with no timeline for reopening. Knowing that his clients needed ongoing help to avoid relapsing, he searched for a way they could keep in touch with recovery coaches when they couldn't meet face to face. Many needed that contact, that periodic check-in, to stay safe. For some, it was literally a matter of life and death.

Fortunately, Butler was a mentee at the time in the University of Iowa's Native American Leadership Academy, a program to help Native Americans around the country develop new community-based programs that address addiction and mental health issues among Native peoples. What he learned there, and the people he met, would help solve his problem.

Started in 2013 in the College of Public Health's Native Center for Behavioral Health, the academy hosts 10 Native American mentees and 10 mentors annually. They work in the field of mental health, behavioral health, substance abuse counseling, or other positions in the helping professions. Anne Helene Skinstad, the center's director, says the goal is for participants to assess local needs by talking with tribal elders and other leaders in their community, then develop a program that addresses those needs.

She says the program is also intended to develop a deeper bench of leaders in Native American communities.

"We are building the next generation of Native American leaders, and we expect them to take leadership positions in their profession and in their communities," says Skinstad, a clinical professor of community and behavioral health in the College of Public Health. That aspect of the effort became obvious to the current cohort, who started the program in October 2019 and met the last time at the end of February, just as the pandemic hit.

"When we left our session in New Mexico, we told them that they will be asked to take leadership in protecting their communities and protecting its members," she says. "This was going to be their biggest responsibility."

As originally designed, each 10-person cohort meets in October at the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama County for an initial round of classes and meet-and-greets, then meets again the following spring at a tribal location somewhere in the country before concluding with a graduation ceremony in the fall. In between are a series of online classes using Zoom and frequent meetings with Native American leaders and volunteer mentors assigned to them by the program's directors based on the mentee's background and interests. The program covers all classroom and transportation costs.

Of course, that plan has changed for the last two cohorts due to the pandemic. Face-to-face meetings have been canceled, and all classes are held on Zoom now, with weekly online "Coffee Klatsches" added to provide support and morale. But Skinstad says the educational side of the program is unchanged. The curriculum includes classes in nuts-and-bolts organizational issues--project management, strategic planning, grant-writing--many of them taught by Native experts from across the country. Faculty from the Tippie College of Business and College of Law facilitate the development of project plans and strategic planning.

But Skinstad says the academy is, by design, not based on a Western model, which people raised in Native communities often find alienating. It's more loosely organized, she says, which Native people find more comfortable. Programs are also intended to be more culturally specific to different Native American cultures. Examples of classes would be how historical trauma impacts Native Americans today, and how Native American spirituality views LGBTQ+ issues.

Mentees also participate in events that support Native American identity, such as ceremonial dances and singing, speaking in Native languages, and spiritual rituals such as smudging, in which sage or herbs are burned in a bowl during prayer and the smoke used to sanctify a person or a space.

"Given the historical trauma they have lived through, it's an important element in their learning, and it's important to be able to attend with others who have similar experiences," says Monica Dreyer Rossi, a program manager who helps direct the Leadership Academy.

Participants in the program are also matched with mentors with whom they meet regularly for advice, morale-boosting, and network-building.

The students' primary project in the academy is to develop a new program or expand an existing program in their communities. Participants talk with their elders, medicine men, and other prominent people in their community to find out their most pressing needs and how they might be addressed. Working with those leaders as well as the academy's network of mentors, they then develop and implement the program in their community using local resources.

Rossi says this is important because Native Americans who are struggling are more apt to seek help from programs designed and managed by other Native Americans.

"Having knowledge about their tribal ways is helpful," she says. "They don't feel misunderstood talking to another Native American, and it's easier to talk to someone who can relate with your life and experiences."

About 10 programs created in earlier cohorts are still operating.

Butler, the academy mentee from Idaho, says the experience helped him learn to be a better personnel supervisor, a position he came to not long before he started the classes.

"I was searching for answers on the job, and what I learned through the academy helped me find direction," says Butler, a member of the Ute tribe. "It helped me sharpen my leadership skills, but it also helped in a lot more ways than I expected."

He says that what's proven most useful to him is the network of experts he patched into to solve his problem of providing assistance to clients during a pandemic. His own mentor, Roy Pack, of the Rocky Mountain Leadership Council, has been especially helpful.

In the end, he decided the best way to maintain continued accessibility for his clients was to move his programs online, something his organization had not tried before. His network provided tips on technology and how to conduct peer support services remotely, and even how to navigate tribal politics in a way that people who needed valuable substance abuse disorder services could get them.

The number of people seeking help has actually gone up significantly in recent months because of the convenience of using an online platform that complies with federal health care privacy laws, so much so that he plans to continue offering it as an option for clients even after the pandemic ends.

"The academy has done more than I can explain for personal and professional development," Butler says. "I haven't had a situation this year that I haven't been able to solve by reaching out for help from people I met through the academy."

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