Since 2019, Change Inc. has partnered with The Cultural Wellness Center to be a part of its mission of unleashing the power of people to heal themselves and build community. Initially starting with a collaboration on building the Rites of Passage program facilitated by Change Inc.'s Director of Community Solutions, Corey Byrd, it has most recently evolved to include a 15 CEU course in supervision focused on how culture affects one's work as a supervisor.
From Race to Culture in the Supervision of Therapeutic Practice is a 15-hour class facilitated in partnership with the Cultural Wellness Center that engages participants in the process of cultural self-discovery in service to their ability to mentor and support their future supervisees in a similar approach. The course addresses contextual factors of race, ethnicity, and culture. It considers the dynamics of power and privilege that impact the therapeutic and supervisory relationship.
The Cultural Wellness Center is based in Minneapolis and has been in existence since 1996. Throughout its years, it has aided the community in recovering the culture of Black people in America and the work of standing firm in that humanity and human experiences are for everyone.
An instructor of From Race to Culture in the Supervision of Therapeutic Practice, Elder Atum Azzahir, is the founder and Executive Director of the Cultural Wellness Center. It is truly her life's work. Azzahir says, "I see myself as dedicating the work of the Cultural Wellness Center to Black people as we reclaim our heritage and culture and really push ourselves out into freedom, as opposed to waiting for freedom to be given to us."
The second instructor of the From Race to Culture in the Supervision of Therapeutic Practice course is Minkara Tezet, Griot of Psychology and Psychiatry of the Cultural Wellness Center. Minkara started his work at the Cultural Wellness Center ten years ago as a fellow due to his own need for cultural recovery and was taught by the Elders of the Cultural Wellness Center. He says his work is to learn how to tell the story of people of African heritage, the life they've been forced to develop in our society, and how it's impacted the psychology of their minds, bodies, and spirits.
Change Inc. started its partnership with the Cultural Wellness Center through its relationship with the Council for Black Male Success. A leader for Council for Black Male Success, Change Inc.'s Corey Byrd, formed a relationship with Elder Atum, and brainstorming of how the two organizations could collaborate on healing efforts began. After some time, members of both the Cultural Wellness Center and Change Inc. worked together to ponder what it meant for Change Inc. to not only be a place where culturally-specific work can happen but to actually create avenues and strategies where people could create and promote the idea of all cultural beings. According to Tezet, "All cultural people need a place where they can study themselves, study their culture, and see the impact that it's having on their work.
So, just as Change Inc.'s own Change Institute offers courses and training to community members and students, the Cultural Wellness Center aims to provide complimentary offerings. As part of certification to become a Marriage and Family Therapist or Licensed Professional Counselor, 45 hours of training in supervision are needed, with 15 of those hours dedicated to cultural competency and cultural diversity. Change Institute offers the first 30 hours, and the Cultural Wellness Center instructs the final 15 hours in cultural diversity and inclusion training.
In working with Change Inc.'s Executive Director, Jody Nelson, and Change Inc.'s Training Coordinator, Nick Krause, the Cultural Wellness Center was able to see this concept of coaching and doing their own training courses that could fit in very closely with the training and certification that Change Inc was already providing.
Because science and medicine mainly come from Western culture, one of the goals of this course is for participants to look at themselves and reflect on whether or not their past learnings have been restoring of themselves. Do they separate themselves as a therapist from their true selves? If they are divided internally, bringing a holistic approach with them will be challenging as they begin to work with other people who are also separated and looking for support.
Elder Atum says, "the feedback we have gotten on the course gives us great encouragement. I think that the concept of culture, because it's so new to many people of European heritage, they're the first to say, 'I don't have culture.' But, in these sessions, people study themselves to see where culture has actually informed everything they've done."
She says that in their sessions, they see people beginning to learn and unlearn the things that relate to culture for them. "And that, to us, is a competency. It's a skill. It's a very important foundation for the work that they're trying to do to heal others," says Elder Atum.
What's unique about this course is that this is the only course on this topic. The Cultural Wellness Center fully developed the curriculum. They have experience developing curricula for all the organizations they work with. They are undeniably a knowledge production, curriculum, research, and development organization.
Tezet and Elder Atum believe Change Inc. is the perfect partnership because the Cultural Wellness Center specializes in alternative ways of knowing, learning, and teaching. Change Inc. provides proven alternative teaching modalities and methods. Together, they can prove that the alternative is legitimate and that culture is knowledge and knowledge is power.
From Race to Culture in the Supervision of Therapeutic Practice has been offered three times since its conception, with another offering of the course set for later this year.
Meet Mohammed Bati, a former GAP School student. At 23 years old, he has lived in the United States for less than five years. He and his family immigrated to America from Ethiopia in 2018. Making a new home with his family in St. Paul, Mohammed began his first two years of American schooling at Highland Park Senior High School. He then came to GAP School to complete his last two years of high school.
