Part of my job, as the Deputy Associate Director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Associate Director for the Office of Public Engagement, is to find ways to engage communities in a two-way conversation with the White House. Last week, that conversation led me to the northernmost point of the United States and other parts of Alaska.
I traveled north to Alaska with the Department of Health and Human Services to participate in the Region 10 Tribal Budget Consultation Session in Anchorage. After the session, we visited the sites of planned health facilities in Northern Alaska. I saw personally how the President is changing lives and conditions for Alaska Native communities. HHS funding from the Recovery Act has been committed to replace the tribally-operated Norton Sound Regional Hospital with a new facility in Nome, Alaska. We visited the construction site and observed the true meaning of "shovel-ready." The pilings were set into the ground already, and the crews were just waiting for spring barges to deliver the steel as soon as the ice conditions would permit sea navigation. In Alaska, the construction season is much shorter (as building materials must be shipped) and the cost of construction is extremely high. The community was excited and proud of the work they had already done in past years to prepare for the construction.
We visited Teller, a community near Nome, to witness the marvels of technology as Community Health Aides demonstrated the telemedicine kiosk, where medical conditions could be viewed and diagnosed remotely using state-of-the art technology.
Later that day, we traveled to Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States, to visit the site of another facility slated for replacement, starting with the President’s 2010 Budget.
All the communities we visited in Northern Alaska were accessible only by air. We spoke to community members, health professionals and tribal village and corporation leadership and they described the challenges related to the vast distances separating needs from services. I knew things would be different as I tried to imagine what words like "remote" and "isolated" really would look like. My imagination fell far short of reality. We were in coastal communities, with rolling hills and flat deltas. I was awestruck by the beauty of this terrain still filled with grand herds of caribou and musk ox. I heard the bowhead whales were nearby, migrating through the Arctic Ocean. All of these things and more sustain the people who live there, who proudly call this place home. Their unique situations have expanded my perspective of what constitutes Indian Country.
During the HHS Region 10 Tribal Consultation Session, we engaged in meaningful dialogue with Tribes regarding their budget and policy priorities. These discussions also aided in my understanding of how the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) is being implemented in rural and frontier communities across America.
Many of the people I spoke with were very excited about the White House’s Office of Public Engagement’s interest in Alaska Natives and health care. It was a great chance for the White House to get outside the Beltway to witness the remarkable changes in communities whose voices seem very far away from Washington, but are so vital to the fabric of America.
Jodi A. Gillette is Associate Director, White House Office of Public Engagement & Deputy Associate Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs