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MPLD graduate’s research project leads to doctoral degree and new state training to better support Indigenous youth 

Kendra Lowden, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and descendant of the Osage Nation, is pictured in full tribal regalia.
Kendra Lowden poses in traditional dress.
MPLD graduate Kendra Lowden says the 12-month fellowship program grew her confidence. Lowden, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and descendant of the Osage Nation, now serves as director of leadership and tribal initiatives at the Center for Workforce Equity and Leadership.

Kendra Lowden wants to help.  

“Being of service to people in need — it’s a mindset and my passion,” she said.  

Her desire to serve others and her discovery of how she could best do so both originated in the same place: her tribal community.  

“My cultural identity is the thread of who I am, and it’s braided into everything I do,” said Lowden, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and descendant of the Osage Nation. “My culture guides my values, and those values are what led me to this work.”  

Lowden’s first job was with her tribe, working in domestic violence prevention. Her interactions in that role set her on the path to working with child welfare issues, and the Oklahoma resident’s career grew to include serving as foster care and adoption manager for multiple tribes. Then, in 2019, she opened an email about the Minority Professional Leadership Development program.  

Below, Lowden discusses how the 12-month fellowship helped her gain the confidence to earn her master’s degree, get accepted into a doctoral program, and land a national role. Additionally, Lowden, now director of leadership and tribal initiatives at the Center for Workforce Equity and Leadership, offers her recommendations for child welfare professionals working with Indigenous youth.  

Q: How would you describe the MPLD program to anyone considering applying? 

A: It’s an opportunity to build connections and to gain new perspectives. And as you’re building those connections and that network where you all get to carry each other forward, you’re also able to get training and coaching in all sorts of valuable skills. 

Q: What do you think you gained from the program?  

A: It was a big step for me to apply. While I was secure in my career and felt confident in how I was serving Indigenous families, I wasn’t as secure or confident in moving myself forward. Part of our tribal values is that we’re all equal and that we all take care of each other, so pursuing an opportunity where you’re more in a national spotlight can be a little uncomfortable when you’re used to functioning in that way. But I knew the outcome would be helping my community more, so I stepped forward. And as a result, I gained so much confidence. There were so many amazing role models in the cohort, and I built friendships — not just with my year’s cohort but with other year’s cohorts. Those connections, they inspired me. Plus, as part of the program, I had monthly coaching sessions, where we focused on developing my leadership skills. And then there was the action research project, which absolutely expanded my career. My topic was foster parent training on the Indian Child Welfare Act in Oklahoma. Previously, that training did not really exist. But using the confidence I’d gained (from MPLD connections and training), I realized, “Oh, I can actually carry this forward,” and it’s now the basis for the research I’m doing in my doctoral program. So, yes, I’d say that had I not been in MPLD, I might not be in the spaces that I am now or might not have had the opportunities that I have now. Overall, I gained the knowledge that it’s okay to expand myself. I don’t have to stay in this bubble or that one lane. I grew more comfortable in achieving more in my career.  

Q: You touched on your research action project, which is a key part of the MPLD program where cohort members design and implement into their work methods for addressing issues related to adoption, guardianship, or kinship. Can you talk about your project?  

A: I’ve spent my career working in tribal communities, focused on supporting and uplifting people in need. But along the way, I discovered this passion for helping by developing programs and training. At first, maybe that meant improving simple things like forms. Then, through the MPLD program, I realized, “Oh, I can actually do this more formally.” So, my research project looked at training and agency support around the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and how that impacts the cultural connections for children in foster care. Because, in tribal child welfare, it’s not often where you have this big training you do before you become a worker. I was handed cases my first day and told to start working them, and I was just 25 and brand new to the work. I wanted to help people have what I would have liked when I was starting. My project involved surveying foster and adoptive parents in Oklahoma about ICWA, and they overwhelmingly said they wanted more information. That served as the basis for my MPLD project, that I then expanded during my master’s program, to the point that I was able to build a partnership between the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and the Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Association. And we worked together to create a new training for their pre-service curriculum. And as part of that training, there’s a video (available on YouTube), called “Keeping the Sage Burning” that really addresses what parents said they wanted, which was to learn from the tribes. The video features tribal child welfare professionals giving the history of ICWA and explaining how ICWA protects Indigenous children, and then it also talks about the importance of keeping children culturally connected. So, that video is a great resource for anyone who is looking to learn more about tribal child welfare and how to support families caring for native children.  

Q: How do you recommend child welfare workers ensure that Indigenous youth maintain or build connections to their cultures of origin? Why is it important to do so? What outcomes can be achieved when that’s a priority?  