GAP School was able to provide a multitude of opportunities to Mohammed. He became a part of the Healthcare Career Pathway program, where he learned about the different career routes available after graduation. This program piqued his interest in pursuing nursing as a future career.
But what makes Mohammed unique is his success as a competitive runner. He began running at just eight years old when he was still living in Ethiopia. While Mohammed says he doesn’t necessarily run for fun, he loves the competitive aspect of the sport. And it shows — he came in third place in the 2021 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon while still a student at GAP School! In fact, his biggest goal is to run in the Olympics one day.
In the process of training and competing, he has developed a strong sense of discipline and self-control. His hard work paid off, and he was accepted to Augsburg College, where he is on the cross-country running team. As only a freshman, Mohammed won his first four collegiate races by more than 12 seconds each. He broke the school record at Augsburg for the 8,000-meter cross-country distance and won the MIAC Championship race. In November of last year, he placed seventh overall at the NCAA North Regional and earned a spot at the NCAA Men’s Division III National Championships in Lansing, Michigan. Mohammed was the first Auggie to qualify for the NCAA Cross Country Championships since 2012.
About his time at GAP School, Mohammed says, “They [GAP School] supported me in a different way, in education and also with financial help, and were really encouraging for school. They supported me in a good way.” Mohammed was an exceptional student during his time at GAP School. Healthcare Pathway Manager, Erika Thurston, detailed an example of his commitment to schooling. She said that during the height of COVID, Mohammed lived in his family’s garage to avoid becoming infected by an outbreak within his family. He attended school entirely online from his car. “Mohammed didn’t have any prior formal education before coming to America. He worked so hard,” says Thurston.
GAP School also exposed Mohammed to different career pathways he could pursue after high school. Through his experience as a part of the Healthcare Career Pathway, he became interested in the medical field and helping people. He is now Pre-Nursing at Augsburg College.
Mohammed says his goal is to continue to stick to his education and to run good times in his races. Mohammed’s favorite part about running is that it is the same in every culture and is a good way to meet people. When asked about the most significant difference between high school education and college education, Mohammed said, “Going to college means, for me, knowing yourself, where you’re at, and the way you learn. Also, you get a lot of different experiences and learn about yourself. You must study hard.”
Between his full-time studies and running year-round, Mohammed certainly has a lot on his plate. On top of this, he is still relatively new to the U.S. and is learning to navigate the language and customs. We hope Mohammed’s story is an example to all our students of what is possible through hard work, passion, and determination. Through it all, he continues to succeed and make GAP School proud to call him a former student.
A Lasting Legacy — How One Long-time Donor Has Supported GAP School Since Its Beginning
Carlo LaManna, 97, is a long-time donor to GAP School and Change Inc. and a proud West Sider from Saint Paul. He and his late wife, Virginia LaManna, had eleven children and were married 74 years before her passing in 2020. Together, they created The Carlo and Virginia LaManna Fund of the Saint Paul & Minnesota Foundation to give back to their beloved West Side of Saint Paul community.
Prior to founding GAP School in St. Paul’s West Side neighborhood, Sister Giovanni taught religion classes to Mr. LaManna’s children at Archbishop Brady High School. When Sister Giovanni started Guadalupe Alternative Programs in 1967, Carlo remained connected to her and GAP School, and, in turn, Change Inc. Over the years, Mr. LaManna has given charitably to our organization. We recognize his generosity that has helped many youth and young adults through our program offerings and school services through GAP School.
Because of Mr. LaManna’s relationship with Sister Giovanni, Change Inc. continues to feel the impact of his generosity year after year, most recently during our 2022 Annual Appeal. When asked what keeps him donating to GAP School, Mr. LaManna replied that he does it for the children in need.
Thank you, Mr. LaManna, for continuing to support our mission of utilizing the power of relationships and community to create educational, training, and healing opportunities for children, youth, young adults, and families so they can achieve their highest ambition.
How the Community Leadership Development and Training Program Hopes to Inspire BIPOC Young Adults to Pursue a Career That Gives Back to Their Community
Kc Gammage is the supervisor leading the Community Leadership Development and Training (CLDT) project and has extensive experience working with Black youth and young adults, both in mentoring and offering direct therapeutic services/social emotional supports. As a member of the Twin Cities’ Black community and a mental health professional, she has lived experience and a unique insight into how best to convey the experiences of Black youth through data practices.
Community Leadership Development and Training is a 12-week, 135-hour, paid internship experience for BIPOC young adults 18 to 24 years old who are interested in becoming positive role models in their own communities, including progressing in their education, learning success skills, exploring careers in community building, and gaining cultural self-knowledge.
