From August 2009 to August 2010, I lived in Bethel, Alaska as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corp Northwest. My full time volunteer placement was at the Tundra Women's Coalition, a domestic violence and sexual assault shelter. Despite making the decision to move back to Chicago, I think about my experience out there almost daily. I think about my 5 lovely house mates, the people I worked with, the teen program I ran, hospital visits, village travel, ice roads, pot lucks, the tundra and beyond.
Last week when surfing the web, visiting my favorite sources of news, I came across R. M. Arrieta's article "The State of Native America: Very Unemployed and Mostly Ignored" on Commondreams.org. It reminds me with such clarity the one of many hardships Alaska Natives face living in the "bush". Arrieta's article does a phenomenal job illustrating the importance of using statistics that provide a more holistic picture of unemployment among Native people in general across the U.S. The statistics used are derived from the article "Different Race, Different Recession: American Indian Unemployment in 2010," which is based on the Current Population Survey.
The two statistics that stand out with reference to my volunteer year included:
"By the first half of 2010, the unemployment rate for Alaska Natives jumped 6.3 percentage points to 21.3%—the highest regional unemployment rate for American Indians."
"The employment situation is the worst for American Indians in some of the same regions here it is the best for whites: Alaska and the Northern Plains."
The second statistic rings with incredible truth. Teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, lawyers and law enforcement are all positions in high demand where I lived in Alaska; positions requiring advanced degrees and/or specialized certificates. Therefore, many Alaska Natives are excluded from employment opportunities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics Common Core Data in 2005, only 46.8% of Alaska Native students graduated from high school. This statistic is indicative of Bethel Regional High School (the local public high school where I lived) being referred to as a "drop out factory". Thus, the majority of the time qualified candidates for these positions in high demand are white people from outside the community.
Sitting at my kitchen counter in Chicago reflecting upon Arrieta's article, coupled with my personal experience in Bethel, I don't pretend to have concrete solutions concerning unemployment of Alaska Natives. I do believe, more often than not, the best solutions come from the people rather than larger removed systems and institutions. I also understand that sometimes systemic issues have to be reformed in order for "the people" to have more say in changing their circumstances.
Mostly, this article serves as a vehicle aiding in my continued reflection upon my time in Bethel, Alaska. It reminds me to continue my understanding and awareness of marginalized experiences. It is in the understanding of marginalized experiences that help us all make decisions in a democracy (where resources and allocation of funding seem to be increasingly scarce) that are not only beneficial for ourselves, but for others as well.
Thank you to all those who were apart of my JV year in Alaska!
Also check out The Dropout/Graduation Crisis Among American Indian and Alaska Native Students:Failure to Respond Places the Future of Native Peoples at Risk report.