Superhero Dreams to Statewide Network: My Story of the Alaska Resilience Initiative
By Laura Norton-Cruz, Alaska Resilience Initiative Program Director
When I was eight years old, I determined that I was going to work to end child abuse. At the time, I imagined myself more in a cape getting rid of bad guys than in business attire facilitating a statewide network, but in some form or another, that’s where my particular journey to the Alaska Resilience Initiative began.
A few decades later, working for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium on child trauma and violence-related issues, I found that I was involved with and aware of a number of tribal health organizations and nonprofits who were doing great work on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), intergenerational and systemic trauma, resilience – but I wasn’t sure if they were all aware of and working with each other. A need that I and others in the field kept noting was for some entity who could coordinate between all of the organizations doing work to address ACEs, reduce trauma, and support healing and resilience. I kept thinking, “We would be so much more powerful if we knew what others were doing, if we could spend less time re-inventing the wheel and more time learning from each other, if we had some statewide messaging and systems change work to amplify our efforts. Which organization could take that on? Which individual coordinator could facilitate that?”
Trevor Storrs, the executive director of Alaska Children’s Trust (ACT), was asking those same questions with the small group of advisors he had assembled informally and named the “Alaska Resilience Initiative.” This group took on a few initial projects towards this goal, from training ACEs and resilience trainers to surveying and mapping who was doing trauma-informed work. In 2015, this group, led by ACT, Rasmuson Foundation, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, and First Alaskans Institute, and in partnership with the Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP) coalition in Homer, applied for and received a grant from the Health Federation of Philadelphia to be able to take on this statewide coordinating and movement-building role. When I heard that a program director would be hired for this work, it sounded like a dream come true – a childhood dream, at that! (Albeit a mature, updated version.) Despite being reticent to leave the tribal health system and the work I loved, I was thrilled when I was hired to join Alaska Children’s Trust and direct this initiative, beginning February 2016.
Building an Equitable Movement
As one of 14 Health Federation of Philadelphia-funded Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC) grantees throughout the country focused on movement-building around trauma and resilience, we (the Alaska Resilience Initiative and our partner coalitions in the Southern Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna Valley) have had the spotlight on us to pilot network building and trauma-informed change. While the regional coalitions had already formed over the past few years, the statewide Alaska Resilience Initiative (ARI)’s relatively nascent status meant a considerable amount of work to expand and diversify the network, to form the planning and decision-making bodies needed to move the work forward, and – in order to make sure we were doing the work in a way that was equitable, effective and non-traumatizing – to listen. Especially to listen to Alaska Native people.
Alaska Native people comprise nearly one-fifth of the state’s population, and Alaska Native children represent over half of the children in the foster care system, and yet historically their voices have not been well-included in decision-making about social services, education and behavioral health. That’s why one of the very first things I did on the job was to team up with First Alaskans Institute and the Chickaloon Village Traditional Council to host a gathering, held in May 2016, that put Native perspectives, customs, history and hopes at the center.
A May 2016 gathering of Alaska Native and Native American people working on trauma and resilience issues around the state led to a number of principles for guiding trauma and resilience work. These included the importance of addressing collective forms of trauma, holding up ancestral knowledge about resilience, and partnering meaningfully with Native communities for solutions.
That gathering of about 30 people set a tone for the whole state that the voices and decision-making of Alaska Native people matter in this process. The goal was to seek input that could guide the Alaska Resilience Initiative, shape the curriculum for ACE/resilience trainers and frame a more inclusive and equitable approach to the work.
This initial gathering helped shape an inclusive approach to all the work that followed, from the large June 2016 gathering of organizations, tribes, schools and state departments from across Alaska to the building of ARI’s structure and processes, and the crafting of the “common agenda,” or shared goal of all ARI members, which is:Now, in June of 2017, ARI receives its guidance from three active workgroups as well as a 23-member steering committee. The steering committee features a wide range of perspectives and connections, with representatives from social services, health care, behavioral health, community development, K-12 education, universities, early childhood education, philanthropy, government, law enforcement, business, faith-based and tribal organizations.