Two cohorts of 10 participants each are chosen through a rigorous application and interview process. The program begins with individualized assessment and goal setting. Following the completion of the program, individualized job placement and support is provided. Each participant is paid $18 per hour over the course of the program, with additional wraparound supports also being provided (such as laptops, gas cards, bus passes, drivers license costs, etc.)
Kc began as an intern with Change Inc. in 2015. Over the years, she has taken on her own therapy caseload and worked her way up in the ranks to become a supervisor for the Community & School Collaborative and a leader in the highly successful Crossroads mentoring program. She approaches that work with a lens of how we can share the experiences of Black youth and young adults in the Twin Cites as they connect to their African heritage.
As Kc describes, “CLDT is an intense curriculum to train the participants in topics such as mental toughness, keys to the streets/build your own vision, selfcare for people of color, family conflict and trauma, and wisdom.” The trainings that the curriculum is built around are presented by other members of Change Inc., including Corey Byrd, Jay Slaughter, Steve Floyd, Karina Kromah, and Jennifer Duran de Macario. There is also an independent study component to CLDT which enables participants to become certified in different programs and trainings though the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA). Other partners involved with CLDT include Agape Movement, the Council for Black Male Success, Turning Point, and the Cultural Wellness Center.
The idea for CLDT has been in the works for quite awhile. When The City, Inc. was still in existence, leaders came up with the idea for a workforce career pathway program. This idea came about because those working for The City, Inc. at the time noticed how few people of color were serving in disenfranchised communities. Kc says “They had a ‘you gotta go there to know there’ model. So, the thing that really sparked it was the idea that we work with these youth who are in these really transformative years. And if we pour into them and give them tools to change their family history, then one would hope that they come back and serve the community that they're from.”
Funded by the MN Office of Justice Programs, the Community Leadership Development and Training (CLDT) program kicked off with its first cohort in October and will wrap up at the end of December. A second cohort is set to begin in the new year. Taking place at Change Inc.’s office and community mental health clinic location in Northeast Minneapolis, the CLDT program builds upon the foundation we have built over the decades serving Minneapolis youth and young adults.
Building a program such as this, however, doesn’t come without its own unique set of challenges. Transportation is one of the hurdles many participants face. Not all individuals have a driver’s license, leaving them to rely on buses and brave the Minnesota winter weather while doing so. It’s also sometimes easy to forget our world has been living in a pandemic state for nearly three years. Our young people have suffered a lot with virtual schooling and motivation in general. Coming back in-person after the strange times we’ve lived through the past few years can be challenging, but very necessary at the same time.
There are also participants who are young parents that are taking part in CLDT. This poses a whole other world of challenges for them, namely, childcare. While talking with Kc about the program, a participant knocked on the door to ask KC to speak with her childcare provider to verify she was working and qualified for the daycare services. This is a first-hand example of hoops the participants are jumping through to be a part of this life-changing opportunity.
The biggest barrier, however, is time. “Ten weeks is not enough time. If we could train and pay them for six months or a year, these participants could do some serious damage — in a good way,” says Kc. She goes on to state how she wishes a program like this had existed when she was younger and says “It's such a delicate age group at 18 to 24, because you're too old to still be a kid, but you're too irresponsible and broke to be a full-on adult.”
The overall goal of the CLDT program is to both motivate young adults to pursue careers related to violence prevention, but also to involve their experiences in the overall policing/violence prevention efforts. Any member of a community that is experiencing persistent violence needs to be directly involved in collaborating in both short-term de-escalations and strategies for long-term systemic strategies. By encouraging BIPOC young adults to pursue and train in violence prevention career pathways, led by our staff that have been engaged in those activities for decades, this will help achieve lasting systemic change.
This goal related to violence prevention aims to help develop these young leaders, and give them skills to be able to navigate the trials and tribulations of their communities. In the midst of looking at their own selves retrospectively and their own trauma, they're also looking at the community trauma that's taking place, neighborhood trauma, inter-partner violence, and family trauma and violence. CLDT is focused on helping them advocate for ways to resolve the cognitive dissonance that exists in their lives and communities.
Where does Kc hope for participants to be when the first cohort of the program comes to an end in a few weeks?
“I hope they're connected to us [Change Inc.] somehow. I hope we deposit enough into them, inspire them enough. I hope we can get funding to put them in the community. I hope that they learn skills that they didn't have. I hope they grow in ways they didn't know that they could, and I hope they start to become the leaders that they are meant to be. Each and every one of those participants, they are so amazing and their potential is limitless.”
Near the end of talking with Kc, another participant knocked on the door. He asks Kc if he’s allowed to do the program again next year and shares how much he’s enjoyed it and learned from it so far. This touched Kc and made her very proud of what the program has become so far. It’s a testament to Kc’s, and all of the trainers involved with the program, work and care they’ve poured into CLDT. We believe that as participants in the CLDT program become community leaders themselves, the positive impact of the program will grow through the relationships they continue to form.
