Seeding a Community with Confidence
Walking the streets of Omak, your eyes lift to sunny sage-covered hills in every direction. The sun rises and sets quickly in Omak, nestled in the Okanogan River Valley. Townspeople identify with this valley north to Canada and south to the Columbia. Omak serves this valley as well, offering its motels, restaurants, two movie theaters, even a Performing Arts Center, to the region. “Omak is a great place to raise our kids,” says one community member. And it is through these kids that the community sees hope for a better future.
Omak, sitting exactly on a reservation border, counts in its school enrollment about 20 percent tribal members from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation — 12 bands and 1.4 million acres large. Their school population is also about 10 to 15 percent Mexican. “I’m proudest of our diversity,” remarks a local school superintendent. “Here you have a community where on one side of the Okanogan River you have the Colville Reservation and the other side you have Omak.”
“One common factor among all of us,” describes a town leader, “is that no matter the ethnic group, we’re basically a poor community.” One indicator is that the free and reduced lunch count at the elementary level is at 70 percent. And though the town doesn’t feel poor as you travel through it, the county may. Okanogan County claims the highest rate of poverty in all of Washington.
In part to address this fact, Omak recently participated in Horizons, a community leadership development program sponsored by the Northwest Area Foundation. Poverty and youth both became focal points. One Native American leader recalls, “We went through formal leadership training, but the benefit to the community was that we clearly identified issues that should be addressed, and the key issue was the reduction of poverty.”
It was through their discussions on poverty that the community identified youth as the population to work with. Explains a tribal leader, “We were discussing the mindset of generational poverty — how public assistance can become a way of life, how individuals come to fear government — and we asked, ‘Who makes the biggest difference in the lives of these adults? Who goes home at the end of a day and talks with their parents? Who motivates them?’ We discussed parent participation in schools (beyond sports) and we felt we needed incentives for the kids so that the parents would come to the table.”
So Horizons brought a continual focus on youth. They mixed students who were already leaders with those who were at risk of dropping out. A clear emphasis was placed on preventing teen pregnancy as a part of the focus on reducing poverty. Experts spoke on topics like issues surrounding rape, about sex outside of marriage — “the whole nine yards about sexuality.” And they ended up giving young people three basic pieces of advice: don’t have kids before you’re 20 years old; finish high school; and try not to have children at all until you’re finished with school, stable with a permanent partner and ready to start a family. “You could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium,” one of the organizers reflects.
Furthermore, recalls one community member, “We asked, ‘Who has been ignored?’ We figured — those who are not doing college or any four-year degree. They think about manual labor, but this path might not be a way to make a good living.” The community knew that education in the trades was lacking and that there was a shortage of electricians and plumbers. To address the issue, leaders went to the local community college and the high school and got them to work together on a vocational training program.
The community recently passed a $9.5 million dollar local bond ($13.5 million with state match) for a vocational facility and gym, but needed a related school levy for the project to go forward. About a third of the young people who were part of Horizons took it upon themselves to get the community to pass the levy. Students knocked on doors and made charts and presentations for the School Board Citizens Committee. Many felt it was the best information they could get, and in the spring of 2006 residents passed a $2.4 million school levy. The new facility will be built and will include a major emphasis on the vocational trades.
Another great product of the leadership development process was an effort in 2005 called the “Summer Success Academy.” This two-day camp for youth emphasized team building and leadership. It went so well that a current project supported by the Discuren Foundation will expand the Summer Success Academy in 2006. Its designer comments, “The 2005 Academy was the tip of the iceberg compared to this year’s Academy. The new program will go four weeks, and will start off with the camp. It has the theme ‘Amazing Grace’ (from the TV show) and will bring in youth from the tribe and the Latinos Unidos group. This will make a long-term difference.”
The overriding goals for the Summer Success Academy 2006 are to make it non-traditional, diverse, community-based and experiential. Omak wants to give kids access to technology and outreach for professional opportunities — especially at-risk kids. “We want to give kids the chance to think outside of Omak.”
In the state of Washington, one of the new requirements for high school seniors is that they do a culminating community-based project. State educators think of it as a good way to impact the overall community — having students work on ways to develop their community and their economy, asking what can be done to encourage clean and wage-earning jobs. School leaders believe that if they put their students onto this challenge, you’ll see as much change as if you hired expensive consultants.
The Summer Success Academy supports this statewide requirement. Students can use their summer experiences to inform their choices, to go out, look early and identify good projects for themselves. “We want to tell the kids, ‘Yes, you can expect more out of life. If your folks don’t know the answer, there are some who might know. There is a community available to help you.'”
As one community participant looks back on the last few years of Omak’s focus on leadership and youth, he sees shining examples. “What that did is it ‘seeded’ our community with people who would not have stepped forward,” he says. “And that energy doesn’t go away. They will now step forward in new numbers. We’ve also been seeding the community with training and opportunities to create confidence in those people now stepping up. That’s the power in it, and that’s everlasting.”