Native American Connections: Respecting & Healing a Community

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Native American Connections: Respecting & Healing a Community

Michele Honanie, a Hopi from the Sun Clan, struggled for years with an addiction to alcohol that cost Michele her job and, for a while, her two children.

Ken is a member of the Akimal O'Odham/Gila River Tribe. Following a pattern of substance abuse and self-destruction learned from his parents – who now are recovered alcoholics – he became addicted to alcohol and then to meth and cocaine. He lost his job, his self respect and the respect of his family.

Leander Yaiva is a Hopi and member of the Water Clan. For 16 years, his life was controlled by alcohol and drugs, ending a military career and costing him his youth and all of his possessions; he was homeless by age 26. 

Fortunately, each of these tragic stories has a happy ending, thanks to support and counseling Michele, Ken and Leander received from Native American Connections, a nonprofit that provides culturally appropriate behavioral health, affordable housing, and community development services to Native American communities. All three have since built careers at Native American Connections, using their personal story and experience to help others in need. Unfortunately, the challenges that Michele, Ken and Leander had to work to overcome are not unique in the Native American community.

“The full scope of the health and poverty challenges the Native American community faces in this country is hard to quantify; there are more than 530 recognized tribes in the United States,” explained Native American Connections President/CEO Diana Yazzie-Devine. “In general, Native Americans have disproportionately high rates of drug and alcohol abuse, diabetes and illness related to poor lifestyle and poverty.”

The Phoenix-based nonprofit has, for nearly 40 years, served as a drug-free safe haven for urban Native American and tribal communities throughout the Southwest, providing culturally sensitive and individualized counseling. The organization works with its clients to build life skills by teaching coping techniques, and support their recovery through promoting healthy lifestyles. Traditional Native American healing and other chosen methods, combined with best practice behavioral health treatment, remain a touchstone of the organization.

“As a leader, I love new ideas, innovation and best practices. I have been with Native American Connections for over 30 years. Because I’ve been here so long, I am always looking for new and better ways of solving the problems that our clients face,” said Yazzie-Devine. “Many of our staff are Native people who have graduated from our programs. Native people don’t always have access to the same formal channels of education; I am consistently looking for ways in which I can build leadership within the organization and create avenues for advancement for our staff.”

In 2007, Yazzie-Devine attended a workshop conducted by The Center for Leadership Innovation and was inspired to tackle this challenge head-on with ideas gleaned from her workshop peers and from lessons learned during the sessions she attended.

Her staff are spread out over the 15 sites offering affordable housing and behavioral health services. Nearly 75 percent of her staff are Native Americans and many are single parents who cannot leave their children in the evening to attend classes that might help them sharpen their skills and increase chances of promotion. Mindful also that staff turnover rates affect consistent levels of service at each site, Yazzie-Devine was also looking to engage staff in ways that would keep them around longer.

“I realized that we needed to do more to build tools and professional development opportunities for our staff into their existing jobs. And I realized that because we are so spread out, we would need to rethink the way staff are presented with incentives and opportunities in order to best serve their professional and growth needs."

“One creative thing we did in this vein was offer raise pools. Now, rather than managing promotions and raises from a central location, our 15 site managers have budgets that they can use at their discretion to incentivize and reward excellent work. I now better understand how to train and keep our staff happy and engaged and active in providing input to further the organization; it has really changed the level of their involvement,” she said.

Since this time, staff turnover rates have decreased. Staff now recognize new paths to advancement and see longevity with the organization, which reassures Yazzie-Devine about the long-term stability of her organization.

“I’m nearing the end of my career. The Center for Leadership Innovation made me very mindful of the ways in which the organization will be affected when I eventually retire,” said Yazzie-Devine. “Finding innovative new ways to inspire and build good leaders now will help to ensure the stability and longevity of Native American Connections when the torch is eventually passed on to new leadership.”

“I’m nearing the end of my career. The Center for Leadership Innovation made me very mindful of the ways in which the organization will be affected when I eventually retire.  Finding innovative new ways to inspire and build good leaders now will help to ensure the stability and longevity of Native American Connections when the torch is eventually passed on to new leadership.”

Diana Yazzie-Devine, President/CEO, Native American Connections