Staff Spotlight: Adalinda Sanchez and How She Is Bringing Reflective Consultation to Infant and Child Caretakers
Adalinda Sanchez, M.A., LMFT, is a therapist with Change Inc., and is trained in reflective consultation. Adalinda graduated from Argosy University in 2014 with a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy and became fully licensed in April 2018. She has been working with Change Inc. since 2014. Adalinda is also bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English. In practice, she places her focus on the neurobiology of trauma. She provides clients with an opportunity to explore the roots of some of the problematic patterns in their lives, find compassion and gentleness even with wounded or undesirable parts, and appreciates the complexity of the choices we make as humans so that they can move forward in treatment from a place of strength, rather than a place of shame.
She applies this same method to those she facilitates reflective consultation for as well. Adalinda started training in reflective consultation in August of 2021 and has been practicing ever since. In order to practice reflective consultation, she went through trainings including those on the topics of cultural awareness and early childhood brain development. Adalinda specifically focuses on early childhood mental health, but shared that the general training for reflective consultation focuses on the FAN (Facilitating Attuned Interactions) approach.
Reflective Consultation and Its’ Importance in Early Childhood Mental Health
Mental health is crucial to the developing brain of infants and children. From birth to age five, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time in life, meaning that the experiences in the beginning of their life, both positive and negative, greatly impact how their brain develops. A child’s relationships with their adult caretakers can be the most prominent influence on their brain development. And this essential brain development is why it is so important for caretakers of children zero to five to have support in how they’re caring for them.
As Adalinda describes, reflective consultation in early childhood mental health can be defined as “a facilitator working with a caretaker and holding space for that person. The facilitator is trained in certain techniques to support and offer reflective capacities so that the caretaker participant can look at how situations are being impacted by themself and other factors, and finding solutions.” She also notes that “We believe that through reflective consultation, providers can grow and examine emotions and situations through psychoeducation and exploration.” She says that reflective consultation can look different for everyone and that there is no one right way for a session to play out.
Caretakers of infants and children could include early childhood educators and staff, daycare workers, social workers, speech and occupational therapists, or Family, Friend, and Neighbor (FFN) childcare providers, among others. Family, Friend, and Neighbor childcare providers offer legal, unlicensed child care to families across the state and nation. FFN providers are a common type of care for parents of infants and toddlers, parents in diverse ethnic and cultural communities, and parents working non-standard hour jobs. Family, Friend, and Neighbor caregiving is a community-based format of childcare that many rely on, and at Change Inc., we work to provide support to these caregivers.
While it may not always appear in an obvious way, trauma plays a major role in the developing brain of infants and children zero to five. In general, however, most children don’t start therapy until much later in their life, if at all. It’s strange to think, if brain development and mental wellness practices are most actively occurring at a very young age, that we don’t invest more into mental health services during this period in a child’s life. Caretakers are extremely important in a child’s development and young life, so it’s important that time and help is invested into the support of caretakers. Reflective consultation aims to do just that.
Another topic in early childhood mental health that is important to highlight is that children of color are almost always at a disadvantage in infant and early childhood development and are more likely to experience trauma at a young age. Adalinda says this is extremely important to take into consideration and that caretakers of these children are almost like second parents who are essential to supporting their mental health and wellness. This is just another reason why reflective consultation is so valuable to caretakers, even more so to those who provide care or teach children of color.
An important aspect of the work Change Inc. is doing through reflective consultation includes providing consultation sessions to Spanish and Hmong-speaking caretakers. Adalinda provides reflective consultation to caretakers such as those in Spanish-immersion daycare centers or schools. In addition, Change Clinic therapist, Mai Yia Her, is also being trained in reflective consultation to be able to provide sessions to Hmong-speaking caretakers.
More than anything, Adalinda says that reflective consultation is about holding space for the caretaker and making them feel seen so that change can be welcomed and feel less threatening to everyone involved, especially the children. She plans to carry on with her training in reflective consultation to continue helping caretakers that have the most impact in early childhood mental health.
GAP School Students Help Organize Community Vaccine Clinic to Promote Vaccine Equity in Community
Vaccine equity means fair and just access to vaccines, including flu vaccines, COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. In an effort to provide a convenient way for more people to access to the vaccines, GAP School, in partnership with M Health Fairview and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), hosted a vaccine clinic in October.
Change Inc.’s Social Work Lead, Gabriela Hernandez, along with our social work interns from Metro State University, and Change Inc.’s Cultural Community Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, Adriana Galván, worked to coordinate the vaccine clinic. Between the bunch, they utilized our grants with the Minnesota Department of Health and the CDC to come together and put on this event for the community.
M Health Fairview provided nursing staff and other health care professionals to come and administer the vaccine to students, staff, and community members. M Health Fairview has a contract as a COVID-19 vaccine, testing and treatment provider for the community.
