I feel like ToP brings hozho—balance—to my life. It helps me a listen, but also opens opportunities for me to share my voice and to be heard and to just be a better human being, and to be a better mother, a better wife, a better colleague, a better friend, so that's what ToP is to me. It brings balance to my life.
Albuquerque Area Indian Health Board (AAIHB) is an Indian-owned and operated non-profit public health organization that offers diverse health promotion and prevention educations programs”to tribal communities in New Mexico and the surrounding area. It was created in the 1970s and incorporated under the 1980s by a consortium of seven tribes. Since its inception, HIV prevention has been AAIHB’s core program, which focuses on awareness and prevention through a holistic lens around social determinants of health such as disparities, acceptance, sexual orientation, gender identity, and violence against indigenous women.
AAIHB also conducts an audiology program, houses a Tribal Epidemiology Center, and partners with numerous other organizations and coalitions, including the Southwest Indigenous Initiative (SWII). They organize Circle of Harmony, a biennial HIV/AIDS wellness conference. Through these programs, they serve 27 tribes across New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and Utah, putting them in a position to “advocate for tribes in the Southwest area on a national level.”
Ayn Whyte became the Executive Director of AAIHB after serving as the HIV Prevention Program Director for the past decade. Savannah Gene took on the role of HIV Prevention Program Director when Ayn became Executive Director.
Ayn, Savannah, and several of their colleagues attended the ToP Network Annual Gathering in Walnut Creek, CA in January, 2020, where AAIHB was recognized as ToP Champion. They sat for an interview with our Communications Coordinator, Andrew Clayton.
Andrew: How did you first encounter ToP?
Savannah: We work with a community coalition called the Southwest Indigenous Initiative (SWII), and when I became co-chair of that group we wanted to really figure out a way for us to work toward something collectively and create change in our communities around HIV prevention. We started an action planning process on the fly, but wasn't a ToP action plan.
My sister, who also works in public health in New Mexico, recommended that I attend a ToP training. We attended our first training, a ToP Facilitation Methods (TFM) course led by Marilyn Oyler and Courtney Lonergan in Phoenix in March 2016.
Ayn: It took us a while to really understand how to apply the methods. It wasn't until after the ToP Strategic Planning (TSP) course that we had an aha moment—“oh, this is how we can use these methods!”
After that we revisited the action planning process with SWII, because we wanted to be more organized, more focused, and more intentional about the work we did together.
Before Savannah and I started, funding was abundant for HIV programming through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) and other federal agencies. By the time we came to lead the program, those funding sources had gone away.
There was also a lot of competition at that time between programs around metrics, such as how many people were getting tested for HIV. That wasn’t the framework that we wanted to continue working under, so together with many of our colleagues at other agencies we decided that we weren’t going to compete anymore. We needed to be more collaborative and have a unified approach to the work that we do. We wanted to break down physical boundaries, like state lines, that limit our services.
Savannah: We had our first strategic planning session and I remember being so exhausted. But we had people saying things like: “I've never been to a meeting where my voice has been heard” or “I’ve never been to a meeting where something had actually come out of it!”
Ayn: SWII is part of a larger group that was trying to come up with an answer to the question: “What does community mean to us?” And there were really chaotic conversations, so at one point we stopped the meeting to lead a Consensus Workshop. We had no material there, but we pulled it off and created this beautiful image for the group that had different parts of the rainbow with different tag names that came out of the Consensus Workshop.
Then people started to see us in those roles, so they said, “can you do this for us? Can you help us with that?”
Since then we've evolved a lot, and found better and simpler ways to do things. Sometimes colleagues will pass by and see the big colorful Sticky Walls and the way we set up the room. They’ll hear the laughter and the conversations that come out of that room. We had a colleague who said “You seem like you're always having fun! What are you doing? Are you even working?” But then they’ll see all the work that’s been done.
Now when someone joins our team, the first thing we do is to get them scheduled for a ToP training, because they need to be able to understand the framework that this program is adopting and the way that we do things. They need that training to be able to identify where to jump in and contribute most. We currently have 15 staff trained in ToP, and I would like to see at least 75% of our staff trained, specifically program directors.
It builds a potential for us to develop a community of practice within an organization and really bring in some cultural elements to the methods so that they’re even that much more appealing to the tribes that we work with. We have adapted our approach, even how we present stuff through graphics. It’s important because people see it when they walk into the room. We did one where we used a Navajo basket as the welcome activity. People saw an indigenous basket as a symbol of a safe space, so we want to know how we can do that a little bit more.
