On November 22, 2014, I woke up to my mom speaking quietly but urgently to my sister. I was home for Thanksgiving, slowly waking up to get ready to watch my little brother and cousins play basketball in a town nearby. It's funny how you can always tell when something serious has happened just by the tone of someone's voice. My mind began racing, playing out the different tragedies that may have prompted my mom's serious tone but I was not prepared for the coming news.
In the early hours of that morning, a young man shot four people and then himself outside a home that I had many happy memories in and my cousin was one of the people shot. She did survive after serious injuries and a lengthy recovery, and as we came to know more of the details of the horrific events, I struggled with how something like this could happen in my community and to my family. But isn't that what everyone says when a tragedy touches them?
Intentional and unintentional injury and violence can take many forms but gun violence has been at the forefront of news lately from incredible motivation from our next generation of leaders. Generation Z is picking the rest of us up on their backs and acting with unmatched maturity and passion to combat gun violence and promote gun safety. They may not be aware of it but they are looking at and approaching this issue with a public health lens because, frankly, gun violence is a public health issue. In America, thousands of people are killed each year from guns, and when other things take lives in this capacity, we implement laws to prevent it or some of us put on our research hats and figure out what the problem is and how to fix it.
The American Public Health Association gives some great suggestions on what we need to do to tackle this public health issue:
- Increase research on gun violence
- Advocate for smarter gun policies
- Increase gun safety education and technology
- Expand mental health services
Not only does gun violence result in thousands of lives lost each year, it also costs the U.S. billions of dollars and can have a lasting impact on the survivors. At the heart of all of this is mental health and the lack of mental health services in the U.S., especially in rural areas. What is most significant about all of this is that gun violence is preventable but it will take hard work, hard conversations, and a public health approach.
I grew up in Sioux Falls, SD so the environment to me was always fairly controlled. I had good weather, city parks, and, luckily, South Dakota has good air quality when compared to other states. I grew up as a "city kid" who "knew" the effects that agriculture had on SD and the environment, but it wasn't until I started working at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Brookings, SD that I really understood the impact.
Although it doesn't make the news nearly as often as CO2 emissions or pollution in the ocean, agriculture can have negative effects on the environment as well. Some of those effects include soil erosion, pesticides and their ability to drift and damage beneficial insects, and water contamination from fertilizers. However, we need agriculture to sustain our state and our bodies so instead of just accepting general agriculture practices as "that's just the way it is" we need to embrace sustainable agriculture and improve it for our future and our children's future.
Fortunately, sustainable agriculture practices are being researched and put to use in our own backyard. Local work being done in South Dakota includes:
- iGrow - An SDSU Extension service that works on agricultural - best practices' outreach to producers based on research conducted by South Dakota State University.
- Blue Dasher Farm - A small research farm in eastern SD that promotes research, education, and demonstration of regenerative agriculture practices.
- USDA-NCARL-ARS - A USDA research facility that focuses on sustainable agriculture.
Some of the sustainable practices include diversifying crops (crop rotation and cover crops), conservation tillage, and taking advantage of beneficial insects to control pests. Implementing sustainable agriculture can, short-term, help cut down on pesticide use but also, long-term, impact climate change (which is for another blog post!). Recognizing agriculture and its multifaceted reach on personal and global environmental health will hopefully bring to light some of positive work being done and the work that still needs to be accomplished in agriculture and its role in environmental and public health.
Aly Becker, MPH
Dr. Joan LaFrance of Mekinak Consulting in Seattle, WA, spoke about Indigenous evaluation. Joan was a trooper. Her flight was delayed due to weather and she didn't get into town until the wee hours of the morning and still made it to deliver an endearing talk and share her vast knowledge of working as an evaluator in Indian Country. She became an evaluator because of her first evaluation experience. At first, she had a negative reaction because she didn't want to have an external evaluator coming in and judging her program. Despite this, she did realize the value in the data that came out of the evaluation and decided she wanted to get her doctorate degree, become an evaluator, and take that back to Indian Country.
I loved everything that Joan said and, like the rest of the attendees, absorbed all of her words. When you get data and do evaluation, knowledge is created, and Indigenous knowledge includes a few different kinds of knowledge: traditional knowledge (i.e. creation stories); empirical knowledge (i.e. farming); and revealed knowledge (i.e. knowledge that comes through dreams or ceremonies). Knowledge exists to help us walk on "moral path" when we gather data we want to give it purpose and data should never be gathered for data-sake.
Some great insight from Joan about evaluation is that you should never classify things too quickly when you are doing evaluation in Indigenous communities. At times, evaluators in Indigenous Communities be seen as not respecting values of the people they're evaluating. Joan stressed that everything we do has value and it must be interpreted and evaluated appropriately because data has power and it must be used in a good way. She encouraged tribes to explore their epistemology or ways of knowing that they want to guide their research and evaluation endeavors.
Joan gave a great overview on the differences between Western and tribal ways of developing programs. Through data, we can understand ourselves. In Western thinking and doing, theories or programs are tested and if they work in enough places, they try to say that they are generalizable and can be implemented anywhere. This is not the approach to data for tribal communities because of how unique each tribe is. Tribal communities want to understand themselves in their own way, context, and situations. In addition to this issue of generalizability of programs that are evaluated, data gathering and interpretation must be inclusive. There can't be one or two people looking at data and figuring out what it means, which is typical of Western ways of data analysis; there must be many people involved in this effort. Lastly, Joan talked about the importance of not reducing people to a statistic and instead include multiple measures so that there is a full picture of the people being evaluated.
The day has already had so many inspiring speakers and did not disappoint with the presentation delivered by the Turtle Mountain Youth Council. About ten members from the Youth Council gave an absolutely impressive overview of their goals and plans for their group and the community. In 2017, the Turtle Mountain tribal council enacted a resolution to establish the youth council, and they wasted no time in getting started and hosted a Youth Summit in 2017 as well.
This group of kids have it together. They are organized. They have different roles where they are able to use their strengths; they even have a public relations representative! A couple of them spoke about their goals to incorporate culture into their plan for youth development. They are concerned about cultural revitalization and how they can fix substance use problems that many other youths talk about. They work closely with other tribal programs and TNRG to develop their plans. To achieve cultural revitalization, they will develop a Cultural Coalition, conduct a language and culture needs assessment (with the help of TNRG) and from this assessment they will use the results to come up with a plan to increase the language and culture resources.
They are very aware of the problems that their generation and their community faces, balking at the idea that they are only interested in being on their phones and watching TV. They want to be involved in improving their community, revitalizing their culture, and developing the TMBCI workforce. They're also planning another Youth Summit later this year!
These kids (I shouldn't call them kids) are so grounded and focused and I am in disbelief at their passion. And they're not stopping at changing the community, their goal is to change the world, and I believe that they are going to do it. Sometimes, it can be discouraging to watch the news and see where our leaders are taking us but it's in moments like these that my anxiety is eased. The youth of the world are going to save us, don't worry.