Executive Director, Northstar Council
Amber holds a pretty special place in my life. Our friendship really began when we became SEEDS students back in 2004. As young adults in the thick of our undergraduate experiences, we met during what many students felt like, was one of the most amazing SEEDS field trips ever. We were in Calgary, Canada. Since then we’ve been close friends, attending many of the same SEEDS events and conferences, collaborating on projects, and visiting with each other when she’s in town.
An amazing aspect of our friendship is that who we are as individuals has always stayed integral to our interactions. More importantly, we share a similarity in how we see the world. When we talk "diversity", we touch on all its aspects of race, culture, ethnic identity, and what it means to be a person of color in the sciences. Many times those conversations were provoked by actual experiences we had on the grounds together in the context of an “us versus them” circumstance.
The projects we’ve collaborated on range from workshops on diversity, facilitating deep dialog, and even creating the ambitious SEEDS alumni network we called, SNAP (SEEDS Network for Alumni and Professionals). So, it was only natural for me to ask her to contribute to The D Word and offer her perspective as a female, single mother, and Native American Scientist.
Amber is of Mandan-Hidatsa-Lakota-Dakota ethnicity and is the Executive Director of a North Dakota-based non-profit organization, Northstar Council. Their aim is to strengthen and empower indigenous people through research, education, and community development. In our conversation, Amber brings to light this notion that diversity has always been placed in a “box” and it’s time to start breaking down those walls, one by one.
RR: Describe how you got started with career and where you are now.
AF: I started my education at Fort Berthold Community College (FBCC). I was always interested in science and good at math. I ended up in advanced math classes and as a result met an important figure, Trudy Ruland who nominated me for the Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS). I was part of the inaugural GMS and used those funds for my first year at FBCC. That catapulted me to move on. At that time I just had my daughter and it allowed me to finish one degree.
I was also introduced to groups like AISES (American Indian Science & Engineering Society)and SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos & Native Americans in Science), which built my interest in Biology. With the GMS I transferred to University of North Dakota (UND) thinking I wanted to be veterinarian because I was always interested in working with animals. So the options were to major in Biology as Pre-Vet or take Fisheries & Biology and be Pre-Vet. I chose Wildlife Biology because I was interested in wildlife and working outdoors. I stayed at UND for 5 years before graduating. I met you three years into it; in 2004 and that was the first time I was introduced to the SEEDS Program, the concept of ecology, and the fact that scientists gather for annual meetings. Prior to that I didn’t really know that academics went to conferences, present work, etc…I just thought we get a degree and do some sort of technical job with your hands experiencing the field. I didn’t know there was this other part, where you get together and discuss the work.
The Calgary field trip with SEEDS opened my eyes to the idea of doing things outdoors and going beyond a Bachelor's of Science with higher degrees. I was able to attend more SEEDS field trips after that. And all that experience built upon each other, I continued an interest in Ecology. Since I was pretty far into my degree, I didn’t want to switch gears, which is probably why I didn’t take that step to go fully into Ecology.
I did my Masters Degree in Environmental Management at University of San Francisco (USF). This campus was more diverse, smaller than UND, and in the Bay Area where I grew up. I felt like going home and gaining a new perspective from a more progressive view and approach on the environment. In contrast, North Dakota, where I am now, caters to hunters thinking of wildlife to preserve for hunting vs. preserving for the sake of preserving.
As I continued my MS, you and I continued with SEEDS and decided to develop SNAP together, which is an important group to have because undergrads need to see some of the success stories whether they continue into hard science or not, like myself. I realized I’m actually good at teaching. And to me, it was more important to see more people of color in ecology and in sciences, so I realized that there needs to be more teachers that look like students of color and are able to relate to them.
I really didn’t get into Biotech and hard science research was because I realized it would take up a lot of time away from raising my own daughter; I would sacrifice family time. So it was a natural choice to avoid those things because they were not aligned with what I valued. I don’t feel bad for it, but I can understand why especially single parents won’t go down that road and say, “I want to dedicate my life to travel places to study a certain type of fungus or some small insect that has absolutely nothing to do with most important thing in life, which is my family”.
