Representative Young Raises Important Issues Related to the Staffing of Important Panels, Commissions, and Committees for Indian Country as The Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children Gets Closer to Fruition.
A few months ago I went to a hearing to establish the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, a worthy goal. At first, I was going to blog on the hearing. But, I work on grants for Indian Country and, as they say, ’Tis the Season. I had to put a number of things on the back-burner to handle the fiscal year frantics endemic to the federal work cycle.
However, a single line of questioning from Representative Don Young (R-Alaska), in the early part of the hearings BLEW ME AWAY! It has really stuck with me. In brief, here is how it went down: Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) offered a passionate explanation for the need for a commission to focus on Native Children. She cited the high rates of poverty, depression, suicide, graduation rates, familial substance abuse, and the many challenges faced by Native American children. I really admire her passion and advocacy on behalf of Native people, and her presentation in this panel was right on point.
“If hope were a strategy, this problem would be solved.”- Senator Heitkamp
Sometimes the world aligns to tell us something important. If you have ever watched one of these hearings on line, there is often a timer in front of the speaker counting down. In this case, I felt that the urgency with which Senator Heitkamp presented the need to focus on Native Youth was highlighted by time literally running out as she spoke.
Young Words for an Old Problem
“To solve this problem, I would like to keep politics out of it.” – Rep. Young
This is an important commission that could have broad and crucial impact in Indian Country. It needs to be influential and it needs to be informed. When establishing this commission, the legislation currently calls for political appointees, three appointed by the president, 3 by the house, 3 by the Senate, etc. Political appointees, not experts. Rep. Young posed a simple question: Why not have experts in the area serve on the panel rather than political appointees? Yeah, right? Check this out:
Young on Native Youth Makes Perfect Sense
Here are excerpts from Rep. Young’s comments (parentheticals and emphases added by yours truly):
“I am concerned that Presidents (appointees) will be answering to favor, members might be doing the same thing and WHAT WE WANT IS EXPERTISE.”
“A lot of these people they put in they don’t have any expertise.”
“I have watched some commissions. They are appointed, they have a few meetings, they talk a little, they go out to dinner, and that’s it. Nothing results AND WE NEED RESULTS BECAUSE THIS IS A BIG ISSUE.”
“One thing that bothers me to some extent is the commission itself and how it is made up. make-up of the commission.”
“To solve this problem, I would like to keep politics out of it.”
“As we go through this legislation, I hope we can have some QUALIFICATIONS for those appointed to the commission.”
Senator Heitkamp’s answer was safe and perfunctory, acknowledging the compromises that must be made to get legislation to this point. No harm no foul, though. A sometimes sad reality of the political process. So, I am not going focus on the answer. It was predictably deflective and, along with her good nature, replete with almost a sigh of acquiescence to the current political realities. She is good. I will count on her follow-up to shepherd the make-up of the commission.
Let’s focus on the implications of Representative Young’s comments above. Representative Young’s comments during this part of the hearing were simple, common-sense, and inspired. Maybe a bit idealistic in the current climate. They were the comments of someone who wants something to actually happen! Too often our efforts are hobbled by appointees who are more connected than they are knowledgeable. They are from the right family, the right party, or the right lobby. They sometimes posture, or they often stay silent, just collecting their resume currency (or checks…and dinners!). Too often an articulate or aggressive opinion has more influence than knowledge and data. Funds get spent, words get spoken, and maybe even a website gets built. We see this from the familial nepotism on tribal councils to the party-based nepotism and horse-trading in DC. It is the appearance of progress that hides the neglect that surrounds us.
Senator Heitkamp said, “If hope were a strategy, this problem would be solved.” This reminds us that hope may provide motivation, but a good strategy for action, as Representative Young pointed out, must include strategy! In this case, the strategy for passing legislation may be a bit at odds with the strategy for target solving the problems. Can these ever be aligned?
The Take Home Message
So, this interaction sticks with me, both Representative Young’s straightforward and honest points about bureaucracy and Senator Heitkamp’s reminder of the stark realities of the system. And I would like it to stick with you if you are ever in a position to influence membership and representation for important issues in Indian Country. Ask yourself, always, “Who would be the BEST people to really get the impact we deserve?” Not, “who would look good, who knows who, or even who do I like?” Who is GOOD? Who will make things happen? (I have actually seen appointees placed on commissions specifically to STOP things from happening.)
If we want to address the issues, maybe we should look for the best rather than the usual. The best people, regardless of who they know or owe, contribute to the success of ALL of our people. The connected have a much smaller sphere of benefit (usually themselves). Think about it this way, if your child needs a good surgeon, do you want the best surgeon, or the surgeon who happens to be friends with the hospital administrators? I want the best for my hypothetical child, just like I want the best for my very real people. You should, too.