Deana Around Him is a senior research scientist at Child Trends. She is also the strategic dissemination lead for the Tribal Early Childhood Research Center at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado School of Public Health, an adjunct faculty member at the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, and a 2022 Aspen Institute Ascend Fellow.
Dr. Around Him, can you start by briefly summarizing your research activities and responsibilities with Child Trends?
At Child Trends, I lead our activities that relate to advancing the well-being of Indigenous children and families. I look for opportunities to extend Child Trends’ ongoing work to be more applicable to Indigenous populations, while also developing new work that is aligned with the needs and priorities of Indigenous Peoples. In addition, I serve in various roles (e.g., principal investigator [PI], co-PI, co-investigator, engagement/dissemination lead) for research and evaluation teams that focus on equity in home visiting, school climate, culturally based interventions and support for families, and understanding social and environmental influences on child health.
Can you tell us about your primary research interest(s)?
My primary research interest is to support the well-being of Indigenous children and families using community-based and -engaged research and evaluation approaches. Research and evaluation are important for understanding the factors that shape health and well-being and for making evidence-informed policy, program, and service decisions. Yet for too long, Indigenous voices and perspectives have been absent or limited in these spaces. I believe the key to addressing the myriad health inequities faced by Indigenous Peoples is to tap into the cultural and contextual expertise of those most impacted—Indigenous people themselves.
My professional training has afforded me skills and knowledge related to public health and the social determinants of health, maternal and child health, and research ethics. This training—combined with my lived experience as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, a mother, and an Indigenous relative—has equipped me to work on projects across developmental periods that focus on a variety of topics, from maternal mental health and birth outcomes to early childhood development, adolescent well-being, and parenting. I often work with interdisciplinary research teams; in each project, I strive to apply my training and experience in ways that respect Tribal sovereignty and build on cultural strengths.
What sparked your interest in Indigenous child and family health research?
As a teen, I thought I wanted to support the health of Native people as a pharmacist or medical doctor. I’d never heard of public health or known anyone who had a career in research. Then, I learned about population health and prevention and intervention science in my community health courses at college. At that time, I also connected with other Native students on campus and found that, despite coming from different Tribal Nations, our family experiences and circumstances were similar in many ways. My college experiences helped me see a different path toward supporting the well-being of Native people.
My interests in child, youth, and family well-being deepened immediately following college when I taught high school science in a northern plains reservation community that has been deeply impacted by economic, health, and education inequities. I witnessed the many ways strong family and cultural connections early in life had profound, lasting benefits for my students. I set my heart and mind on pursuing a graduate education and career that would contribute to greater understanding of the social and structural determinants of health to improve outcomes for Indigenous children and families.
What books or journal articles have most influenced you?
As a graduate student, my mentor, Dr. Amy Elliott, gifted me a copy of Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples by Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou, Māori). It was a pivotal time for me to read the book because it so clearly framed the tensions I was feeling in my graduate school experience. It motivated me to keep going. It is an essential read for anyone who engages in research and evaluation with Indigenous Peoples.
What are your hobbies or interests outside of research?
My hobbies and interests outside of research are essentially centered around trying to apply what I learn through my research! It sounds simple, but I love visiting and spending quality time with friends and relatives. It’s great when that time includes cooking and sharing a meal together, wading in local rivers and creeks, taking in the sunset, and learning and sharing Cherokee and Lakota culture and language with my son, who is connected to both Tribes through me and my spouse, respectively. It’s even better when I can combine a few of those things!
To wrap up, can you tell us a fun or interesting fact about yourself or your family?
In college, I helped co-found the Ivy Native Council (INC). Within each Ivy League school, Indigenous students represent a very small percentage of the student body. INC provides a cross-Ivy space for Indigenous students to receive peer support, discuss current Indigenous issues and topics, share strategies for programming and raising awareness, and connect with alumni. The inaugural INC conference was held at Dartmouth College during my senior year. When my alma mater, Brown University, hosted the conference the following year, I was honored to be invited back to introduce the keynote speaker, Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected to serve as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. It is truly amazing to know that INC has been connecting brilliant Indigenous students and future leaders for nearly 20 years!
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