We also strive for equity by creating group norms that allow for all people to be heard, and by being intentional about diverse representation. The steering committee is still predominately white (69 percent), but both co-chairs are Alaska Native women, representing different regions, and members represent other ethnic and racial groups as well. This isn’t perfect, but it’s more diverse than many boards and leadership councils in Alaska.
Lisa Wade, one of the steering committee’s two co-chairs, commented that the opportunity to lead and shape efforts of a statewide resilience effort is not simply having a seat at the table, but an open and inclusive process that creates equity:
“As a Tribal representative, one of the really positive things about participating on the Alaska Resilience Initiative has been the opportunity to develop deeper and more meaningful relationships with coalition partners early on in the process. Our cultural perspective and values have been welcomed into the planning and decision-making process. For instance, our coalition adopted a consensus model of decision-making so that each voice at the table has equal importance. This alone has built equity and justice into our work and begun the creation of a model of compassion-informed community work. This is an exciting time where our collective Alaska Native voices are recognized as valuable and integral to identifying the unique challenges facing our communities and for developing culturally significant strategies that make sense for our children, our families, our communities, and our state.”
As the ARI program director, I recognize frequently that although collaborative, participatory work and the building of a collective structure takes a considerable investment of time, an individualistic, superhero approach or leadership from only one sector, organization or demographic of leaders would not allow us to be effective. Likewise, we have a long ways to go yet in order to really meaningfully include rural voices and all regions and demographics in the state, and to grow our network into a self-sustaining movement. This is one of the ongoing tasks before us that we are eager to embrace.
What’s Happening Now
Over the last few months, in addition to building the initiative’s structure and decision-making processes, the Alaska Resilience Initiative has been working towards revising the ACE training curriculum; giving presentations across Alaska; supporting trauma-informed schools work in the Anchorage School District; developing relationships with policymakers; and pursuing immediate policy objectives such as a sustainable fiscal plan to resolve the state’s budget crisis without cutting early childhood and other funding for children and families.
Another exciting recent development is that the ARI steering committee gathered for an all-day think-tank on May 16, 2017 with a few Mobilizing Action for Resilient Communities (MARC) grant managers in order to ground ourselves in the beliefs, values, and goals that guide us, and to create focus areas for future work. We acknowledged that trauma and resilience work spans vastly, touching issues such as incarceration, historical and ongoing systemic trauma, and addictions. Committee members agreed that it is important to understand the broader societal, historical, economic and institutional contexts in which families and children experience trauma and toxic stress and their effects.
Additionally, we acknowledge the importance of our intersections with other coalitions and movements, being thoughtful about how we overlap with and complement their work while maintaining our focus on a child development approach, the NEAR sciences (neurobiology, epigenetics, adverse childhood experiences, and resilience), data, and ancestral understandings of trauma and resilience. In all things, we are guided by equity and an awareness of the importance of early life experiences.
While advocating, networking and educating, ARI members commit to listening, learning and engaging in critical self-reflection. We all agree to be honest and open, and to foster a commitment to authentic relationships. Our actions will be compassionate and kind, with attention to our own wellness. Above all, we plan to value and create space for diverse voices and perspectives. Because this is not the work of superheroes, but rather of a movement. None of us can “save” Alaskan families; only by working together strategically can we create the real shifts in our state that are needed to end child maltreatment, intergenerational and systemic trauma, and to support resilient and healthy children, families, and communities.
To learn more about ARI, please visit our brand new website, www.akresilience.org.
To read about some of the fantastic trauma and resilience work happening around the state, including with our partner coalitions, Raising Our Children with Kindness (R.O.C.K.) Mat-Su and the Southern Kenai Peninsula Resilience Coalition, please visit the Alaska Resilience Initiative’s blog and/or Facebook page – and look at the album called “site visits.”