Savannah: The way that ToP sets up a room in a circle is very in tune with the way that we do things within our communities. So it was very natural, and it really helps to create that equity around everyone who's at the meeting. All of those elements create an environment where they feel safe and able to be creative and also have the ties to our communities because we do the decor with things that are specific to our communities, it is very in tune with indigenous ways of coming together as a community.
Andrew: Do you find this work is easier the more your collaborators take on ToP too?
Ayn: There are more community voices that are being heard, which is important. That's just the way that we work as an indigenous organization—we don't say what's good for the tribes, the tribes tell us what their health priorities are, what's important to them, and how they want to approach whatever health disparity they have identified. So it's just an organized way for us to work better with the communities that we serve.
Savannah: Through the Mastering ToP (MToP) journey we got to know Courtney Lonergan and all the things that she does through ToP, including the transformational work with youth in her community. We had received funding to do a program with Native American youth in middle school, so we decided to bring Courtney in to facilitate the Youth As Facilitative Leaders curriculum during a summer program.
Focused conversations have been an awesome tool to create really meaningful conversations within their families led by the youth themselves. Every session that we have with the youth, we always have a Focused Conversation. They’re so used to it! We ask, “what does O stand for? What does R stand for?” and they know it, and they’re able to tie the concepts to each part of ORID.
Ayn: Even if they haven't grasped all the methods, they've been exposed to it which is still a benefit to them because Savannah and her team are so intentional about having those Focused Conversations, and even having them organize things that they want to do. One of the youth said he wanted to be a better baseball player, so we had him do a Consensus Workshop around all the things you need to do to be a better baseball player.
Savannah: We've had families having Focused Conversations at the dinner table around the use of electronics. We have one student using the Focused Conversation to plan around the student club that she's part of around LGBTQ youth. So they're using the methods. In the first year we just practiced the Focused Conversation to make sure they really know how to use it and when it can come in handy. We're now trying to bring in the Consensus Workshop and then the Action Planning process. So we're hoping that by January 2022 they will be the ones facilitating that whole process.
Ayn: Many of the young people in our program have been recommended because they've struggled in some aspects with behavior or grades or other things. It's helped the staff connect with them when there are conflicts, because the youth know that they have to reassess their behavior, and through this process they’re allowed to give their side of the story and how this situation has impacted them and I can also consciously make a decision of how I can work through this issue and be a better relative.
Savannah: ORID factors in because there's a whole reflective process that they go through, and we're hoping that at some point it's so ingrained that they have that decision-making process through doing the ORID. We're hoping that by using ORID they'll be able to make better decisions around their health and wellness and the struggles they're facing.
It’s really on the preventive side, looking at the health equity issues that come in and even addressing the trauma that leads to the behaviors that put them at risk.
Ayn: We're not just using ToP professionally, but also using it personally. Both Savannah and I are affected by historical trauma through our parents, who have experienced trauma through the boarding school. That trickles down. But Focused Conversations help us have those difficult conversations with our parents and try to get at the roots of trauma.
I have a strained relationship with my dad. I had not talked to him for a couple of years, and I was going to see him to meet him for dinner for the first time. I invited Savannah to come with me, and on the way over to the restaurant she was having a Focused Conversation with me and I didn't know it. But she was really checking on me to see what my emotional wellness was at that point.
I also use it with my kids just to check in with them, because otherwise you just say: “Oh hey, how was your day?” and that’s the end of the conversation. But being intentional about having these really deep conversations with our kids makes them better human beings, and we contribute back to society by nurturing and raising human beings who are going to be kind and compassionate.
Our children get complimented on their behavior, and I think it's a result of just being loving mothers, but by us being exposed to ToP we have been able to have deeper relationships with our children.
Andrew: How would you describe ToP using a metaphor?
Ayn: I feel like as a Diné woman—a Navajo woman—it's important to always have balance in your life, and your existence is all about creating that balance and knowing when you're off balance. I feel like ToP brings hozho—balance—to my life. It helps me a listen, but also opens opportunities for me to share my voice and to be heard and to just be a better human being, and to be a better mother, a better wife, a better colleague, a better friend, so that's what ToP is to me. It brings balance to my life.
Savannah: I think about communities and families coming together to celebrate things. I just think of this image of my family coming together in a sad time and just bringing together the wisdom and the resources of all these different individuals that we may never have thought would come and help us around something like losing a family member, and I just think of all those people pitching in to create something that is going to help us move us forward. That's how I think of ToP and what it does for our communities. It's being in kinship.