Leadership training offers tools to overcome health challenges in Native communities

Lizzie Swalley believes in living a healthy life.

As a leader in her Native community of Santee, Nebraska, and a community foods associate for the Center for Rural Affairs, she lives each day spreading that belief to others.

However, her days are filled with obstacles. Obstacles Native leaders experience across rural America.

“One huge challenge we are all fighting in our communities is, that as Native peoples, we did not arrive to where we are today overnight,” she said. “When we discuss obesity, diabetes, ADHD, anxiety, all of these health issues, it took hundreds of years of assimilation, colonization, and acculturation to get where we are. Breaking that cycle of colonization is our biggest challenge.”

Recently, Lizzie was among 50 Native leaders chosen to participate in the Fertile Ground Leadership Institute training.

Hosted by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and the American Heart Association, the training is designed for Native Americans who work toward health and dietary well-being in their communities, and are searching for new ways to strengthen their effectiveness through traditional knowledge.

Though the application process was vigorous, Lizzie says it was nothing compared to the training itself. Participants spent two and a half days working in groups, which opened Lizzie’s eyes to issues many Native communities are facing.

“One thing that stood out was there are many, many Native communities working toward food sovereignty and local food access using traditional foods,” she said. “The training showed me different models that will help to write policies and action plans to start initiatives within Native communities.”

Two different training sessions took place in 2018—Lizzie participated in the second event in Seattle, Washington, in August.

During the training, Lizzie was especially moved by other women leaders and their efforts in their own Native communities. This helped her recognize that changing the lifestyles and eating habits of Native nations won’t happen immediately.

“Many of our nations have lost, or don’t use, our traditional indigenous plant-based diets, and we have to relearn these ways and re-introduce them to our youth,” she said. “We cannot expect our nations, our Tribal members, to give up sugar overnight.”

Knowing weaning people off unhealthy foods is no easy task, Lizzie realizes this may be an uphill battle. But, one that is worth the fight.

“Sugar is in everything processed, convenient, and bought at grocery stores in our communities—it's what we have access to,” she said. “The convenience of fast foods, microwave foods, and cheap foods are all things we compete with in our communities every day. We are trying to figure out how to rise up to this challenge, and through the Institute training, we have been given tools to help us.”

In addition to food access, Lizzie got information and shared ideas on participatory mapping of Native community organizing history and policy shifts; responding to the impact of trauma in organizing communities; using traditional practices as a strategy for building power within communities; examining the role of community organizing advocacy; broadening the circle and building a base of support; and strategic engagement to plan policy campaigns.

“One idea I really want to bring back to our communities is organizing advocacy,” said Lizzie. “We need to build support and empower our members to become a part of the grassroots effort to help improve overall health for our members.”

Lizzie is already working on accomplishing that goal by connecting with Tribal programs within her community of Santee to work on food access, food sovereignty, and traditional food efforts. She says there are numerous programs that have the same goals, and hopes by working together they will get momentum.

“It means a lot to me to have been chosen [for the training],” she said. “I have been gifted by the Leadership Institute training and knowledge that can be utilized in my community, and for the benefit of my community. I am extremely grateful.”