There are nearly 20 students who are a part of GAP School’s Healthcare Career Pathway who were actively involved in the event. Erika Thurston, Healthcare Pathway Manager at GAP School, organized the students and prepped them to help work at the vaccine clinic event. She said some of the goals for involved students were learning what happens at a vaccine clinic, what consent paperwork is needed from those receiving vaccines, and who the people are that administer the vaccines.
The vaccine clinic was also a good opportunity for students to practice basic jobs skills such as communicating with a supervisor and time management. Students helped by being greeters and time keepers, among other communications and leadership roles throughout the day. Erika explained that she has been helping to instruct students in the Healthcare Career Pathway program to be the spokespeople for public health this school year. Her hope is that these students can encourage their fellow students and family members to go get vaccinated, and to not be afraid, as there is still a lot of resistance towards vaccines in younger students that have recently immigrated to the United States.
One student from the Healthcare Career Pathway program who took part in the vaccine clinic event, Foziya Jara, said “It was very great to be a part of helping the people who came to the clinic to get their COVID vaccine or flu shot. I learned about organizing people and aligning [with others working the event].” Foziya just graduated at the end of October from GAP School and hopes to attend cosmetology or dental assistant schooling in the near future.
Collectively, a total of 38 flu shots and 19 COVID vaccines were administered at the clinic event. Erika is very happy with this turn out and said there were many students who would not have otherwise gotten their shots had it not been for the event. She also stated that “it was nice to see these students so willing to get vaccinated after seeing other students and staff doing it.”
As a part of our contract with the Minnesota Department of Health, Change Inc. assists with COVID-19, Information, Education and Outreach to underserved populations, especially those challenged by language and digital access to reliable information. Through its Cultural, Faith, and Disability team, MDH has created a network of providers and trusted leaders in the different communities that provide support needed through the pandemic.
While language access and technical support challenges are not limited to COVID-19, the pandemic brought light to the disparities in minority communities of access to health and education. At GAP School, the flu vaccine has been offered since 2015 by the Social Services Team. The network and our strong connections with providers have allowed us to sustain the event for a number of years, and longtime partnerships and collaborations allow us to advocate for programs and services to fulfill our commitment of empowering through education and social and mental support services.
The collaboration with MDH and Ramsey, Dakota, and Hennepin counties has given the opportunity for Adult Basic Education (ABE) students to become Community Health Workers, thanks in part to scholarships awarded to these students. Former students that took this route are still a strong support network for events and programing at GAP School.
The saved time and convenience of the clinic being located at their school greatly impacted the number of students who chose to get their shots. Erika also mentioned that the comfort of having their teachers and friends around was important because your first time getting a shot like this can be a nerve-wracking experience.
We’re all in this together, and every shot counts towards a healthier community. Thank you to all of the staff who helped to organize this event, and to our students who worked at the clinic and encouraged others to get vaccinated.
Care for the Caregivers: Expanding Support to Caregivers of All Kinds in Times of Need
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our community in a drastic way, especially for families with children, and parental and caregiver stress has been greatly increased during the pandemic. To provide a little healing and relief from significant caregiving responsibilities, Change Inc. has developed programming to provide care for the caregivers. Through the Care for the Caregivers program, Change Inc. seeks to provide added supports for parents and caretakers.
Care for the Caregivers was funded by a grant from Minneapolis Health Department. The program was built around a variety of different caregiver offerings including a grandparent caregivers’ program, a well-being email series, a wellness room for staff at Northeast Middle School, as well as care packages for Minneapolis early childhood special education staff.
Lisa Xiong, M.A., LMFT, RPT, Change Inc. Director of Clinical Services, leads this project, providing staff consultation and professional development. “As a parent myself, I know how challenging the past few years have been for caregivers,” reflects Xiong. “What we have done is small, but hopefully significant in the moment.”
Throughout the past year, Care for the Caregivers has provided four key opportunities for caregivers.
Grand Connections: One initiative of the Care for the Caregivers is a program focused specifically on grandparent caregivers called Grand Connections. Grand Connections is a program for grandparents who are raising their grandchildren. Shockingly, 15% of grandparents surveyed said they raise their grandchildren full time, according to a 2012 study conducted by Generations United and MetLife. It is likely that their grandchildren have experienced many traumas. They often don't know how to connect with their grandchildren, so the workshops help them not only learn basic parenting skills, but how to build those connections so that they have a support system among other grandparents who are also raising their grandchildren. Grandparents often do not have the support system they would have if they were young and around other parents, so this is very important.
Email Well-being Series: Care for the Caregivers also created a 6-week email series delivering well-being tools, recorded yoga lessons, and live yoga class straight to subscribers’ inboxes. Change Inc. therapists, Katie Fisher and Hannah Berg, led yoga lessons and classes. Jess Finney, another therapist with Change Inc., provided acknowledgement, appreciation, and tangible takeaways to support caregivers in their efforts of caring for their children through weekly emails.
