Giving and Leading: Native American Connections

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President and CEO of Native American Connections Diana Yazzie-Devine talks about her nonprofit that provides behavioral health services, affordable housing and economic development opportunities to Native Americans in the Phoenix area and tribal communities.

Ted Simons: Tonight we focus on a valley nonprofit that's been helping Native Americans in the Phoenix area for 40 years. Native American Connections provides behavioral health, affordable housing and community development services to thousands of families and individuals each year. Here to tell us more about the organization is its president and CEO Diana Yazzie-Devine. It's good to have you here.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Glad to be here.

Ted Simons: Native American Connections. Give us a better definition.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: As you said, we were founded 40 years ago to serve the native population that was moving into the Phoenix area at that time. Unemployment rates were high in tribal communities. They didn't have access to higher education, so you saw this migration of native American people coming into Phoenix. When they got here they found that they were pretty socially isolated and culturally isolated, so Native American Connections was founded at that time to really support the behavioral health and housing needs of native people coming to the Phoenix area, disconnected from their families and culture.

Ted Simons: Has that goal changed over the years or is that target?

Diana Yazzie-Devine: It's almost exactly the same. We're a much larger organization. We have 18 service sites all throughout central Phoenix. We're still supporting native American people. Right now we serve all populations too. Affordable housing in the housing first model that mayor was talking about, serving the homeless population, supporting them when they have those needs that they have around substance abuse, mental health issues, domestic violence, so we still really do pretty much the same thing. We use a lot of traditional healing practices too.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask about that. The culturally appropriate method of these services. Talk to us about that.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: You might be surprised if you knew we are actually operating a sweat lodge healing ceremonies right in the heart of downtown Phoenix on 3rd avenue and Roosevelt. Two times a week we start the sweat lodge fire. In order to promote community wellness and healing the total mind-body spirit where a person really needs to be healthy in their body, healthy in their mind and healthy in their spirit. Those cultural ceremonies are still helping to do that right in the heart of Downtown Phoenix.

Ted Simons: It looks like it. Importance of honoring culture and the importance of that holistic approach, is that something that was there from the beginning or again something that developed?

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Well, it was supported by the founders, but it was important by everybody else who came after that knowing that those ceremonies have been anchoring and grounding native people for thousands of years. It is a best practice. We always talk about how do we treat people in the best practice method, whether its research based, whether it's successful. And those old practices have been around for a long time. They really help support native people in that holistic model of healing.

Ted Simons: Is there a way to quantify the result, to say look, I can show you X, Y, and Z maybe is working better than alternative methods?

Diana Yazzie-Devine: As people move through certain levels of care then they go into -- the mayor was talking about permanent housing. If we can connect somebody who is probably homeless on the street, you may have a woman who is using methamphetamine, she was pregnant, she was going to have a baby that would have been addicted to meth. Instead she came into care. We were able to wrap her with health care services, house her and then she went on to find permanent housing, we were able to provide job development services that help women reenter back into the community. This woman her children are now enrolled in school. She's in stable housing. She has a job. You know, she's a taxpayer. She's being supported in her cultural environment. So many times Native American people feel disconnected or lonely or isolated. Here they get to remain in that cultural community and feel that support here in Phoenix.

Ted Simons: Sounds like 18 service locations.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Yes.

Ted Simons: The idea of a one-stop service, the big kahuna, talk about that. That sounds like quite the deal you got going.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: In 2005 the Phoenix Indian center, native health, and now people of color network came together and said, our people are having a difficult time trying to find these services. They are not people with isolated problems, they are people when they come in for health care they need jobs. They also need housing. We said, why don't we come together and we found a building on central, 4520 North Central across from Central High School at the light-rail stop, and now we have seven nonprofits all operating out of that same site. So they can get job services, dental services, medical services, behavioral health. There's an alternative high school for Native American youth. It's a center where they come in, maybe looking for a single service, they get wrapped in a variety of services.

Ted Simons: Now, the operating budget was reported somewhere around $8 million. Relatively accurate?

Diana Yazzie-Devine: About $9 million. Over 9 million now.

Ted Simons: How are you raising that money?

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Well, I think we have a really good strategy. I think we have a very diverse strategy. You want your money to come from a variety of places. Some of our rents coming from -- income comes from rents that people pay in our affordable housing communities. Some of it comes from government grants. We're certainly supported by the foundations. There's a lot of foundations that are -- hate to mention one because there's many that support us. We have fee for service contracts with tribal communities, government contracts that are pretty wide portfolio of the way our money comes to us. Allows us to be a little bit more stable if something goes away.

Ted Simons: You described embracing the entrepreneurial spirit. Talk to us about that.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Sure. Well, I think Native American Connections itself; we are one of the larger nonprofit affordable housing developers. Divine Legacy on central next door to our community service center, Divine Legacy is the first affordable housing community to be the platinum certified. So we have the highest -- that's a Green standard of certification. So when we build our affordable housing communities we actually build from the low-income housing tax credit program. The State Department of housing is issued future tax corrodes from the federal government, and they are then allocated to nonprofits or other developers and we sell them to investors who need future tax credits, so we're actually building with private equity investment rather than using government funds or creating debt, you know, and that's how we create affordable housing to keep our rents low for families that want to live in a community where they can stabilize their family with low rents.

Ted Simons: That sounds like something that would have been a dream about 40 years ago. You have been with the organization 33 some odd years. You have to feel like you're making a difference; feel good about what's been going on with this organization.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Our employees say -- our organization, some of our services are lifesaving services. We touch some of the communities' most vulnerable people. Women that need to be in care when they are pregnant. Domestic violence, homeless youth. We have a homeless transitional program named home base for homeless youth. We're out on the streets outreaching them, bringing them in off the streets into care. A lot of those kids were the ones that transitioned out of foster care and found themselves homeless on the streets of Phoenix. So our employees, our board of directors, the community, I think we really make a difference in people's lives. We change lives.

Ted Simons: Where does Native American Connections go from here?

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Well, I think we're actually building another affordable housing community right downtown Phoenix. AT 2nd avenue and McKinley. We're interested in being part of the mayor's strategy about really making sure that the citizens of Phoenix have affordable housing that's on transportation corridors so you're linking people. We're really wanting to support Green building and Green strategies and getting people to and from work with without having to have a car. All those things are important to us. We're part of the United way and corporation for supportive housing on their housing first strategy, so we're opening our first housing first program.

Ted Simons: Things are happening.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: We are very busy.

Ted Simons: Congratulations, thanks for joining us.

Diana Yazzie-Devine: Thank you for having me.

Diana Yazzie-Devine:President and CEO, Native American Connections;

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