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Benefits of social workers who come from tribal community

Korina Barry
Patrick O'Leary/University of Minnesota
Korina Barry brings her experiences as a child in turmoil and her life experiences as an American Indian to those who need help.

With four words, Korina Barry sums up her teens, the times and impetus that helped put her in the chair where she sits today, aiding others.

“It’s been a ride,’’ she says.

Those were make-or-break years. “I struggled with school and [home life] not being stable. I didn’t really know how to deal with my father being in prison and my mom really not being in my life because she had her own issues going on. I just kind of rebelled,’’ she can see now. 

Now 25 and a social worker in the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) long-term foster-care unit at Hennepin County, Barry brings her experiences as a child in turmoil and her life experiences as an American Indian to those who need help.

Despite growing up in an environment of high poverty levels and poor high school graduation rates, she is also one of a growing number of Native Americans here and elsewhere being aided and supported in their efforts to attain college degrees through grants, scholarships and special programs, including in health-related fields like social work.

In turn, these students often use that education to help their own people. Advocates say they can help their own in ways non-natives cannot.

Qualified for scholarship

At the University of Minnesota, for instance, Barry, an Anishinaabe from the Leech Lake band who grew up in south Minneapolis, qualified for a scholarship from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to help pay her way through college, earning her undergraduate and master’s of social work degrees. 

She also lived in the American Indian Cultural House her freshman year, in the supportive culture she knew. 

At the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, an effort is afoot to recruit and financially aid more American Indians into the school’s social work program. A school with a 100-year history of training social workers, it recently won a $150,000 Otto Bremer Foundation grant to fund social work education for 16 American Indian students. 

For years, the school has been reaching out to Indian tribes as well as the tribal colleges in their region, says Lee Gustafson, dean of the college’s social work department, in part to overcome the past.

Take into account the disturbing boarding school era of the late 19th century and into the 20th century when scores of Indian children were taken from their families and placed in residential boarding schools with social workers playing a role. 

When Indians themselves are service providers, working in medical clinics, chemical dependency programs, in child welfare and domestic abuse cases, “They understand the historic and current experiences of the people they are serving, from the cultural experiences to spiritual, to economic…,’’ explains Cynthia Donner,  coordinator for tribal Partnership Initiative activities at St. Scholastica.  

Tribal elder Julia “Bunny” Jaakola  agrees.

“The culture itself is such that because of the history many American Indian people still do not trust outside their community, very easily anyway. If we can have social workers that are a part of the tribal community, it helps families be more open to bringing their issues to an organization for help,’’ says Jaakola , a social work graduate who is coordinator of the behavioral health department for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

Now 73, she earned her college degrees after her family was grown, from the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota, and chose to bring her knowledge to her reservation about 25 miles west of Duluth.

‘Level of trust’

“It is the level of trust, first and foremost. When you see a native face you have an instant credibility with families,” says Janice LaFloe, development director for the American Indian Family Center in St. Paul

“That cultural etiquette is important. It’s not something you can always train someone in, to understand the nuances of native humor, native history, native experiences,’’ though there are not enough American Indian social workers, LaFloe says. Non-natives can, however, become well-versed in Indian culture and build up hands-on experience, she adds.

That said, “Just because one has a particular background does not necessarily mean [they] are the best person to work with that family, individual or community,’’ suggests Tony Bibus,  a licensed independent social worker and social work professor emeritus at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Social work is one of many mainstream professions that would benefit from an infusion of people of color, he says.    

Barry, who works with 13- to 21-year-old Native Americans flailing in the face of homelessness, family and parenting issues, sees value in her background.

“I think it’s easier for these youth to open up to someone they can identify with, if it is culturally or from different experiences,’’ she says, adding she tells her clients she’s living proof they can overcome challenging backgrounds.    

Among those challenges are historical discrimination, family issues, lack of community support and academic support, cultural differences, as well as poverty, experts attest.

A recent 70-page United Way study called  “Faces of Poverty 2012’’ reports that more than 1 in 3 of Minnesota’s American Indians – 37.9 percent – live in poverty.

Also factored in must be poor educational preparation, and the problem of many of these young people not believing they could go to college, Donner says.

Barry says she only started really believing in herself thanks to a guidance counselor at Minneapolis South High School, the first to tell her, “Korina, you are smart enough, you can do this.’’

Study in a health-related profession was one of areas covered under her scholarship, which figured at about $6,000 a year. Taking a social work class, she was sold on her career choice.

“I always knew I wanted to work with people in some form,” she says. “I wanted to stay in my community and work with my people.’’

Read more of her story  in this beautifully written piece by Rick Moore.

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Comments (1)

Way to go, Korina

If anyone in this society needs counseling from a peer, from someone who's been there, it's Indian teenagers.

I would like to see more Indian kids graduate with degrees in business, engineering, and computer science than we're seeing now. Breaking the cycle of poverty is easier with a high-paying job in the private sector or even starting your own business.

And since over 22% of the American Indian population are military veterans, counseling of Indian teenagers should include the suggestion that time in the military could be used to pursue military technical training and education in communications and computer technologies that can be applied to high-paying jobs when they're discharged. They could also use their GI Bill education benefits which are now worth over $18,000 per school year.

And remember, it's not a government handout, you earned it.

Mazasapa