Wellness Room at Northeast Middle School: Jennifer Krizan, a therapist at Change Inc., led the push of setting up a wellness room at Northeast Middle School. The room was dimly lit and provided snacks, coffee, and tea for teachers and caregivers at the school. This provided a place where staff could take a moment to themselves in the craziness of the day and refocus their energy towards providing care towards students and children. Watch a video of the transformation here.
Care Packages: Lisa Xiong led organization of 150 care packages for Minneapolis early childhood special education staff. With the help of her mom and brother, they were able to assemble the packages with items such as tea, cookie mixes, ChapStick, positive affirmations, and more. She then delivered the care packages to Minneapolis Public Schools with the help of Change Inc. executive director, Jody Nelson. Teachers told her that they were very appreciative of the care packages, especially right before the teacher’s strike.
These are just a few of the outcomes of receiving a grant through Minneapolis Health Department to build caregiver capacity and resilience. Something that makes Care for the Caregivers unique is that it’s focused on caregivers vs. parents. At Change Inc., part of our mission is that “Relationships are the key to change.” Focusing specifically on caregivers opens up an entire audience of adults to relationships they can use who might otherwise not know where to look for support. Care for the Caregivers seeks to reduce caregiver stress created by the pandemic and other crises. Caregivers with less stress have more to offer those children in their care.
Nina Berglund Becomes Lead Mentor for Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society, Breathing a New Vision into Native American Community Activism
For over 20 years, Mitch Walking Elk led Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society. Now, after Mitch’s retirement this past June, the Society has been taken over by Nina Berglund (she/her/they/them). The mentoring program teaches American Indian youth cultural skills and knowledge through an intensive apprenticeship to deliver a definite and positive impact. Participants further develop their cultural identity and strengths to overcome barriers related to systemic racism and intergenerational poverty.
With funding provided through a grant from the Saint Paul Children’s Collaborative (SPCC), Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society provides access to traditional elders and healing instructors for American Indian Youth, ages 10-18, and their parents or families.
The core goal of Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society is to harness the inherent power of cultural identity to help empower and stabilize American Indian families who face barriers related to historical trauma, systemic racism, and poverty resulting from hundreds of years of oppression, abuse, and forced relocation.
Mitch Walking Elk is an enrolled member of the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and also part Hopi. He provided one-to-one weekly mentoring for participants and weekly two-hour group meetings for cultural instruction. Participants also assisted Walking Elk in officiating ceremonies such as pipe, sweat lodge, Sun Dance, healing/doctoring, naming, fasting (vision quest), Midewin and seasonal ceremonies, as well as learning to make drums, moccasins, shakers and prepare meat and berries for ceremonial use.
But now, there is a new lead mentor for the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society. Nina Berglund, 23, is Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota. They grew up in St. Paul and now live in South Minneapolis. As a Community Cultural Specialist with Change Inc., she not only works in schools with students, but is the new leader for the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society.
How they came to be in this position is a unique story. Nina started out as a participant of the program led by Mitch Walking Elk. The mentoring group used to be focused on young Native American males. However, Nina tagged along with her younger brother to the group one day and never looked back. Program leader at the time, Walking Elk, made the decision to open the group to all Native American youth and young adults, which, in turn, brought about a great deal of family involvement.
More and more family members of the participants began attending the group which is important because ceremony is so interconnected within the family. To live your life in a ceremonial way included involving your family members and those that you live with. According to the National Library of Medicine’s Native Voices Exhibition, “Ceremony is an essential part of traditional Native healing. Because physical and spiritual health are intimately connected, body and spirit must heal together. Traditional healing ceremonies promote wellness by reflecting Native conceptions of Spirit, Creator, and the Universe. They can include prayer, chants, drumming, songs, stories, and the use of a variety of sacred objects.”
As a mentee in Walking Elk’s group, Nina was able to experience a multitude of opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise been a part of. Mitch took the mentoring group to many different ceremonies, elder music gatherings, and even took them on the Longest Walk 5 in 2016, which is run by the American Indian Movement (the first Longest Walk took place in 1978). Nina said “I know personally it helped create connections in the community because thanks to attending those ceremonies and being a part of them, I've grown an entire family of people who go to ceremony, and who I consider my family.”
Another source of enlightenment came from being a mentee in Change Inc.’s Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society, and that was learning about the Doctrine of Discovery and the papal bulls. Walking Elk first showed the Doctrine of Discovery video to the group about 5 years ago. According to The Upstander Project, “The Doctrine of Discovery established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. The papal bulls were decrees that began in the 1100s, which included sanctions, enforcements, authorizations, expulsions, admonishments, excommunications, denunciations, and expressions of territorial sovereignty for Christian monarchs supported by the Catholic Church.”
