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Service in Native American Communities: Looking Back and Looking Forward

by Ron Lessard

As 2010 comes to an end I am pleased at all we have accomplished within Indian Country but much more needs to be done. I’m extremely proud to be Native American and I’m honored to serve as the Strategic Advisor for Native American Affairs at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

The Corporation is committed to working with tribal nations, tribal organizations, and non-profit organizations serving Native American communities in efforts to enhance collaboration between other federal agencies and all Corporation programs in addressing the critical issues affecting Native Americans. Just this month, we were part of two important events designed to initiate conversations on just those issues.

CNCS Urban American Indian Meeting

On December 8, CNCS was pleased to host leaders from Urban American Indian organizations across the country as well as representatives of federal agencies and national Native American non-profits to discuss the concerns and issues impacting American Indians and Alaska Natives residing in urban areas. This was a rare opportunity for representatives from federal agencies and national Native American non profits to engage in direct dialogue with Urban American Indian community leaders and learn about the unique needs of these communities.

Urban Native Americans face some of the most dire socio-economic conditions of any group in America. The magnitude of this challenge is significant, as urban Indians make up almost 50% of the Native population overall. The geography of the American Indian Alaska Native population is widely distributed in the United States, with a majority of Native people residing off reservation.

What appeared as a daunting task was met with a spirit of openness and innovation as well as a shared sense of purpose in the collective endeavor to raise the standard of living not just for Urban American Indians, but for American Indians and Alaska Natives living, working, raising families, and preserving a vibrant indigenous culture wherever they may be.

One important topic discussed was the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign and the interagency collaboration between the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, and the Indian Health Service at the Department of Health and Human Services titled Let’s Move in Indian Country. With the assistance of other federal agencies, including the Corporation for National and Community Service, this group is focused on reducing the disproportionately high obesity rates among Native youth and improving their health.

White House Tribal Nations Summit

The White House Tribal Nations Summit provided leaders from the 565 federally recognized tribes the opportunity to interact directly with the president and representatives from the highest levels of his Administration. There, Patrick Corvington led a distinguished group of Tribal and federal agency leaders in a breakout session on the issues of Education, Healthcare, and Community Service in Indian Country.

He also discussed the opportunities for Native American youth to serve as AmeriCorps members and Native American elders to serve through our Senior Corps programs, highlighting the Navajo Foster Grandparents Program – a program in existence since 1971. In addition, he talked about how our Learn and Serve America programs can help Indian Tribes develop school-based programs that make service to the community a party of a young person’s educational experience.

Learn and Serve America grants help Native American youth retain their history, culture and language and put them on a lifelong path of service and leadership that will benefit them and their tribes now and in the future. Involving young people as part of the solution to the methamphetamine crisis, six federally recognized tribes are promoting traditional culture and values and serving as peer educators, developing substance abuse awareness campaigns and engaging in service projects as alternatives to meth use.

The year 2010 has quickly come to an end but the work does not. It’s time to build on our successes, learn from our mistakes, plan ahead and find innovative ways to assist Native American communities and all communities to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.

Ron Lessard is the Strategic Advisor for Native American Affairs at the Corporation for National and Community Service.

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