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Tohono O'odham Community Action: Wisdom from the Past, Solutions for the Future
Submitted by Wendy Wheeler on Fri, 08/28/2009 - 12:55.
In the Southwestern United States, the Sonoran Desert stretches for over 100,000 square miles. At first glance, it does not appear to be an exactly hospitable environment – with recorded temperatures reaching over 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, it is one of North America’s hottest deserts. However, for countless generations the Tohono O'odham – People of the Desert – have called this desert home. And today, Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), a local community organization, is reincorporating the desert into Tohono O’odham life so that the Nation has a healthier and culturally rich future.
The challenges the Tohono O’odham Nation faces are great. Type II (adult-onset) diabetes is rampant in the community. Before the 1960s, no tribe member had suffered from type II diabetes; today, more than 60% of Tohono O’odham adults suffer from the disease (the highest rate in the world). Per capita income on the reservation is the lowest of all U.S. reservations, and both unemployment and poverty levels are staggering. High school dropout rates of at least 50% are the norm. Extinction threatens the Tohono O’odham language and ceremonies.
But since its founding in 1996, TOCA has dedicated itself to addressing the challenges the Tohono O’odham Nation faces by calling upon native tradition. It’s this unique approach – a return to the old solutions in response to new problems – that has rooted TOCA in the community, distinguished it as an exemplar of community-based service-learning, and contributed to its great success.
“We seek to walk with the community as it seeks out its own gifts and strengths,” explain Terrol Dew Johnson and Tristan Reader, TOCA co-directors. “Our goal – both as individuals and as a leadership team – is to create more than a vital and sustainable organization; our goal is the creation of a vital and sustainable Tohono O’odham community.”
And their work is doing just that.
Through TOCA’s four program areas – Basketweavers Organization, Food and Wellness System, Community Arts and Culture, and Youth/Elder Outreach – the organization has been able to encourage community self-sufficiency by celebrating the assets, culture, wisdom, and resources that are inherently Tohono O’odham.
We see this dynamic play out fully – and with remarkable passion and success – in TOCA’s work to address the Tohono O’odham’s pressing diabetes issues. The work focuses on promoting healthy eating and physical fitness, antidotes to type II diabetes, a condition that often onsets as a result of obesity. But the kind of healthy eating and physical fitness TOCA advocates aren’t fad diets or workout crazes; instead, TOCA brings community members together by recalling the farming techniques and crops of their ancestors, as well as traditional athletics, horsemanship, and cooking. The tepary bean, once, before the influx of government surplus white flour and lard, a staple of Tohono O’odham diet, is making a comeback, and with it a wave of cultural recognition and celebration.
Youth engagement and leadership are also vital to the work’s design and success. Because sustainable community change –in terms of renewed commitments to both health and traditional culture – must occur in the elders of tomorrow, Tohono O’odham youth of all ages play a central role in all aspects of the work. Young people design, plan, and implement projects, organizing and refereeing sports leagues, and leading hiking trips to collect native foods. Older youth mentor younger youth in developing healthy, lifelong habits, and spread the practice of service-learning as a community norm. And in the Desert Rain Café, a TOCA-sponsored restaurant and community gathering place, young people cook and serve native foods.
Beginning in September, TOCA will partner with the Innovation Center to bolster their service learning efforts tied to the Food and Fitness Program. Stay tuned – together we’ll be exploring new frontiers and expanding the horizons for service-learning in community change.