Talking Community Organizing with All Nations Health Center
All Nations Health Center is one of five urban Indian health centers in the state of Montana. Their vision is to provide sustainable, healthy lives for Native people and the surrounding community through culture-based, holistic care. Part of that vision includes community organizing efforts that enable Missoula’s American Indian community to come together and address the social justice issues that most deeply impact them. We had the opportunity to sit down with Skye McGinty, Executive Director of All Nations Health Center to learn about what organizing means to her, why it’s important to All Nations’ work, and how we can get involved.
What does community organizing mean to you and your organization?
To us at All Nations, organizing means touching on every facet of health, not treating it as a silo. Health is related to access to housing, childcare, clean air, clean water and so much more, and Native communities are more impacted by these issues because of historical and structural obstacles and inequities. Through organizing, we are working to connect Native communities to each other, and to their non-Native allies and provide a platform for them to address and spark change around the issues that impact them and their families.
It’s unique for a health center to get involved in community organizing. Can you tell us how and why this focus was incorporated into your work?
Our organizing initiative was born out of conversations with other organizations who wanted to come together and connect the dots between the work we were all doing in our own little siloes. All Nation’s continued organizing efforts are based on our goal of being a ‘one-stop shop’ for our community. We base our model off the traditional medicine wheel (shown in our logo), which has 4 different quadrants that represent physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. We know that organizing around issues that deeply impact our indigenous communities ties into all of those different health aspects.
Can you give some examples of the types of issues you’re hearing about from the community in your organizing work?
Our organizer has been meeting with elders and community members for several months, and the wide range of issues coming up in conversations speaks to the fact that there are so many facets of health. We’re hearing about safe and affordable housing, racism, discrimination and violence, education and job opportunities, access to affordable and culturally affirming healthcare, access to clean air, water and green space, Covid-19 transmission, and access to cultural practices, connection to community and traditional knowledge. All of these things and more intersect to impact the health of Native communities.
Those are all such big, important issues – where do you begin when working to address them?
We start by building trust, by being there so people know that they can access services with us, that they have a space where they feel valued and safe. We are working on gaining the trust of the Native community in Missoula and in the surrounding areas, including the rural reservation communities. This includes the organizations that have committed to being at the table with us, helping us problem-solve these issues. We are letting the Native community know that they are in control – it’s no longer non-Native people coming to us and saying ‘we have the solutions, we figured it out, here you go.’ It’s the opposite – when Native people are in charge of organizing, it’s for us, by us. We’re saying, ‘okay allies, these are the ways you can show up for us, it looks like X Y and Z.’
What does building trust look like?
For our Native community, it’s about visiting and listening; we are so relationship-based. We make time to talk about nothing and everything. It’s about asking about how your grandkids are, how state basketball went for your niece and nephew, it’s about sharing a meal, bringing food over to someone’s house. It’s not about, ‘why didn’t you get the COVID vaccine/are you impacted by racism/can you afford to live where you’re at?’ Of course, we want to get to the meat of that but it’s important to first show that you care about people, then together we’ll move forward toward addressing those big issues.
What can the community do to support you and All Nations and the community in this work?
Turn out to events! Especially in the realm of community organizing, there is a lane for everyone, there is a purpose for everyone, everyone can get plugged in to some aspect of community organizing. Whether you’re up there on the stage, or you helped build the stage, or you’re helping get people there, or you’re just there listening to the message. There truly is a lane for every person and I think being open and receptive to hearing what our Native community is going through and hearing about the solutions that we want to pursue is really critical.
(Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)