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The Way Forward: ACF Research with American Indians and Alaska Natives

Photo of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the America Indian.By Moushumi Beltangady, Senior Advisor, Early Childhood Development

On April 17 and 18, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood Development Linda Smith joined ACF leaders at a meeting at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the America Indian called "The Way Forward: ACF Research with American Indians and Alaska Natives."

The meeting was sponsored and led by ACF’s Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE) and highlighted research, performance measurement and evaluation activities in American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) communities. Meeting participants included U.S. researchers who collaborate with communities throughout Indian Country and Hawaii, as well as representatives from the National Indian Child Care Association, the National Indian Head Start Directors Association, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, and the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

As the manager of the Tribal Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (Tribal MIECHV), I was thrilled to be included in the meeting. The 25 Tribal MIECHV grantees are actively engaged in research and evaluation through performance measurement (benchmarks), rigorous evaluation, and continuous quality improvement activities. We know that tribal communities are able to do this work well, and the meeting gave us renewed confidence in the approach we have taken over the past four years: setting high expectations, allowing tribal community flexibility to address local priorities while meeting those expectations, and providing in-depth support and relationship-based technical assistance to build capacity at each step. The message I will take away most from the meeting was the idea that capacity building for research and evaluation in AIAN communities is actually a form of “nation building” – and must be recognized and respected as such.

The meeting began with an opening prayer from ACF Office of Head Start Region XI Senior Program Specialist, WJ Strickland. ACF leaders welcomed the group and spoke of our agency’s commitment to supporting the success of AIAN communities, and the importance of data, research, and stories in solidifying and maximizing this support. Monica Tsethlikai of the University of Utah then set the stage for our discussion by framing the historical context for today’s AIAN population; presented data on the current health and well-being of Native people and the impacts of historical and inter-generational trauma; talked about the role of culture in promoting positive development in children (including cognitive and social development); and argued for a focus on cultural engagement and multi-disciplinary teams as part of evidence-based efforts to fully address the lifelong health needs of AIAN people.

The next presentation, on the ACF Children's Bureau's Roadmap for Collaborative and Effective Evaluation in Tribal Communities, provided a guiding framework for the next two days. Attendees were very impressed with the thoughtful and inclusive development of the roadmap and its broad applicability to many research and evaluation efforts in tribal communities. The roadmap clearly articulates the importance of recognizing the historical context, empowering tribes, building relationships, and fostering capacity for research and evaluation in tribal communities – all messages that resonated throughout the meeting.

The roadmap also resonated with the work we have done in the Tribal MIECHV program, particularly the work of the Tribal Home Visiting Evaluation Institute (TEI) technical assistance provider, who presented on their work to build relationships with and support capacity among grantees to meet the program’s requirements. Cindy O’Dell, Education Department Chair of Salish Kootenai College, reflected on these capacity building efforts (along with those of the Tribal Health Professions Opportunities Grants) and outlined the potential role that Tribal Colleges and Universities could play in supporting and conducting research and evaluation in AIAN communities.

As the meeting went on, presenters affiliated with the ACF-funded Tribal Early Childhood Research Center and others explored the important topics of community-engaged measurement development for looking at questions about culture; the challenges of selecting, adapting, and using measures that have not been tested with Native populations; designing and scaling up evidence-based interventions within and across diverse AIAN cultures; and rigorous research designs that may be appropriate for addressing the methodological challenges often encountered when working with AIAN communities.

The meeting closed with a lively discussion between meeting participants and Linda Smith, Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg, Administration on Native Americans Commissioner Lillian Sparks Robinson, and Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation Director Naomi Goldstein. Speakers reminded ACF leaders of the importance of: supporting research and evaluation in programs and populations that have not traditionally been included, such as the tribal Child Care and Development Fund and the urban Indian community; building long-term, sustainable capacity for research and evaluation in Native communities, which can be difficult with three to five year discretionary grants; building on the many un-tapped resources that exist in AIAN communities, such as the holders of indigenous knowledge, the paraprofessional workforce, and Tribal Colleges and Universities; institutionalizing the insights of the roadmap; scaling up efforts to understand the development of resilience in AIAN children and youth; and supporting the tribally-driven dissemination of knowledge about what works in tribal settings with a broad range of collaborators and stakeholders.

I look forward to the report from this important meeting, and to the continued conversation and exploration that it has already begun to generate.

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