At the Division of Indian Work in Minneapolis, they never know whether the next young boy they meet will grow up to be a doctor, a writer or an artist. This untapped potential in today’s youth is what drives this organization, and now – with funding from First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) – the Division of Indian Work is building on its efforts to help the boys of this community change their circumstances and discover all that’s possible.
The Division of Indian Work (DIW) works to empower urban American Indians in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota through culturally-based education, counseling, advocacy and leadership development. For much of its existence, DIW operated in partnership with the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches, which began over 65 years ago. In 2017, DIW reorganized on its own to become a solely American Indian-led organization committed to strengthening the Native community. In line with its focus on youth and families, many of DIW’s programs and activities directly impact the lives of young men and boys.
Through the grant from First Nations, DIW is bolstering these programs in ways it hopes will make a long-term difference for this urban Indian community. The project is supported by a grant to First Nations from RISE for Boys and Men of Color. RISE BMOC is a project co-led by Equal Measure, a national nonprofit evaluation and philanthropic services firm, and the University of Southern California (USC), Rossier School of Education, USC Race and Equity Center. RISE for Boys and Men of Color is a field advancement effort that aims to better understand and strategically improve the lives, experiences and outcomes of boys and men of color in the United States. RISE spans five fields (education, health, human services and social policy, juvenile and criminal justice, and workforce development) and focuses on four populations (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans).
Housing, Health and Healing
According to DIW Executive Director Louise Matson, DIW reaches out to young men and boys to meet their needs wherever they are. Services range from the fundamental – giving at-risk boys a roof over their heads – to the more advanced – providing family leadership skills to new fathers.
In one of its most fundamental programs, DIW operates the Healing Spirit House, which provides supportive, drug-free and alcohol-free housing and in-house services specifically for Native males ages 16 to 21 who are part of the foster care system. Designed more like a home than a facility, the Healing Spirit House creates a positive, safe environment where the boys and young men do household chores and plan and cook meals. At the same time, they’re able to meet with full-time, onsite Native male staff who act as role models and help them set and meet educational and career goals.
Boys in the Healing Spirit program can also join other foster care kids in DIW’s Healthy Transitions and Homelessness Prevention. This program teaches skills for living independently outside the foster care system, ensuring that young people are prepared to work and study, manage money and care for themselves in a daily routine.
Through these programs and all DIW initiatives, spirituality and culture are prominent.
A Sense of Identity and Belonging
“For youth in foster care, their voices are often not heard,” explained Matson. “Giving these kids a sense of identity and belonging lets them know they’re not alone, and it gives them the strength to face the challenges they experience in the foster care system.”
Culture is also weaved into DIW’s additional programs that benefit young men and boys and that are focused on health and healing. There is an Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention Program, a Clearway Tobacco Cessation Program, and the Horizons Unlimited Food Shelf for fresh meats, fruits and vegetables. There are programs to support in-home parents and family violence prevention. A men’s domestic violence program aims to educate Native American men about how a history of oppression has affected them personally and what that can mean to their relationships.
All these programs address evolving needs in the Indian community. For example, drug prevention is expanding to combat a growing opioid crisis in the area. Programs that support in-home parents are now including more dads to show them through positive interactions what they can be doing as men in their own families.
Matson asserted that a critical feature of all DIW programs is that they are asset-based and strengths-focused. She said often when it comes to addressing men, the focus is on the negative – after-incident intervention or anger management. Yet, DIW believes the emphasis should be on culture as prevention.
“We know how to heal ourselves,” Matson said. “Customs like sweat lodges and dark-room ceremonies are part of our culture, but they also are positive rituals that draw on strengths. This makes them powerful tools for men and young boys.”
She added, “We don’t have to feel sorry for ourselves. We can address historical trauma, grief and loss, and we can do it through culturally-specific services.”
Matson explained that challenges DIW has faced in providing these services have stemmed from the common problem of not enough funding. Throughout the organization’s 65 years, it has been fueled by government contracts, fee-based services, donations, grants and partnerships with like-minded organizations. Through the years, programs have stopped and started based on funding, and some programs have had to evolve to fit the resources available. Matson said this is why general operating funding like the kind from First Nations has been so critical in helping continue being successful.
“We’re getting our kids graduated, we’re making progress,” she said. Indeed, DIW impacts the lives of 500 clients every year, of which 100 are men and boys. Still she said, they can do better, and there’s much work to be done.
“We can offer solutions before problems become chronic,” she said. “We can lay the foundation.”
And that foundation is what the boys who pass through their doors need. As Matson said, they may grow up to be doctors, writers, and artists. And through the Division of Indian Work, they’re seeing these possibilities. Obstacles are being broken down, and they’re discovering how far their potential can take them. “They deserve resources and support to make things better,” Matson said. “We can see how fantastic things can be.”
By Amy Jakober