Taking a Community Approach to Urban Life
By Rebecca A. Clay
The Native American Health Center of Oakland, CA, doesn’t see mental health diagnoses the same way non-Native organizations do.
“For our community, what the mainstream calls diagnoses are really just symptoms of another diagnosis,” explained Janet King, M.S.W., Director of the organization’s Urban Native Center for Life Empowerment. “Things like suicide and alcoholism are symptoms of historical trauma; we’re experiencing these things because of a history of genocide and assimilation policies.” She emphasized that trauma affects the entire community.
Take alcoholism, for example. “We are all experiencing alcoholism, whether we’re the one who’s drinking, someone living with someone who’s drinking, or the schoolteacher with students whose parents are drinking,” said Ms. King.
With a Circles of Care grant from 1998 to 2001, the center developed a model that takes a community-wide approach to these community-wide problems. At the community’s request, the model focuses on prevention.
“What people said over and over again is that they didn’t like the ‘fail first’ approach,” said Ms. King. “One person described a situation where a child stole a car, entered the juvenile justice system, and was mandated to take anger management classes. That person asked, why can’t kids take the anger management class without having to steal a car?”
At the heart of the center’s prevention program is an annual 3-day Gathering of Native Americans retreat near the ocean. Originally designed as a substance abuse prevention curriculum, the retreat now helps the center rebuild a sense of community in young people.
“We take them out of the city, where you have to be rough and tough, you’re pressured to declare a gang, and you have to behave in a way that’s anti-community,” said Ms. King. “We put them in a place that reminds them of what it feels like to be in a community, to be helpful to each other, to have respect for each other.” Once they understand historical trauma, she added, they can make a conscious decision not to make choices that perpetuate the unhealthy behaviors that accompany it.
Ms. King credits the Circles of Care grant with the progress the center has made over the past decade. “Since it was a planning grant, it didn’t tell us what we had to do and make us fit our circle into a square hole,” said Ms. King. “We could really dream and envision what we needed to do to have successful services.”