After watching the film, the group of young mentees were rightfully upset and concerned. This led to Mitch proposing the idea of taking action. And so, in 2018, they fundraised and made enough money to travel to and meet with Vatican officials. As Nina shares, “We took the initiative, we did it, we fundraised, we went out there, met with community members and ultimately were in communication with the Vatican. And it was all due to the group.”
This started a whirlwind of movement, not only in the youth that traveled to the Vatican, but in the community. The movement was centered on the atrocities of the Catholic Church, and people like Christopher Columbus. Nina says that the activism component of the mentoring program was hugely influential to her, stating “The activism piece of the mentoring program, I think, is what Mitch really put into it. We can live our life in a ceremonial way, but understanding that our existence is a form of activism and by us as young people standing up and walking the way of our traditional ways, it actually benefits us so much more. And with this activism piece, we did all of it in ceremony and we made sure to do everything very intentionally by asking permission and following our customs.” They now view themself as a climate activist and Native Rights activist and say they are “fighting for the future generations on behalf of land, water, and our nations.”
A few years went by and just last year Mitch invited Nina and her brother down to Mexico to take part in a ceremony. While they were there, Mitch posed the question to Nina of what she would think about taking over for him as the leader of the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society when he retired. Nina said “At that time I didn't really think too much of it. I was 22 years old and at first, I said, ‘yeah, sure, that sounds cool,’ not understanding at that moment what would come with it.” Mitch brought it up to them again a few months later, and Nina started truly considering the opportunity.
Mitch very much encouraged Nina and told her she was the best fit for this role, being a mentee in the program herself. They began to think of how they could step into the position and mold the program into what they saw as being successful. She said she wanted to do it in a way that she could do the things she wished she had saw growing up, while still building upon all that Mitch had poured into this program over the years.
Soon after, Nina accepted a full-time position with Change Inc. as a Community Cultural Specialist and as the new leader of the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society. Walking Elk officially retired in July of this year, moving back to Oklahoma where he is originally from.
Nina says their intention of taking this position is to offer opportunities to the young people who often get overlooked. She says, “At the Youth shelter I previously worked at, seeing the kids there who are in such need of some type of culture, or of some type of language, some type of sense of identity —these kids have fallen into the cracks of the system. And personally, in experiencing that, in making relation and making connection with those kids, it makes me realize that as I'm getting older, it's my responsibility to be that person that those young people can look up to.”
Having their spiritual mentor, Walking Elk, tell them he believed in them made Nina emotional. She says she has also received good reassurance from her supervisor, Rich Garland, which has given her confidence as she finds her way in this new chapter in her life. In reference to Rich Garland’s reassurance they said, “I feel like that was just a continuation of Mitch’s words and Mitch’s impact on me. Sitting back and thinking, although I am a young person, and just last year I was just like a mentee in the program, to now this year being the organizer of the program— it is overwhelming, but it means so much to me and I know it means a lot to the community.”
One other aspect they feel is extremely important as they take over the group, is the identity of “two-spirit” youth. As Nina explained, two-spirit refers to a person who identifies as having both a masculine and feminine spirit, and ultimately are a part of the LGBTQ community. Nina themself identifies as Panromantic Demisexual two-spirit.
When forming their role with Change Inc., Nina discussed that the youth they had great interest in working with were LGBTQ youth and Trans Native youth. She says access to Ceremony for queer youth is really hard “because of peoples’ internalized homophobia, because of colonization, and because of boarding schools.” So, one of her main goals is to shine a light on these youth who need support because if that's a child's identity and that's how they choose to identify, then they should have access to these resources whether they identify as that or not.
As the year is ending, Nina’s focus is on getting the programming she took over from Mitch up and running again with grant funding from the SPCC. She hopes to host a fall feast for program members and families in the upcoming weeks as well to reunite the community. While they more than appreciate all the work Walking Elk has put into the Indigenous Youth Ceremonial Mentoring Society and who it has made them, they are also excited to put their own spin on the group and shape it into something even bigger for the Native American community members it will continue to serve.
Dodge Nature Center Provides Service Opportunities to GAP School YouthBuild AmeriCorps Students
For more than 20 years, GAP School has provided its’ students the opportunity to complete 300 community service hours in order to earn a Segal AmeriCorps Education Award that can be used to pay for secondary education and/or student loans. Not only does this benefit students by giving them an opportunity to earn money towards their higher education goals, but it also is a unique way to give back to the community in which they live and go to school.
Students ages 18 to 24 within GAP’s Alternative Senior High School and Adult Basic Education programs are eligible to enroll in our YouthBuild AmeriCorps program. This program provides a career pathway through alternative education, job training, and leadership development. While earning a high school diploma, participants acquire the skills and training that will position them for a successful career in healthcare or construction. This is also how they can work towards their 300 hours to earn the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.
