Kenaitze Tribal Circle: Developing Partnerships to Sustain a Program

Since joining the Kenaitze Indian Tribe eight years ago, Tribal Circle Coordinator Curt Shuey has overseen the growth of the Tribal Circle program. First known as the Tribal Youth Justice program, and created through a TJADG Grant almost a decade ago, the Tribal Circle has evolved into a comprehensive program that is making a positive difference for youth and families in the community. The Kenaitze Tribe long ago realized that the State’s court system, Division of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), and Office of Children’s Services were not being effective in helping Native youth turn their lives around. Tribal members decided something different needed to be done, and introduced the Tribal Circle - a traditional program meant to apply cultural values and restore dignity and honor to all involved in the system, including individuals, families, and the community. As Shuey describes, “in our Circles, we bring together the youth, their parents or caregivers, and extended family and friends…, but we also bring together other members of the community who may not be familiar with the family and may not have any idea of what the trouble was that brought them there, but bring a community perspective and concern to the consultation.” Taking this approach was not easy at first for the Kenaitze Tribal Circle, and the program met various obstacles and even went on hiatus for a time due to lack of referrals. However, the program was able to recover and expand due to a variety of strong partnerships that were developed in four categories: an advisory board, the greater community, volunteers, and internally through the hiring of a Co-Coordinator.

The first kind of partnership that aided the Tribal Circle was the advisory board, including key champions that could help forge new relationships for the program. The initial board, after a couple of unproductive efforts, had stopped meeting. When Shuey joined the staff during the Tribal Circle’s revival, he contacted the members of the board to see who was willing to start again, and recruited new members in order to help breathe new life into the program. He recruited representatives from the school district, local law enforcement, and the DJJ, among others. Shuey developed an especially fruitful relationship with the Director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, who was able to pass along important lessons and advice as the Tribal Circle rejuvenated. The Youth Court had already established itself as a diversion program with the district court and DJJ, and the Director encouraged the Tribal Circle to establish similar ties with the juvenile justice and court systems. The Director also supplied a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) and sample information sheets the Tribal Circle was able to adapt and distribute to interested families. Perhaps most importantly, the Director introduced Shuey to district court and state juvenile justice personnel. After two years of collaborative meetings with the advisory board, as well as individual support from board members, new MOAs were developed and referrals began to come in.

Community relationships were the second kind of partnership that helped the program’s effectiveness and continuity. Kenaitze’s Tribal Circle staff interacts with the community through word-of-mouth by participants and by talking regularly to community groups about the Tribal Circle process. The project team responds to numerous invitations from different groups, including requests from school teachers to perform mock Circles with class, invitations to youth court state-wide conferences to talk with students and adults about the Circle, requests to sit on panels at state-wide Tribal court and state court conferences to describe the Circle process, and contact with other Native communities to help train them to establish their own Circle programs.

The third category of partnership were the volunteers required for Tribal Circle sessions. Because new volunteers participate in each new Circle, it is important to constantly create and retain new relationships. The program makes an effort to draw volunteers from the Tribal members, Tribal staff, police officers, school teachers, and Tribal Elders. Having these community members involved has two prime benefits for strengthening community relationships: first, the volunteers create a direct connection to and understanding of the program throughout the community; and second, as more people volunteer, the Tribal Circle process becomes more familiar to the community and its various other programs that could connect with the program.

The final category of partnership relates to the Tribal Circle project staff. With the help of the TYP Grant, the Tribe was able to hire a second Circle Coordinator. This position’s title is “Co-Coordinator,” reflecting Shuey’s experience with external partnerships that taught him the importance of being inclusive and sharing leadership. This new staff member will not be an Assistant, but a true partner, and someone to whom all of the best practices, contacts, and lessons learned can be passed. By creating the position of Co-Coordinator, the program is ensuring that someone is available in the case of turnover. This Co-Coordinator can take over the lead and maintain continuity for all aspects of the Tribal Circle, ultimately leading to the continued and uninterrupted success of the program.

When asked to give advice to other grantees who are working to build their own programs to create a lasting legacy, Shuey encourages everyone to remember that productive partnerships take time to establish, and not to assume that one difficult contact forever ruins the possibility of a constructive relationship with that entity. Despite its early setbacks, the Kenaitze Tribal Circle is now well-established, and over time new state supervisors and other partnerships have continued to be vital to the program’s progress. The revitalization of the Kenaitze Tribal Circle was a gradual process cultivated through multiple contacts over the span of several years. “We are at a comfortable place now,” explains Shuey, “That doesn’t mean there are not challenges… I would say it took a good two to three years before the program felt like it was on its feet. And during that time I’m even developing our own basic forms and procedures. Like, what do we do when someone’s referred here? What’s our next step?” To help answer these questions, Shuey continues to draw on the advisory board, community members, volunteers, and staff to provide advice, encouragement, and support for the ongoing success of the Tribal Circle.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overemphasize the importance of supportive relationships in these partnerships…You can talk about things at the agency level or the concept level but in the end it boils down to relationships with people.” – TYP Coordinator Curt Shuey

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