On the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota, Opichi Wadiswan, a once-struggling youth program, finds its footing when a new director embraces a collaborative approach to implementation.
About the Collaboration
Opichi Wadiswan (tr. Robin’s Nest) is an innovative, community-wide program supported by a Strategic Prevention Framework Tribal Incentive Grant from the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) intended to fund programming to decrease alcohol use among pre-teens and teens from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota. Launched in 2014, Opichi Wadiswan comes from an Ojibwe legend about a boy, pushed into manhood too early by his father, who turns into a robin and flies away to find his freedom. The robin symbolizes the bravery of children, and serves as a reminder to parents to shelter their children and not send them into the world too soon. The program comprises a series of workshops aimed at teaching young people how to design and create multi-media products that challenge social norms around alcohol use. These products are then featured throughout the reservation to promote behavior change.
In its early years, Opichi Wadiswan struggled to gain traction. This changed when Shawn MacGregor—the fourth project director in four years—came on board. MacGregor worked closely with tribal council members to define program goals. She also engaged a variety of key stakeholders in program planning and implementation, recognizing that “one person cannot do a program like this on their own. It’s too big.”
To obtain the support and guidance the program needed, MacGregor created the Opichi Wadiswan Advisory Council, comprising representatives from Leech Lake’s five school districts, a Bemidji charter school, local leaders, youth-serving organizations and healthcare providers on the reservation. She relied on their expertise to help her define the program’s target population, create a curriculum that would appeal to the students, and strengthen community buy-in.
MacGregor also embraced a collaborative implementation model, relying on community organizations to host and deliver the program, and disseminate the students’ media products. The local Boys and Girls Clubs donates space, local school district staff serve as chaperones, the tribal government’s Youth Division provides transportation, and local radio and television personalities volunteer their time to teach participants about effective media messaging. In addition, the program showcases student-created billboards and tribal healthcare providers have offered to air student-created videos on their closed-circuit television station. Now in its inaugural year and slated to run for two more, MacGregor is thrilled with the growing interest and engagement in the program.
Elements of Success
Pick a Leader Who Knows the Community
When MacGregor was hired in 2014 to implement Opichi Wadiswan, she had already worked with the Ojibwe tribe in many other capacities and was familiar with the community and its culture. Her experiences provided her with critical insight into the political realities of life on the reservation—such as the importance of recognizing the cultural needs and unique social identities of the tribe’s 15 subcommunities—each geographically distinct and governed by its own Local Indian Council (LIC). “The LICs needed to speak for themselves,” said MacGregor. “Their buy-in was key to program success.” MacGregor also understood that for Opichi Wadiswan to successfully draw student participants, she needed to engage with the leaders who faithfully represented the families in each of these communities. “Once we had the opportunity to discuss the problem of alcohol use among the tribe’s teens, and how the program would address this problem, the tribal leaders were excited about getting kids involved.” MacGregor’s ability to connect with and earn the respect of all seven tribal council leaders was key to legitimizing Opichi Wadiswan in the eyes of the community.
Complement Existing Efforts
MacGregor worked hard to communicate the message that Opiche Wadiswan was meant to complement, not replace, the tribe’s other youth-serving programs. This has not only helped to build community support, but also to extend the reach of limited prevention resources. According to MacGregor, the program’s three Community Program Assistants (CPAs) work primarily on developing and implementing Opichi Wadiswan’s workshops, but also support and fill gaps in existing community youth-programming. “These are community members who not only have backgrounds in prevention and in working with youth, but who also grew up on the reservation. They know everyone,” she explained. In some districts, the CPAs participate in programs that are already established. In others, they establish new programs to meet identified needs, such as an art-focused program in one district and an after school activities program for preteens in another. MacGregor attributes Opiche Wadiswan’s steady growth to the dedication and commitment of the CPAs, and the relationships that they have established with the youth in their districts.
Acknowledge Help with Help
MacGregor has a keen understanding of the push and pull of collaborative partnership; always keeping in mind “what we can do for one another,” as she explains it. When the Boys and Girls Clubs offered to host her first workshop, she was quick to ask what she could do for them. On learning that the Club was interested in strengthening its relationship with the Leech Lake Youth Division, she made it a priority to bring the two organizations together, and enlisted the Youth Division to help transport students to the Club from their local schools and communities. In the process of discussing logistics, the heads of the two organizations quickly realized that they shared a commitment to the health and well-being of the tribe’s young people. Today, both the Boys and Girls Club and Youth Division remain active partners on Opichi Wadiswan, and both organizations are open to new projects in the future.
Expect the Unexpected
MacGregor was frequently surprised to discover that many of her strongest contacts and supporters were not who she expected. In engaging the support of the reservation’s five school districts, she initially reached out to the district Superintendents. One was eager to get involved, but the other two were unable to devote the time needed to get the program off the ground. Rather than becoming discouraged, MacGregor broadened her search for a district “champion.” Her willingness to be flexible and consider all possibilities led her to the Indian Education Director in one district, and the School Prevention Coordinator in another—both avid supporters of the program. “You can’t be caught up on titles,” she explains. “Or you may miss your strongest partners.”
In the short time since MacGregor has taken the lead of Opichi Wadiswan, the program has developed and disseminated a wide variety of youth-created multimedia products that challenge norms related to youth alcohol use. Participating youth have created three billboards, rotated each season, for the reservation’s most highly-trafficked roads, a series of short, anti-alcohol infomercials intended to be shown regularly across the reservation’s Indian Health Service clinics and at least one local school, and radio ads that will air on local reservation stations in the spring of 2016.
Perhaps most importantly, MacGregor’s commitment to engaging and involving multiple stakeholders in program implementation has served to strengthen connections among the tribe’s various youth-serving institutions. “We all share a common goal,” MacGregor explains. “It’s amazing what we can accomplish when we all work together.”