Malia Villegas, EdD, was the inaugural speaker for the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ (“Intellectual House” in the native Lushootseed language of Puget Sound) Academic Programming Committee Lecture on November 15, 2016. Dr. Villegas was the director of the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center (NCAI-PRC), where she supported the building of tribal data capacity, helped to put scientific findings for tribal use, and advising on ways to improve tribal input on policy discussions.
With over 500 U.S. tribes in the NCAI network, there is a great diversity of interests among them. Dr. Villegas said that the challenge of this diversity is also its strength, in that NCAI can respond to individual and collective tribal interests in the strongest and most appropriate way. She also said that in tribal research, Native peoples need to do more than just define culture; they need to explore how and what to measure in the context of culture.
Dr. Villegas’s approach to building relationships with tribes and policy makers is based on more than just listening to each other speak, but to connect with all parties in finding out why they care about the communities they serve. Her slogan, #lovemore, is a tag she often posts on social media to generate a reasonable and heartfelt connection among all parties as to what is at the core of decisions made at the national policy level. Using all the data available to maximum advantage coupled with a commitment to affect policy is much more powerful than data alone.
When we begin the conversation on research on the common ground of mutual consent and ethical relationships, then we can take the conversation beyond “the idea that it is our brokenness that generates resources.” This way of looking at things is the opposite of the traditional Western method of “deficit-based research,” or “What’s wrong with this, and how can we fix it?” Instead, the “strengths-based approach” that the NCAI-PRC champions looks at “What are we doing correctly, and how can we build upon that?” Such an approach utilizes the strengths of all parties to bring about mutual commitments to realize better outcomes.
After four years, Dr. Villegas has stepped away from her job at the NCAI-PRC. She is proud of the work that she did there and is looking forward what comes next from the NCAI-PRC. In her new job, she will be serving as the Vice President of Corporate Affairs with her Alaska Native village, the Afognak Native Corporation in Kodiak Island Borough. The corporation is economically strong, and the leadership is eager to develop a model of community sustainability by harnessing its economic success into long-range community well-being.