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How one person leads to another: Strategic connections in District 1

Erin Carter is a Michigan State University (MSU) Extension educator with the Extension Health Research (EHR) and Disease Prevention and Management (DPM) teams. She’s been with us since 2015 and serves our MSU Extension District 1. As part of the DPM aspect of her position, she offers programming in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Diabetes Prevention Program, Dining with Diabetes, Matter of Balance, Personal Action Toward Health (PATH) and Diabetes PATH. She works with an Ishpeming 5th grade class to offer the SPartners physical activity and nutrition program.

Headshot of Erin Carter, MSU Extension health and nutrition educator in District 1.

Erin Carter, MSU Extension health and nutrition educator in District 1.

The goal of the recently formed EHR team is to serve as a model to promote partnerships nationwide between Extension and university academic faculty to advance health in all our communities. EHR offers “Are You Research Ready?” to train Extension educators to use their health programs, expertise and community connections to work closely with the MSU College of Human Medicine researchers. The team also offers “Speed Meetings” to inform statewide faculty about Extension programming so they may use our programming, our connections or both in their research.

When making strategic connections, Erin told us that she’s not quiet for long.

“When I feel strongly about something I only sit back when forced to do so. With this being said, I talk about Extension a lot, which opens doors to things I didn’t know existed or something I could be involved in,” Erin said. “It’s interesting how one person leads to another and with each relationship, positive things began to happen.”

Erin made an important connection when a person who works in health with the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians approached her. He asked her to help him form a coalition at the K. I. Sawyer community.

Once a pristine U.S. Air Force base, K. I. Sawyer, located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, turned rural Gwinn into a bustling small city starting in 1955. This all changed after the Base Realignment Commission of the federal government decided to close K. I. Sawyer in 1993. Upheaval of the Air Force base left behind miles of land. Air force properties sold to private individuals, companies and the Sault Tribe mostly for $1 per property. Some of the housing is vacant, but other homes are inhabited by families and individuals, many of whom cannot afford to live elsewhere.

Eighty-seven percent of students in the K. I. Sawyer School are eligible to receive free and reduced lunch. The community within K. I. Sawyer, Lake Superior Village, reports numbers of 100 percent free and reduced-lunch status. In this small section of K. I. Sawyer, the former community center has opened its doors to serve these families with volunteers within the neighboring counties. Donations have been the only means of providing services for an after-school and summer program, which offers healthy snacks.

The residents of Lake Superior Village do not have access to health care. The closest hospital is a 30-minute drive for individuals having the luxury of owning a car.

If employed, individuals usually work in service jobs earning minimum wage or just above minimum wage. Since these jobs are primarily in Marquette, workers must take public transit or drive personal cars requiring more cost and hardship.

“It only took me one visit to know this partnership was important and could do some great things in a community of need,” Erin said. “The social determinants of health talks about the importance of healthy communities and how unsafe or unhealthy communities affect everyone. If there are no programs for this community, what will happen to the outlying communities? It takes committed people willing to take the time to see the needs and begin to help the people of a community left behind.”

The coalition came together with representatives from the Sault Tribe, the YMCA of Marquette and MSU Extension. They teamed together with other local partners to offer programming in healthy food preparation, physical activity, diabetes prevention and gardening.

Erin sent us some amazing updates of the coalition’s progress:

  • A kickoff dinner brought the K. I. Sawyer Coalition idea to community leaders, police departments, city planners, early education specialists, garden experts, K. I. Sawyer community building employees, local papers and media, Marquette city professionals and community residents.
  • A new community center kitchen that will offer cooking demos and serve more people healthy food is in the blueprints stage.
  • The basketball courts are being repaved, and the MSU Extension Marquette County 4-H group is working to improve the baseball fields.
  • An abandoned hoop house at the school will be moved to make room for a garden.
  • Buses from the school will transport community residents to the events at the community center.
  • Volunteers from all over Marquette County will start a butterfly garden this summer.
  • Partnering with the Sault Tribe has increased MSU Extension programming participant numbers in the area three-fold.
  • Northern Michigan University students collaborate with us in the schools to bring healthy changes to the school’s students by encouraging physical activity.

Paul Putnam, MSU Extension District 1 coordinator, shared the results of Erin’s work.

“Erin has helped to expand our relationships and partnerships with her joint position, and has community connections in both the Houghton/Hancock and the Marquette areas,” he said. “She along with several other strong community partners are making significant impacts in a relatively short period of time.”

Erin said, “Being one of the core people to start the K. I. Sawyer coalition has made me realize how getting a few caring people together can really move a community forward. I’m fortunate I get an opportunity to see the impact a few projects can make to brighten a community and offer another type of value to people’s lives. Sometimes it feels like reaching out to make a connection takes too much time out of our schedules and remembering the value is difficult, but when this time is taken, it can really make a difference.”

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It’s all about relationships

Our colleagues in Michigan State University Extension are working to build strong and sustainable relationships with members of Michigan tribal nations.

In the program Relationship Building for Better Partnerships: Anishinaabe Tribes and MSU Extension, Extension staff members Dionardo Pizaña, Emily Proctor and Barb Smutek facilitate trainings with members of the Anishinaabe Tribes. Dionardo is an Extension specialist. Emily is an Extension health and nutrition educator, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Band (LTBB) of Odawa Indians and a tribal liaison for MSU Extension. Barb is a member of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians and an Extension Greening Michigan/Federally Recognized Tribes Extension Program (FRTEP) educator.

This three-part professional development series provides a unique opportunity for MSU Extension staff and several of Michigan’s Anishinaabe Tribes to learn from each other, build working relationships and plan collaborative projects together. The series takes place four times this year, with one series per tribe.

The first series took place with members of the LTBB of Odawa Indians.

Each session encouraged communication and engagement and helped foster reciprocal learning between MSUE and the tribal community, creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.

Participants had the opportunity to share in both MSUE culture and tribal culture to explore ways of creating effective partnerships.

At the close of the session, participants shared one thing that stood out for them.

One participant’s response: “For me, one of the things that stood out is the genuine efforts from both LTBB and MSU to reach out to one another, get to know one another and to find out what each of us has to offer. This is a healthy start to building a life-lasting relationship.”

The next series, scheduled for June and July, will engage MSU Extension staff with members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Registration for this session is open. Register online.

Other sessions will include the Hannahville Indian Community (July ‒ September) and the Bay Mills Indian Community (October ‒ December).

Support for continuing the partnerships will be available in the form of multicultural action mini-grants, valued up to $1,000. The grants are funded through the MSUE Diversity and Multiculturalism Office and the FRTEP. To apply for and obtain a mini-grant, you must have a Tribal/MSUE partnership and have attended the majority of the sessions. The competitive mini-grants enhance partnerships between MSUE and the tribal communities to build, strengthen and support the work started during the series.

The FRTEP, a federally funded program, enhances extension services and supports increased outreach to native communities. Initiated in 2007, the Michigan FRTEP is implemented by MSU Extension in partnership with Bay Mills Community College and the MSU Native American Institute. This short presentation gives a quick overview of the program.

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