I see a trend that natives usually tend to have kids much younger and start families earlier than the average American. So, if Ecology isn’t going to offer opportunities that include family, or things that are going to allow us to bring our families with us, or compensate for those areas where we’re not the average student, then we probably won’t accept positions anyway. We’re not going to pick research over family.
After completing my MS, I came back to Grand Forks and applied for multiple jobs with no luck. It fell into place that a group of us Natives with families and degrees all lived in Grand Forks. We were looking for something unique to us and we just weren’t finding it in the community. So, we put together a non-profit organization that was perfectly aligned with our interests; Northstar Council. Here, friends and colleagues put together a new approach to science for our kids; a new way to engage Native Youth in the field without making them feel stupid, incompetent and unable to perform tasks. It would also help urban natives connect to their own culture even if culture was not reflected where they live right now.
RR: Do you think that the tendency to sacrifice family life in academic achievement is linked to cultural disparities? Can any single parent, white or not, say the same thing of rejecting a position because it doesn’t allow them to have a practical life?
AF: I’m not sure, but it does play a role. I think its not only white people. Anyone who is trapped in this idea that in order to be successful in this society you have to be a good consumer in society, then that means you have to have lots of money in order to reach areas of success to maintain this type of lifestyle. For myself and I think most Natives, it doesn’t matter how rich or famous you are, if you’re not taking care of your own and your own kids with a good upbringing, then you’re not really a success. You’re failing along the lines and you’re a bigger failure if you chose to allow society to raise your child instead of raising them yourself. In some ways it can be said for the average American, you MUST be a consumer if you want to be successful or else you’re nothing. And I don’t agree with that, that’s not a measure of success.
RR: And with regards to being a science professional it means publishing and in order to publish you work lots of hours to do the research, etc…
AF: Right, and often times when that happens, those who suffer the most are the ones we care about the most. I’ve read several stories of successful scientists who are married couples bringing their families with them into the field. And that’s a great success story for them but that doesn’t happen for most people. In reality, the opportunities where you can bring your kid aren’t available for everyone. I also don’t think that most Natives relate to the idea of publishing, owning knowledge, or taking credit for knowledge that has inherently been there the whole time. And the idea of somehow professing yourself as the “discoverer” of this knowledge. We know that publishing is an extremely important part of academics and research, but I feel like it is a major area of disconnect for most people of color. Not because we are lazy, but because culturally this is the complete opposite of what it means to be honorable and humble, two cultural values that are highly regarded amongst Natives.
RR: Can you talk about the great work you are doing now?
AF: I’m the Executive Director of Northstar Council, a state recognized non-profit working on submitting papers to get to 501c3 status. In the meantime, the main goal is to have a Native American community center for Grand Forks, North Dakota. We started with Native families that continue to reside here after graduating from UND and who really felt a disconnect in community. UND provides Native services but they’re restricted to students. When it comes to needs of the community, there are no resources besides directing them to the social service agencies to help. Our mission is to create a community center for Natives that has an emphasis on culture, services, and outreach into communities. We not only want to provide cultural awareness, but cultural inclusivity. Making us more a part of the tapestry than relics of the past.
Our program, All Nations Culture Camp (ANCC) is funded through the North Dakota Medical Association. It aims to bring Native Science to two middle schools in North Dakota by presenting lessons of Native Science. Native Science and culture comes first, then we help students link this to Western Science. Lots of times, the students identify it as native culture and they don’t realize it’s connected to science until we start connecting the dots with them. Some ways we help some kids define what science is in general. Then they start to make connections that the knowledge is not only textbooks or what western science shows them.
We also have a summer session for ANCC, which is much more culturally based. We work more with language, crafts, and traditional activities for 4th-8th grade students. Northstar Council also offers community sweat lodge at a site we maintain outside city limits. We invite Natives and Non-Natives; all that want to participate.
