One of the biggest disappointments of my federal career has been my abject failure to improve the engagement numbers of my fellow American Indian/Alaska Native colleagues. Here, at the end of my career, it has reached an epidemic level. At my agency, American Indians/Alaska Natives are the most disengaged racial group and to add insult to injury, they have enjoyed this embarrassing distinction for the last seven years.
Even with the following influences, these events did nothing to stem this disengagement trend.
• 4 different agency heads.
• 4 diverse supervisors.
• 4 reorganizations.
• Establishment of two American Indian/Alaska Native employee organizations.
• Creation of a diversity and inclusion training on American Indian/Alaska Native values.
• Special emphasis programs for American Indian/Alaska Native issues.
• Blog posts on American Indian/Alaska Native topics.
This disengagement has also thrived within the federal sector despite the passage of executive orders, public laws, federal regulations and Presidential proclamations that require the improvement of equal opportunity and program delivery for American Indians/Alaska Natives. This disengagement has grown in spite of the election of the most progressive President ever to occupy the White House when it comes to understanding the plight of Native People. This disengagement has prospered notwithstanding the increase in the population of persons who claim American Indian/Alaska Native identity. Yet the upshot of these numbers has not translated into any additional political clout for Indigenous folks.
Why despite all this investment in time, money, human capital, policies and programs are American Indians/Alaska Natives so disengaged. Is the federal government intentionally biased against one of the most important racial groups so critical to the development of the USA?
I don’t think so. What is at play here is unconscious bias that has been embedded in the culture and climate of most federal workplaces. It is called social conditioning: a phenomenon where inherited traditions are passed down through previous generations.
American Indians/Alaska Natives are not necessarily disengaged through self-inflicted wounds. They are disengaged because the culture and climate reminds them of their past disengagement. Just like Jewish people relive the horror of the Holocaust, American Indians/Alaska Natives re-experience the trauma of disengagement year after miserable year.
The father of modern management, the late Peter Drucker once said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” If Drucker were alive, he would use this analogy to explain American Indian/Alaska Native disengagement. He would say no amount of programs, polices, strategies and procedures will change this embedded disempowerment. The culture has to change. The way agencies see American Indians/Alaska Natives has to change. The brand has to change. The narrative has to change.
Engagement for this country’s first citizens will never be realized until American Indians/Alaska Natives and non-American Indians/Alaska Natives come together in the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a garment of mutual destiny.
Until we see one group’s disengagement as everyone’s disengagement, isolation, indifference and fear will not only keep us separated but will continue the storyline of disengagement for American Indians/Alaska Natives for an 8th year; a scenario that seemingly has no end and an unwelcomed result we have seen before.