Community Change from Within
Growing up in Southeast Alaska and on Oregon’s Siletz reservation, Nichole June Maher discovered a passion for public health—and it’s led her to do some remarkable things.
As head of the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA), Maher worked alongside Portland’s Native community to, in her words, “create change from within.”
Together, they opened a high school and created early childhood programs.
They established a construction company.
They even formed their own catering business.
It’s all part of Maher’s mission to improve the conditions of Native communities—a calling shaped by her childhood on the reservation.
“These communities have some of the most significant poverty rates and lowest life expectancies,” she says. In fact, nonelderly American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer disproportionate rates of disease and a poverty rate that is “higher than any other racial or ethnic group,” according to the National Indian Health Board.
Now president of the Northwest Health Foundation, Maher nurtures Portland communities while underscoring the value of self-sufficiency.
“We need to create the future we want for ourselves,” she says. “The things we did at NAYA came to be when our community leaders and elders got together and said, ‘No one’s going to come and rescue us.’”
Different Places, Different Folks
A member of the Tlingit Tribe of southeast Alaska and the child of Native American and Native Alaskan parents (with a little Irish mixed in), Maher developed an early and lasting interest in public health.
“There are a lot of challenges,” she says. “Yet when I was growing up, there was such an incredibly rich source of pride and cultural identity. We saw community leaders getting organized and working together, creating a vision for themselves. We saw some phenomenal improvements.”
Observing this self-reliance, she knew she wanted to become an advocate for underrepresented people. “What made me excited about public health is that it’s an opportunity for the people who know their community the best to invest in it and create change from within,” she explains.
The pathway to get there, though, was less certain. She took a pre-med curriculum at Oregon State University, reasoning that the only way to become a public health professional was to be a physician.
Then she spent the summer of 1998 at Yale University as a participant in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP), designed to help increase the pipeline of doctors from minority communities. The six-week session was an eye-opener; it was also where she found her future.
“I met wonderful leaders in health care and talked to people and learned from them,” she says. “That experience helped me understand how many opportunities existed in public health.”
Maher loved the classes and the training, the gatherings at professors’ homes, and meeting and connecting with African Americans and Latinos from all over the country.
But being there was also a culture shock. In Oregon, she was used to being part of a large and thriving native community. The Portland metropolitan area is now home to the ninth-largest population of American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) in the country, she says, with a little more than 50,000 Native Americans in the region.
“When I was at MMEP, I did not meet a single other Native American the entire time,” she says. Not on campus, and not in the city of New Haven, CT. “I will not lie. I was very lonely. I had never been anywhere for several months where I didn’t see another Native American.”
That part of the experience, however, helped “adjust my ability and thought processes about being in different places with different folks.”
Maher returned to Oregon with a clearer blueprint for achieving her dream. She completed two bachelor’s degrees—one in American Indian studies and another in health promotion and education—and then got a master’s degree in public health at Portland State University’s Mark Hatfield School of Government. She credits MMEP for helping her to find a career that she loves.
“I ended up getting to do my dream job,” she says of her 11½ years at NAYA. “I’m so grateful to the MMEP program for helping me to understand that there are other ways to get into public health.”
She started out as NAYA’s education director not long after finishing graduate school, and became its executive director six months later. She was the center’s fifth employee when she joined in 2001; by the time she left, the staff had grown to 100. The center—which gets about 800 visits a day—has a comprehensive delivery system to foster interdependence along with good health and good health care.
While at the center, Maher helped form a coalition of communities of color that advocated around health issues. She saw it as a way to expand her work beyond the Native community. She joined the Northwest Health Foundation in 2012 for much the same reason: it offered grants to underrepresented communities like those in the coalition.
“MMEP helped grow one hell of a public health advocate.”
“The coalition did a lot of advocacy work with philanthropy because, although the most significant needs are in communities of color, the least investment goes to those communities,” she says. “Northwest Health Foundation seemed to want to change that trend.”
Her job now is more strategicthan hands-on, but her reach is greater. The foundation provides grants for projects relating to social determinants of health, community organizing, policy advocacy, and leadership development. Last year, she notes, 74 percent of the grants were awarded to communities of color.
“I hope the people at MMEP know what a difference they made,” she says. “They helped grow one hell of a public health advocate.”
A Promising Future
Maher may not be a doctor, but there’s no doubt she’s caring for people: rather than treating their physical ailments, she helps them build healthy communities.
The Early College Academy, the high school she helped create through NAYA, has a 96 percent graduation rate. The construction company remodels homes, provides maintenance on low-income housing, and bids competitively on housing both within the Native community and in the Portland area. The catering company supplies healthy meals to people who use NAYA’s programs, including the Native Senior Center and the high school; it also contracts to provide school lunches for other schools in the community and bids competitively on projects outside it.
This is a community that has found its own answers, Maher says, adding that, despite most people’s perceptions, Native communities have numerous strengths and assets.
“Cultural pride and identity is on the rise,” she notes. “Our communities are becoming much more organized and united on many fronts. Even though people constantly talk about minority voting and make broad generalizations, we’re one of the ethnic groups that votes in very high numbers. In many of our communities we are very civically engaged.”
“We’re also having large numbers of children,” she says. “People think we are going away or dying out. But the reality is that 50 percent of our population is under the age of 18.”
Though she recognizes that data shows AI/AN communities struggling on a broad array of indicators, Maher cautions against making assumptions. “Sometimes people look at the data and create a narrative. Sometimes they don’t look at the data but create a narrative in their minds based on stereotypes,” she says.
“What we know is that once our community puts its mind to something, we can be incredibly successful. There’s still an amazing amount of work to be done, but the future is very promising.”