Q&A with Donita Fry, NAYA Family Center
What is your primary charge as the Portland Youth and Elders Council Organizer for the Native American Youth and Family Center?
My primary charge is to develop culturally specific ways for us to address Native American issues and priorities that concern Portland’s urban Native American community. I’m also charged with helping the community to develop a better understanding of the governance structure of the City of Portland, as well as identify ways for us to unite our voices and have access to city government.
What community needs does the council seek to address?
We have four priority areas that we focus on around poverty reduction: employment, housing, community development and education. One of the needs we’ve identified is developing a gathering place for our community.
We also advocate for the recognition of indigenous and native cultures in Portland Parks and Recreation programs and systems around the city, because everything we do is being done on ceded land. Thousands of years before there was an Oregon, there were native Oregonians. This land belonged to our ancestors, our history is Portland’s history.
Like other urban native communities around the country, the Portland native community has high rates of poverty. In order to take measures to reduce poverty, we need to address the barriers that stand in the way of success. These barriers are due in part to the historical trauma that our people endured from past assimilation efforts, racism and oppression. Looking at holistic ways to help support our families is important: from living wage jobs, to stable housing, to access to transportation. We’re also working to provide more access to city government, so we can tell our stories, and influence decision-making across priority areas that impact the Native community.
By nature and by culture, we’re not assertive people. We tend to listen more than we speak, and we’re very thoughtful when we respond. Sometimes, our particular style does not quite align with the way our political arena – and our dominant society – functions. That’s why it’s really important to educate ourselves on public processes so we can better engage systems and get our voices heard.
Our council also addresses the disconnect with the way city agencies access the community. The emphasis on neighborhood associations works well for communities that have a geographic orientation. Native people like to gather with Native people, and we are spread out all over the region. The Portland Youth and Elders Council provides a way for our urban Indian communities to come together and advocate around shared priorities.
Another issue is that our elders have experienced disrespect of our culture through various research and studies that led to misinformation about our way of life. Sometimes there’s a hesitancy to share our history as well. Generally speaking, our people have a historical mistrust of government systems, brought about my broken treaties, native children being forced into boarding schools, and the Indian genocide.
Why is the council an important part of the urban Indian community in Portland?
The work of the council started with a focus on urban Indian communities and poverty reduction, and engaging our youth in summer employment and strengthening community engagement. There’s also work in harnessing the values of Indian country in leading our work in helping reduce poverty. The cultural connection is so important in making sure we maintain our legacy and benefit the “seventh generation.”
A fundamental spiritual belief across Indian country is a relational world view. Everything is interconnected. We all have a purpose in this world. While we’re here, we have to be respectful of our resources, and mindful of the values we instill in our children. Always keep one foot “in the future” because your choices and actions today will have an impact on our children and great- grandchildren, and into the “seventh generation.”
We serve more than 380 tribal affiliations within our community base. There are many different traditions, and our families are multi-ethnic. We speak many languages. Finding common ground among all the differences may perhaps be viewed as a challenge, yet we all share the fundamental value of interconnectedness.
What are some of the strategies you’ve found most effective in engaging the local Native community?
The work we do in advocacy takes time, and sometimes takes a lot of affirming experiences and individual attention. Sometimes it takes picking up people from their homes, and taking them to City Council meetings, so they can become more familiar with public processes. Finding parking downtown or walking into City Hall can be intimidating for people who are not familiar with this type of civic engagement. Many people are new to the language of public commissions and advisory boards.
We work to remove the barriers people – especially families – have with staying engaged in community. We provide transportation and food at our meetings, we invite folks to come during the evening. Everything we do involves our families, so there’s no need for child care. I’m blessed with the fact that culturally, we have always included our youth in all our activities, so starting the youth council; we didn’t need to build new bridges with our young people. As a people, we’re grounded in humor, and sometimes that makes it easier to talk about difficult topics.
What past experiences led you to your current work in community organizing?
I guess I’ve always been a leader. I have many brothers, and I’m the only girl. I’ve always tried to keep them out of trouble. I went to school intending to become an elementary school teacher. While I was in school, my husband and I started a construction business. I did that for many years while raising our children. Unfortunately, I fell into a drug and alcohol addiction that took me out of commission. I came to Portland to join the Native recovery community. As I started to heal, I asked Creator to make me useful to my people. Part of my recovery led me to discover that I was holding a deep pain. I didn’t understand it because I had a very strong family foundation, and had been very successful at many aspects of my life. I learned to identify that pain with historical trauma, what our ancestors have been through in losing our culture, language and land. The only way that I could help in any form is to be a survivor and walk in a good way. As I learned to be courageous with my choices, I ended up in this position, and able to help my community learn as well.
I also serve on the Human Rights Commission for the City of Portland – working with strong leaders and activists in our community. Observing their work is helping guide my work as well.
How does your cultural background impact the way you lead?
I’m an enrolled member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe in Idaho, and have lived on and off my reservation growing up. Having lived on the reservation and knowing what that is like – you can never leave that behind. My people are very much part of who I am. My experience with recovery has taught me to walk my talk: speak truthful and acknowledge past experiences that have brought me to where I am today. I believe that I’m grounded in the spiritual values that I have learned through ceremony, sweat lodge, dance and prayer. That brings calmness to the immensity of the work we’re faced with.
What are some of the Council’s most important accomplishments and challenges?
Our council is six years old now, and we’ve had a pretty consistent involvement from community. Relationships in Portland’s native community are strong. Consistent dialogue is important in understanding each other’s viewpoints. Sometimes the road to consensus is long, but we make sure whatever decision we make honors everybody’s viewpoint.
One of the most challenging aspects of the work is securing funding for our work. My office is funded through the Diversity and Civic Leadership program through the City of Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement. NAYA has a strong policy and advocacy focus, and there’s some funding committed to that work that allows us to leverage monies as well. But we can use more staff people to do the level of work that’s needed to really engage our community. Succession planning for the next generations of leaders is essential and funding youth leadership development is challenging.
I love my work – I feel blessed and grateful that I get paid to do it. Seeing our native people thrive – living in wellness – is my vision for the future. We have a long and resilient past, and a beautiful culture. We have many challenges, but we thrive despite the barriers we face.
Colors of Influence :: Summer 2010