When it comes to serving communities and driving change, First Nations Board Member Susan Jenkins is inspired by a quote she learned from her tribe, the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma: “You must listen to understand rather than listen to respond.”
It’s a mantra that’s guided her throughout her life, career and leadership with First Nations Development Institute. “You have to listen to what people need, and be sensitive about their experiences in order to implement solutions,” she says.
Today as a member of the Choctaw Nation and an advocate for the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, she continues to listen, always drawing from the insights she hears to enhance the quality of life of others.
Experience in Education
Susan grew up with her twin brother in rural Oklahoma at a time when being Native was not something to be “proud of.” She says that while she knew her family was Native American, she didn’t fully get to know her culture until she was an adult, when lessons of racism had become more apparent.
In her teens, Susan’s family moved to Ohio, and without enough money for both twins to go to college, Susan pursued nursing school after graduation. She worked briefly as a nurse, but soon realized it wasn’t the job for her. “It was a time when nurses had to stand up and give the doctors their chair,” she remembers.
She left nursing to pursue a bachelor’s degree in health education at Ohio State University, and then a master’s at the University of Kentucky and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Georgia. At Georgia, she began working with the university’s extension service, and was deployed to Athens to set up wellness programs for underserved communities.
Through the University of Georgia, she also did outreach work in Western Africa, engaging communities in Burkina Faso and Mali in setting up a health system. “We were there to help them, but they helped us a lot more,” she says.
Indeed, through her experience in Africa, and then later as a program officer at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, she realized the importance of listening to others. “All those experiences culminated in making me much more sensitive,” she says. “You have to go through some of that. You have to look for opportunities that are quite uncomfortable so you can learn.”
She learned through every visit. She was able to see firsthand how differences divide people and how racism has manifested in America, internationally and, ultimately, in her own Native culture.
Understanding at Every Opportunity
To Susan, racism is a direct result of not taking the time to learn from other people and accept each other as they are. Because of this, there is a tendency to assert one’s beliefs on others, thinking they know the “right way” to do things. Susan experienced this herself on one of her trips to Western Africa. As rural health specialists, they were there to set up medical institutions as they would in the United States. But they quickly learned that their way of doing things wasn’t the way of the African people.
“In Burkina Faso, it is customary to hire health or medical professionals, train them, and send them out into the villages to help people,” Susan explains. “But in the U.S., we will put up medical buildings, create pharmacies, and expect people to come to us.”
Understanding these differences, she says, changes how you provide services to people, and how you support them in their development. As a direct result, Susan made taking time, asking questions, and visiting with all stakeholders in a community key to her career.
Getting on the Agenda
After her time at the University of Georgia and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Susan went on to work as a senior program officer for the Hitachi Foundation in Washington, D.C. From there, she was recruited to come to North Carolina to set up the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.
Starting out, there was no structure and no staff. While the tribe was recognized as a tribal nation, it lacked the education and resources and even the general knowledge of what a foundation is. It was Susan’s job to establish operations, and the first thing she did, as always, was start listening.
She says while the tribe was fragmented, there were community clubs, which met once a month to discuss challenges and opportunities. “I made sure I was put on their agenda,” she says. “I wanted to hear what the people wanted, as well as what the chief wanted. Unless you do that, it is really hard to hear what the community truly was looking for.”
As executive director, she began her focus in three areas: cultural preservation, economic preservation, and workforce development. By listening to the tribal members, she was able to develop solutions specific to the Cherokee community. And by calling on her experience in Georgia and at the W.K. Kellogg and Hitachi Foundations, she had a good idea of what would work and what wouldn’t, and how to direct dollars.
During her 12 years at the foundation, Susan helped establish programs in each focus area. These included leadership and cultural tourism initiatives and the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources, which works to teach, protect and promote Cherokee art, resources and land care. She helped form the Certified Financial Development Institute, known as the Sequoyah Fund. She also led a downtown revitalization program that resulted in a 25% business improvement for tribal retailers.
Perspective that Empowers
Susan’s appreciation of other cultures, global view of the effects of racism, and hands-on experience helping people thrive has drawn her to the work of First Nations Development Institute. She says it’s an organization that has always been on the cutting edge of community development. It is able to see the potential of projects and initiatives, and help them build the infrastructure to get on the radar of other funders. In addition, First Nations is able to recognize the grassroots efforts that result in large-scale, long-term change.
“First Nations brings a sensitivity to the work that I don’t think anybody else can,” she says. “They know Natives don’t need a hand out. They need a hand up.”
Moving forward, Susan shows no signs of slowing down. Active on several boards, and vital to the work of enhancing the lives of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, she continues to lend her experience and perspective. She continues to listen, and people continue to respond.
By Amy Jakober