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December/January 2020Vol. 20, No. 10Redefining Poverty in Tribal Communities

Written by LeeAnn Garrick, Cook Inlet Council (CITC) chief of operations; Cristy Willer, CITC senior director of Strategic Initiatives; and Deborah Northburg, senior director of Child & Family Services, Anchorage, AK

Families who are surviving or in crisis are often vulnerable to child welfare involvement. Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC), as a multiservice tribal organization, designs opportunities for families—many of whom are in crisis—to move from surviving to thriving. In Alaska, CITC defines "thriveability" as being "connected with one's own unique capabilities and the bounty of potential they provide." We support our program participants in the quest to thrive not just survive. Our participants define what thriving means to them by looking at their family's experience through the lens of five factors—financial stability, healthy lifestyles, relationships, education and training, and spiritual and cultural wellness. Through this process, participants design their own definition of success that leads to a plan of action in each and all of these domains. 

The application of thriveability moves us to explore new ways to describe this success. We do not use terms like poverty to define financial status but rather the lack of social capital of family relationships, community connections, and tribal traditions. We value and use the understanding of social capital to create programs aimed at enhancing these critical relationships. We use strategies such as peer-to-peer support to guide program participants, providing a deep relationship in our program models and closing the gap of social isolation. This isolation creates a vulnerability that challenges our people and often breaks down the system by which families support each other in times of need. When we talk about education and training programming, we are striving to do more using what is known and what anchors our traditions, allowing us to innovate new models of education from old ways of knowing. Another way we infuse meaningful culture is to embrace our shared core values of interdependence, resilience, accountability, respect, and humor. These core values define and sustain our culture.

Years ago, we began trying to understand our Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF) program participants by asking them about their experiences and focusing on what moves families forward. In this exploration, we discovered that we needed to consider the whole family's needs not just individual issues. This means using multigenerational mobility strategies like employment, education, and radical learning models to support families in all stages of their lives. Layered over these models are approaches that include meeting people where they are and understanding past experiences, whether historical or traumatic, and encouraging participants to move forward.

The five factors model informs how CITC programs overlap and intersect to respond best to participant needs and experiences. For example, our Employment and Training Services Department's (ETSD's) management of all TTANF funds and state child care assistance funds for income-eligible Alaska native and American Indian families in the region, as well as the existence of several smaller supportive programs, connects Child and Families Services and ETSD. CITC's multitude of programs provide direct services to native youth, including employment and life-skills development through afterschool tutoring; camps for building science, technology, engineering, and math skills; supported work experience; suicide prevention framework-funded supports in the community; and building healthy relationship skills, provide a potentially useful service net for youth in state custody. The CITC Child and Family Services Department's extensive experience providing direct services to families in or on the verge of crisis is without a doubt the factor that provides some of the most significant support.

Through all these approaches, we work in partnership with the families we serve—some in crisis and some not—to move from surviving to thriving. We encourage families to join us in this journey so they may better understand what builds their safety net of relationships and support, which not only insulates them from crisis but also builds a protective community.