RR: Along your pathway, you have gained lots of experience and knowledge with diversity and equity within different contexts, especially in the sciences. Would you say there were any specific incidents or lightbulbs that went off in your head about the state of diversity while on your journey?
AF: Yes, when I was younger I was naïve or not able to recognize what I would now identify today as racist or demeaning to me or other people. One by one many of these experiences, opened my eyes to the way mainstream Americans view Natives and their role in society. Sometimes in high school playing sports, there were some with racist attitudes and comments towards Natives. And this is in North Dakota where the norms of people are that "we are a nice state with people that are homegrown, hardworking and persistent”. And that’s the American way here. They fail to acknowledge how this state was settled in the first place. They are ignorant to how that has affected the relationship between Natives and non Non-Natives.
When I got to UND we had the Fighting Sioux logo and I didn’t know it was big controversy until I got to campus. I started hearing what Natives were saying and experiencing some of the proof that some people are denying “the existence that Natives were being mistreated without anyone being reprimanded”. I began organizing and stepped into my activist role of, “Stop stereotyping us, treating us inhumanely and start accepting our opinion about this logo that you love so much. Just because majority likes it, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.”
I spent time protesting the logo with the Vice President of the UND Indian Association and we became poster children of a campaign that was everything "anti-logo". I started getting weird looks, people hesitant to talk about anything sports or careful to say anything to offend me. And prior to this campaign, before I took a very public and vocal stance against the logo, I was able to experience this “fly on the wall” role in the classroom. I have red hair and am light skinned, and I don’t have the stereotypical Native look to me so, I got to hear some Non-Native people’s opinions about Native people based on the fact they didn’t like the logo. When I would speak up in defense, it always made things awkward. And whether they felt a certain way or not, you always feel on guard all the time and it’s a weird feeling to be in class where you can’t relate to anyone because there is this other thing going on and it has nothing to do with academics or anyone’s ability to understand an academic topic.
So this experience enlightened me to be more aware about how I felt Natives and other minorities are constantly perceived. Even as minorities we often times stereotype or put other minorities into these categories as well. That triggered a response to your idea of diversity and ecology and why it was important.
Really, we do filter ourselves a lot in order to fit into the classroom, we filter ourselves to make our plead to why Native research is valid and important and how its going to benefit society in general and sometimes that means that we have to pull back on own cultural values in order to be successful or bring out what teachers want to hear out of you or develop a research project that will be validated. If you end up with people who don’t know anything about Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) or Native Science, its tough because you have to explain why it isn’t a waste of two years or your time. Its frustrating for me and I would like to be in a place where there are more people understanding of it and value it as a serious research component and contribution.
RR: Four years ago, you were in the midst of graduate school and your mindset then was different. Now you’re the ED of an organization focused on Native communities and engagement. What in that four years have you learned and where are you with diversity in your career?
AF: We can’t just put diversity and multicultural education into a box. It doesn’t fit nice and neat and it’s always going to be considered separate if we don’t start incorporating it into everything. Instead, it’s this question of, “How do we fit it [diversity] into Ecology, Biology, etc…?" We try to get students to conform to the rigors of the academic disciples that are out there.
RR: So, this blog is focused on, but not exclusive to, people of color working in the environmental fields. But if the option is to NOT conform to the box, then how do we prevent ourselves from making our own separate boxes and working in silohs?
AF: We touched on this last night and started with our education system and how white-washed it is. It’s hard to (1) have this idea that somehow we can turn people’s cultures into some type of academic discipline. Like they can be studied and anyone can be experts on them. And that’s not necessarily what culture is.
