What brought you to JSI?
Before coming to JSI, I worked at the American Indian Public Health Resource Center in North Dakota. I supported organizations and agencies in the Great Plains region, which has significant health disparities, particularly for tribal communities. Prior to that, I was a capacity-building assistance specialist at the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center. I worked primarily on projects targeting girls and women, and it was there that I met and worked with people from JSI.
What are you working on now?
I am working on Healthy Start AStEPP Initiative, which offers training and technical assistance to increase Healthy Start grantees’ understanding of the effect of fetal exposure to alcohol and other drugs and strengthen their capacity to conduct prevention and early identification activities with pregnant women, mothers, and newborns. The initiative also focuses on the social, environmental, and broader behavioral health factors that contribute to substance use before, during, and after pregnancy. The initiative takes a health-equity approach by focusing efforts on populations at higher risk, including Native American and tribal communities, and building on community strength.
In addition to Healthy Start AStEPP, I am working on the Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Campaign in Wisconsin. A report by Center for Court Innovation found that Native American women are trafficked more frequently than women of other race or ethnicity in the U.S. I helped conduct 16 listening sessions and one-on-one interviews with various stakeholders, adults, youth, and trafficking survivors. With this information, I helped compile a report to inform the campaign and bring consideration and sensitivity to the language we use during the social marketing campaign.
“The challenges within the LGBTQ community and its public health challenges really hit home with me and made me get involved in what was happening to other Native queer people growing up.”
You have worked on a lot of projects focused on tribal communities. What has drawn you to focus on this particular group of individuals?
I am Diné (Navajo) and originally from Kirtland, New Mexico. I grew up on and near the reservation and have known first-hand how tribes and people are affected by structural issues. Colonization and genocide tore tribal communities apart. We are slowly working to reclaim our language and practices, which I believe will make us healthier and help us take a more holistic approach to the health of our community.
There may be health disparities in tribal communities, but we have amazing cultural values and practices that can help us overcome them. For example, mindfulness has always been a practice in many tribal communities and holistic health is not new.
What attracted you to work in public health?
As I was growing up, I faced a lot of challenges. I came from a very poor family, my mom and my sister passed away when I was really young. It was really traumatizing but everything I have been through has influenced who I am as a person today. I am very open about my past and upbringing because I think it is important to talk about these things. My own experience has led me to dedicate myself to helping others.
I also identify as gay. The challenges within the LGBTQ community and its public health challenges really hit home with me and made me get involved in what was happening to other Native queer people growing up. As an undergraduate, I majored in broadcast journalism and worked at a television station in New York. The work was great but everything was reactionary. I wanted to work on the prevention side and actually do something: that something was public health.
Would you tell us something that others may not know about you?
I am on the board of a nonprofit in Denver that promotes poetry and spoken word as a form of traditional storytelling, focusing on cultural connection for Latino and indigenous youth. We use poetry as a means of mentorship and to help youth build leadership and public speaking skills.