On a cold winter day in January, men from around Alaska journeyed to an office building in Anchorage for a meeting unlike any they'd attended in their lives.
Inside a conference room at the Cook Inlet Tribal Center, with no women present, they spent hours speaking with each other about their lives, their hopes and dreams, and the individual role they each might have in offering tangible hope of a better life for their family members and neighbors.
"The solutions have to come from Native men," said Patrick Anderson, the chief executive officer of Chugachmiut -- a nonprofit health consortium of seven tribal organizations in the Chugach region -- and the man who convened the meeting.
More than 200 villages dot Alaska, many that have struggled with alcoholism, suicide, sexual abuse and violence. At times, it feels like there is no cure for the problems that plague rural parts of the state. Some villages have access to larger communities via the road system, but many do not, and isolation can add to the sense of helplessness in turning things around.
Anderson is convinced there is a way. Part Tlingit Indian from Yakutat and Alutiiq from Cordova, he is his own survivor story, someone who found a way out of a childhood he describes as full of adversity. And he believes other Alaskans can, too. In addition to his work at Chugachmiut, Anderson also serves on the boards of Sealaska Corp. and the Alaska Native Heritage Center, as a commissioner on the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission and as chairman of the Alaska Native Justice Center.
His formula is a classic grassroots effort: He is trying to combat social ills by going straight to the source, the people who are living the very statistics that politicians, law enforcement and medical providers are working to reduce.
Anderson claims his approach is different than what others in the state have tried, including Gov. Sean Parnell, who is in the beginning stages of a 10-year quest to end Alaska's "epidemic of violence," and his plan calls for tougher prosecution, better protection for victims and doing more to help victims heal. Ideally, all of these things well help prevent abuse.
Anderson has little faith in what he calls the governor's "blame and shame" tactic. "He's recycling old ideas that are worthless in my mind," said Anderson.
While Alaska's child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drug abuse problems are complicated to unravel, Anderson believes they are simple at their core. Childhood traumas increase the potential for risky and abusive behaviors as adults, he says. Factor in no job opportunities, lack of education and a fractured sense of self, and individuals can easily get caught in a downward spiral with no clear way out. The equation can be further complicated for men, whose identities have historically centered on being good providers, bridging the gap in lifestyle between old and new ways, Native and Western ways, and living off the land versus earning an income.
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