Culture is a living thing. You either live the culture or you naturally become part of it and aware and understanding of it. It’s not possible to teach that perspective from a classroom, non-experiential and dislocated. Its kind of funny when you see institutions putting together ethnic programs and they keep putting cultures into these disciplines and trying to make them fit into the system of academics that clearly does not share the same values as the cultures they are trying to represent. It’s even more embarrassing when institutions have instructors not of these cultures, usually white, chairing these ethnic studies departments and even worse teaching what it is “to be” these cultures. That’s sort of what I get from the classes. They are there to give a completely sterile point of view on how America interacts with these cultures as opposed to actually having some culture there. It’s a mockery of the cultures and a disservice to the students and the institutions.
So a lot of people who would be able to teach the languages of those cultures aren’t going to be the ones who have PhD’s or tenure at an academic institution. But doesn’t that barrier devalue the information that they have? I don’t think so. But how do we now say to that institution, “Hey, you need to change your standards for someone to be teaching at college level.” We see lots of Tribal Community Colleges employing people with BS or MS and even that creates a barrier because people who maintain cultural knowledge are automatically weeded out. There is no Master’s degree in how to be Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakota, Cherokee, Cree, Anishinabe, Crow, or any other tribe. What academics fail to realize is that those people who hold that sacred knowledge and would know what and how to share that information have spent just as many years of rigorous work to obtain that knowledge.
Part of problem is that we’re adding more barriers every time we’re saying there’s a minimum amount of education that one must have to be a teacher and we miss out on individuals. Not disregarding the skills for teaching, syllabus creating, currculum development, etc…Yes, everyone should have it, but do they have to take on a whole degree where they have to take all these classes that may not have any meaning to what they will actually teach? That’s what we’ve agreed to as the standards to our students at Northstar. We are falling short of including all teachers of knowledge, especially those that hold knowledge that cannot simply be taught in a classroom, but must be lived.
RR: Well, that brings up a lot of hurdles because success is institutionalized and to get to that point where you will see more engagement of folks, the institution needs change itself in process of how they get to higher degrees.
AF: Yes, and I think right away it’s a turn off. I’m Native so I can only speak from my point of view. I don’t know how some of the other cultural minorities are doing, but we see that in order for students to be successful, they have to conform to what the institution already has in place. Then what we end up seeing is this, “living in two worlds”. And why do we have to continue to be code switchers and switch back and forth from, “okay this is my academic/scientific voice and I don’t feel much place for my cultural voice to be part of that?”.
At the AISES conference we talked about coming up with terms like TEK and Native Science and really there is no such thing. Its just knowledge. It was just a way of being. You didn’t have to label it. It’s information that was always there. And people earned it by actually living it. We actually went out and you learned how to hunt and you learned how to make artifacts, you learned how to put together your regalia. Our culture already teaches this by living it. But now Western academics is trying to do this idea of “experiential learning”. That was what cultures were already using as a way to teach their children. And then they were told that wasn’t the way they should be taught; they need to sit in a classroom, they need go learn all of these academic disciplines in order to be successful.
I think change will have to come from somewhere and it’s probably from the most influential place that it can come from. And that would be from the parents. [Parents] being the first teachers of students being able to say, “I don’t agree with the way the system works and I don’t like what I’m seeing happening and I want to see something better and something different for my children.” I see why lots of native kids disconnect from the school system and the academic system because it doesn’t offer them something that is somehow going to relate to them or lead into something beneficial.
There’s also so much emphasis on the idea that in order to be successful you have to make a lot of money, that you have to be able to sustain a certain type of lifestyle. I know for a lot of natives, that doesn’t matter. They can be as poor as it can get, but because they are rich in culture, they’d much rather have that then any financial wealth. Sometimes, especially academic institutions try to draw us in by saying they will provide us a better lifestyle, allow us to do so much more, and contribute to our community. But who is to say that Natives aren’t doing all those things already? In order to get something to change we do have to change the way everyone looks at academic success.