A: A child’s culture is a part of them, and it should be at the forefront of our approach to helping them. When it comes to tribal community and culture, it shouldn’t be something where we say, “Oh, if or when we have the time, then we’ll work on that.” No. It’s just like if the child had healthcare or educational needs. Their cultural needs should be prioritized on the same level as those. So, maybe that means we have to work in a way different than is typical in the Western system. I believe that any work should be led by the youth. So, if they are telling us what they want, we should listen to that the best we can as we help them either stay connected to their culture or reconnect to their culture. As workers, we have this checklist of all the things we should do to support a child, but culture is more than just a box that needs checked. It’s a youth’s right to be involved with and integrated into whatever their cultural background is, Indigenous or not. For me, in my time working in tribal child welfare, there were times that I was the first person to really talk to the child about their tribe and their place in it. Or maybe I was the first person to even just share a few words in their tribe’s language.  Something as simple as teaching them how to say “hello” or “thank you” made them light up. And that’s just a couple of words. Getting them involved in their tribe’s ceremonies or traditions or events —I can’t stress enough how important that opportunity is. I’ve seen youth have such a better sense of who they are and have more confidence in themselves when they have those opportunities for connection to and understanding of their culture. They’ve already been removed from so much in their life. They’re already no longer in their communities or with their families or people they knew. So, if they can learn more about this part of themselves, they just seem happier and more whole as a person. 

Q: What would you say to workers who maybe aren’t sure how to approach these topics or are worried they might get it wrong when doing so? 

A:  I understand that for professionals who do not share the same background as the families they’re serving … it can be easy to experience the fear of making a mistake or not serving someone the right way or offending them. And to that, I say it helps to have the humility to accept criticism. If you’ve been told that you said something wrong, apologize. And don’t center yourself in the apology, because a meaningful apology focuses on the impact and not the intent. If you find yourself on the receiving end of being educated, just be willing to hear it. Listen, and recognize that what they’re saying is their experience and that what they’re sharing is valid.  

Q: Speaking of educating, what do you wish child welfare workers learned about serving Indigenous communities and those youth?  

A: It’s important to know that when you’re working with an Indigenous youth or family, their tribal community is also their family. Tribal communities really are extended families. That extended network is integral to supporting those youth. Also, I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding around ICWA. It really is focused on offering opportunities for youth to stay connected to or reconnect to their culture, but the ICWA law itself is not based on race. Rather, the law acknowledges the sovereign political status of tribal nations. And that’s important, because one of the myths about ICWA can be that it is harder to work an ICWA case, but really, it should be looked at as another opportunity for support. The resources a tribal community can offer is not just financial resources or healthcare. You also have to look at that cultural connection as another resource. Because, for many people, if they found themselves impacted by child welfare, I think they would want that extra type of support behind them. So, while that might mean that there is a bit more work for you, if you’re a foster parent or child welfare worker, I’m telling you, it’s worth it for that child to pursue all of those resources. 

Q: Part of the MPLD is addressing unique issues one can face as a minority. How do you balance bringing your whole self and your unique perspective with protecting your own boundaries and well-being?  

A: I would say that as an Indigenous tribal child welfare professional, there can be a lot of pressure to be “the voice” for all things tribal. Which, of course it isn’t fair to put someone in that position, especially as every tribal community is so different. And, yes, it is emotional labor to talk about the trauma that your community has faced historically and continues to face. So, I try to present my unique perspective as a Potawatomi and Osage woman, knowing that it may not fully apply to every single Indigenous community. And I share my unique experience, knowing that every time I have a meeting or conversation with someone about tribal child welfare and our communities, then that person leaves with a better understanding and more knowledge, and hopefully that continues to snowball, so that then even more people beyond that can have that deeper recognition of what Indigenous communities experience around child welfare. But you can be tokenized. And I know I have had to say no many times to something that I didn’t feel aligned with my experience, interest, or values. So, for minority professionals who find themselves feeling as if they have to be the voice for their community, I’d recommend taking a step back and asking yourself, “Do I feel comfortable in this role?” And if you don’t, take another step back and ask, “Why don’t I feel comfortable with that?” My tip would be that if you don’t feel comfortable in that space, then you shouldn’t be in that space. You should take whatever the steps look like for you to protect yourself. That might mean taking a break. That might mean pulling out of a situation completely, if you have that option. But remember that you matter. You are your number one concern. The care of yourself is the most important.  

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

A: Yes. I want to encourage more Indigenous child welfare professionals to pursue programs like MPLD. Sometimes we might feel like we fit in spaces that are just for Indigenous people, but Indigenous people also fit into other spaces with other people of color. We can expand ourselves and grow and build connections with other communities to better serve youth, professionals, and family. Just have the confidence to know that you can move into spaces that weren’t historically made for you. When you see those opportunities, step forward into them. Because, when you find yourself in a space with like-minded people who share your values about supporting families, then it just feels as if you’re doing something fulfilling that’s meant to be.

The MPLD program is accepting applications through June 3. Learn more about the program and how to apply.