According to YouthBuild’s website, AmeriCorps is a national service program that engages more than 75,000 Americans each year in service opportunities that address unmet critical needs in education, environmental stewardship, healthy futures, veterans and military families, economic opportunity, disaster services, and other unmet community needs.
For the past few years, as an opportunity for students to complete their hours, GAP School has partnered with Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul. Founded in 1967 by Olivia Irvine Dodge, the Thomas Irvine Dodge Nature Center boasts 460+ acres of nature preserve within the cities of West St. Paul, Mendota Heights, and Cottage Grove. Dodge Nature Center has a mission to provide exceptional experiences in nature through environmental education.
Over the years, GAP School students have made their way over to Dodge Nature Center to complete many different service projects as well as take part in lessons from their experienced staff. More recently, projects have taken place at Shepard Farm as well. Dodge Nature Center acquired Shepard Farm in 2013 from the Wilder Foundation and has developed it into a destination for agricultural and environmental education in Washington County.
Students in the Construction Pathway program at GAP School helped to fix up a house on Shepard Farm that their on-site interns will live in. Most recently, students have been helping to build a large turkey coop at the farm. As part of our partnership, GAP School highschoolers have also taken part in trainings at Dodge including maple syruping, beekeeping, tree identification, farm animal tours, and nature hikes.
One of the reasons we are so grateful for our partnership with Dodge so much is because it is rooted in nature. Many GAP School students are of the Karen people, who immigrated from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Their homeland was extremely rural, so moving to the urban Twin Cities area was quite an adjustment. The projects and lessons at Dodge Nature Center allow these students to reconnect with nature, which they really enjoy. Da Ra Pow, a student from Burma who has been working at Shepard Farm shared, “I like working on the roof of the coop and being outside.”
Through YouthBuild AmeriCorps, GAP School is able to make a difference in our students’ lives by giving them the tools and credentials they need to achieve economic stability and improve potential for higher lifetime earnings. Our goal is to make education and employment training a possibility for young adults in our community who face significant barriers. YouthBuild AmeriCorps propels students toward higher education opportunities while at the same time learning valuable trades that can be used in legitimate careers after graduating.
Moving Into Higher Education: How Being Awarded the Thompson Family Scholarship Will Help a Recent GAP School Graduate
Semira Jara was one of GAP School’s top students academically in the 2021-2022 school year. As a member of the Healthcare Careers Pathway, she obtained her PCA certification, completed a several months-long Certified Nursing Assistant Training, as well as Clinical Experience with GAP School’s employer Partner, Sholom Community Alliance (Nursing Home). Semira regularly volunteered with Episcopal Homes and participated in all of GAP’s community service projects. Over the course of her time with GAP School, she developed clear goals and expectations for herself, one of which was to receive a scholarship for college.
At the end of her experience with GAP School, she was awarded the Thompson Family Scholarship which is now helping fund her post-secondary education. The Thompson Family Scholarship began in 2019 in honor of long time Board Chair Karen Thompson. Every year, one student recipient is selected based on their academic and training performance. All of Semira’s teachers and trainers agreed she had wholeheartedly earned this award.
As Semira starts the next chapter in her life, she will attend school at Saint Paul Community College and enroll in classes to complete her 2-year Associate’s Degree in Phlebotomy. She is working full-time as a care taker for a family member and has even received a wage increase since exiting our program. After she completes her Associate’s Degree, she plans to move on to complete her 4-year degree at the University of Minnesota. Semira would not be able to accomplish these goals without her experience and time in GAP School’s YouthBuild program. She is thrilled to be taking steps towards a higher education and our educators at GAP School can’t wait to see what she accomplishes next.
Health Pathways Transition Coordinator, Erika Thurston, was able to ask Semira some questions and learn her thoughts about her time at GAP School and what she is excited for coming up. Read Semira’s thoughts below:
What was the most valuable lesson you learned in your time at GAP School?
SJ: “Journaling in Miss Laura’s class about our life and childhood and sharing with each other and learning from other students really taught me that you can accomplish anything if you have people to support you and a strong work ethic. Listening to other students talk about their struggles and backgrounds reminded me of how no matter where you come from or how many challenges you have had, you can build a life for yourself and accomplish your goals.”
What excites you most about moving into higher education?
SJ: “I am most excited about learning how to build a successful career and hopefully start a business in which I can better serve my community. I am so passionate about giving back to my community that has allowed me to accomplish my goals. I want to continue to discover more about the power of journalism and hopefully make a difference in the world.”
How did/will earning the Thompson Family Scholarship impact your plans after high school?
SJ: “When I found out I got the scholarship I realized that I could do more with my plans after graduation. I planned to go to community college, but with this scholarship, I can also pay for all of the books I will need and supplies and other materials for any training I pursue. My family and I felt that I needed to find more sources of income if I would be able to manage college without more financial support. My entire family is grateful for the scholarship I have received and can’t wait to see what comes from my next chapter.”