When we think about how we train teachers we’re not getting enough minority teachers in the classroom and male role models. The rapidly changing demographics are now 53% female scientists, but it’s disheartening to think about how much we lose out by not being able to interact with someone they can relate to. Even if its just that students get that ONE teacher, to get ONE experience with one teacher that IS, it makes such a big difference for them and changes the success rate of that student in whether they pursue an education. I appreciate institutions doing teacher trainings and multi-cultural education, but the approach is still, “us vs. them”. What can we do FOR them as opposed to, how can we engage them in how we make curriculum beneficial and relevant TO them? We know the disparities in getting students to come to class. Teachers not being understanding of that and systems not apathetic weeds certain students out.
In Grand Forks, the graduation rate is 42%, so not even half of our Native students will graduate. So what happens to the other 58% of those that chose to drop out or go a different route because they don’t feel welcome in the school district and can’t contribute? The answer is not to constantly put them in special education classes or go into intervention programs. If you’re putting them into intervention, you’ve already failed that student. By then it’s already too late, they are already dislocated from the system. Programs are not working like expected.
If kids don’t want to graduate in general, then what happens when we want to draw them into the sciences? We make it into a scary
subject that doesn’t relate to us at all; new language, new way of thinking…This is why we still have same the conversation and questions like, “Okay we have 3 token students of color here, how do we get some more of you, etc….?”
RR: Anything you can say specifically as it relates to environmental careers and making it more of an inclusive effort?
AF: We need to have constant conversations about diversity. Not saying that diversity programs should be done with, but there needs to be more investment in that. Let’s look at the fact that SNAP is still in its development phase. It’s a really great idea but we don’t know how to make it happen. Partly because there’s no investment in it. And not to the fault of the director of program, but there is also our response and the work for us (students) to get people invested in it. There are a lot of SEEDS students that have gone on to be very successful professionals that enjoy the research aspect of Ecology. Those professionals are still also culturally relevant to up and coming SEEDS students.
Lots of people go through tough economic times, but the first things to go are these programs that are successfully getting students of color into fields they say they are lacking of that engagement. It’s problematic when we create these groups like TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge). It becomes an “us vs. them” again. TEK has tried to incorporate them selves into the whole ESA conference program, but in general ESA doesn’t really believe or support those types of sections. They say, “Oh, now we can boast we have this section”. But what can we say about incorporating TEK into ALL of the sections of ecology?
RR: It’s a band-aid effort to a discrepancy in diversity engagement strategies.
AK: There needs to be more work to incorporate that to the whole. For example, the TEK talks during conferences, why isn’t that being presented the same time these other mainstream ecological talks are doing their talks? They have a tendency to box everything up and sometimes things don’t fit nice and neat into a box. We need to have these cross-disciplinary interactions and discussions going on. Isn’t that what Ecology is about? Relationships and how they are intertwined and what reactions they have upon one another?
I just think the [ESA] society in general has to step up their game as well. I don’t know that I’m invested enough in ESA to make that one of my goals. Because people are interested in SNAP bringing some culture to science, it would be nice to have instead of trying to separate it out like its a different thing.
RR: Any last words about diversity?
AF: I do think conversation needs to be had beyond two people. The ecological community needs to talk about it in a real sense and not pussy-foot around it. Not just saying they support and want to see more people of color, but engaging cultures. Most troubling thing is that there is no expression of culture in sciences.
I think about the AISES. They do such a great job of doing both; of honoring hard science and acknowledging students successful and acknowledging parts of their culture; elders, prayer, unexpressed knowledge. I would like to see the mainstream societies like ESA be able to do some of these things. But what we see is this very cookie-cutter way of doing research and presenting to each other. We see few and far between where people actually bring culture into it.
I also think about Tyrone Hayes where he ends all of his discussions with a rap. He has all these conclusions, and throws a piece of himself in there. And maybe people think its funny and maybe some don’t respect him as much, but he’s still doing himself. He’s presenting who he really is. That’s cool and we need to see more of that. We need to see more people being able break down the sides of the box and say this is still Ecology even if we’re bringing our culture into it, even if we’re not doing it the way that Western science says.