Seeking Balance & Health in the Navajo Nation
Perhaps the most rewarding part of leading the Alliance for a Healthier Generation over the past year has been that I’ve had the opportunity to witness the real impact our work is having, particularly in underserved communities. It’s exciting to see first-hand the systemic change that occurs as we empower communities to make healthy school changes.
Once a scientist, I appreciate how critical data collection is for promoting systemic change. But I also appreciate how data collection processes can be abused. All too often in the past, data collection in Native American communities has been conducted without the subjects’ full consent or understanding of the goals of the research project. These abuses have created a cultural disincentive to participate in data collection projects.
That’s why the efforts of the Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3F) to work with Native American communities to directly address this historic distrust are critically important and inspiring. In 2012, with funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NB3F hosted four convenings across New Mexico with more than 250 participants to think through issues related to obesity and type 2 diabetes in Native youth. The goal was to understand factors behind the high rates of obesity in tribal communities in New Mexico, including the Navajo Nation and to mobilize Native people to make long-lasting healthy changes. As a result, through a shared understanding of the issues, the Navajo Nation was empowered to use data to advocate for healthier schools, worksites, and communities. This activity also helped lay a foundation for organizations trying to address childhood obesity in tribal communities, and it paved the way for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to begin working in this community later that year.
The Alliance has always strived to be a culturally competent organization. When we received funding from Cellular One to work directly with schools in the Navajo Nation, we wanted to hire a Navajo Program Manager who could continue to build on the trust and strong relationships that NB3F had formed. We were fortunate to find Tara Gene, from the Black Streak Wood clan, born for the Water Flow Together clan, to work in the Navajo Nation. Tara is working hard to empower schools to use the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program framework and tools to implement effective physical activity and nutrition policies and practices.
We’re pleased with some encouraging signs of improvement, which we share in our report titled, Seeking Balance & Health in the Navajo Nation. Already, one school within the Navajo Nation has made so many positive changes that it is applying for National Recognition from our Healthy Schools Program, an honor achieved by only a few hundred schools in the entire country each year.
Our report shares three stories of hope from students and schools working to make sure that the next generation of Navajo children can live long and healthy lives. I hope that you enjoy it and share it. May this report serve as a reminder that, through trust and collaboration, healthy change is possible, sustainable, and life-changing.
Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH
Chief Executive Officer
Alliance for a Healthier Generation