Brenna Dep: Native Youth Health Worker, New Mother, Learns Strength of Community, Power of a Poem.

unnamedWhen I was a kid I wanted to be a teacher or a doctor. In a way I guess I became both.
I grew up in Lancaster WI, a town of 4000 people, 45 minutes from the Iowa border, where everyone identified as either a farm kid or a city kid.



In college at UW La Crosse, I went out for Cross Country and found that it really helped me. It made college less overwhelming. It was the sports that led me to Albuquerque, New Mexico as a Vista Volunteer, working with youth soccer programming. New Mexico was a different planet, the landscape was brown, not as many tall trees or lakes and rivers, and it was the first time I wasn’t surrounded by white people. There was a lot of growing for me.

Vista volunteers are Jacks and Jills of all trades. They started me out writing grants for the Native youth soccer program within a Native charter school. We were the underdog in the soccer league. The games were willy-nilly, and full of emotion. We hosted a Native Youth soccer tournament at New Mexico State University, it wasn’t just soccer a tournament, but had daily cultural activities, workshops on life skills and college prep.

Part of my job was driving a barely working short bus, bought for a dollar. When I drove it to the airport to pick up a friend, airport security wouldn’t allow me to sit with the other vehicles in the waiting area. During the many times the bus would break down around Albuquerque, we used my boss’s AAA membership for help, but after a while AAA would ask the “van” color when I said yellow they would refuse to come, saying a bus did not qualify. We had to improvise. Once, driving to Gallop, New Mexico with a group of boys, we were going up a never ending hill and the wind was gusting, everything in the bus was shaking. It was so loud I thought it might fall apart any minute. My friend Sharral and I had no idea what to do, so she sat on the big handle for opening the bus door. The rattling stopped so we figured it was okay. The logic of a 24 year old.

I learned so much — grew up on that job — but I missed my family, so I applied to grad school in Minneapolis: Public Health/ community health promotion. The U of M was overwhelming at first. I started, quit, and started again in the fall of 2010.

While in grad school I got a part time position working with the Indigenous People’s Task Force on an HIV education program for teens. Since 2012, I’ve worked there full time.  The first year I never knew if the kids would show up. Since then it has turned into a really effective and successful program. We interview kids now and choose those we feel can gain the most from the months they are with us. The 12 -15 year olds in the program grow and gain a lot from our activities and discussions. They stick with it. It is harder when they turn 16 and they want to see what a “real job” is like at the Mall or outside of the neighborhood.

I began working on a sexual health education program that has a theater action component. There is so much to be gained from putting our youth and messages on stage— speaking in front of people, building self-esteem. The first play we did with kids was called Wait — on teen pregnancy prevention. We worked with Pangea World Theater. There were eight kids. We had them interview their teachers, friends, parents, and Aunties, asking them “What would you say if I told you I was pregnant?” The kids wrote poetry about “What is love,” about “How would it feel if I were a teen parent” and “Why does teen pregnancy happen?” We had a lot of group discussions and role-plays.

Before that I didn’t realize how powerful a poem could be. To see kids connecting with an audience, see the audience ask, “Who wrote the poetry?” It is such an ideal model for developing self-esteem and delivering an honest message.

In the beginning my coworker Kirby and I both had very little theater background. We were both into sports, so to motivate the kids we used to competition. The kids would try to perform the best skits during practice. I’m 33 years old. The kids think I am younger, because they make me younger, I can’t help but want to win the icebreaker games or get excited about the work they do in group.

We recreated a play written by youth in the 1990s called My Grandmother’s Love about communicating with your family. The main character is a teenager skipping school and taking drugs. When it was first written the focus was on educating kids about HIV. Revisiting it in 2015, we worked in other issues, like supporting your family members.

We are currently working on a play called We do it For the Water. My boss Sharon Day wrote the script. She does water walks. This play is not only intended for teens, but for everyone to think about water. It has always been sacred for Native Americans, but it should be sacred for all of us, and respected, protected. We all need water to live.

In July I had a baby. I just came back to work. I’m starting a new project called Keep the Fire Alive — a suicide and substance prevention program.

I am learning some of the reasons why suicide is so prevalent among Native youth. There is a misconception that if you talk about suicide it plants the seed. Actually its important to talk about it and let people know you care and what resources are available. Cultural ceremonies and traditions are not as accessible as they used to be. This takes away the healing that was always part of the community. Now its harder to know where to turn when you need to heal. It contributes to feeling like you don’t fit it in. It makes it harder to survive the bullying, historical trauma. When you strip people of identity that will have profound negative affects.

The amount of resources doesn’t come close to matching the need. The Southside Native community is pretty small in population and geographically, stretching from Franklin to Lake street and Cedar to Chicago. There are kids and families that stay in that area most of their lives. There are so few resources in this part of the city. People suffer not just from family poverty, but from the community’s economic deficits. On top of historical trauma are the current traumatic experiences. There is not enough time to grieve one death before there is another. That is one part of why the graduation rate is so low. Having to get up everyday when you are grieving.

Traveling with the youth, I see a bit of what they deal with. When all ten of us walk in a restaurant I feel everyone staring at us.  I also see people trying to help, asking the wrong questions and make assumptions about what other people need. It sounds simple, but I think even on a small scale — paying attention — listening, would help. Exposure is essential, but at the same time it is easy for White people to take over. Indigenous communities want their own events. They need to not feel like the minorities in their own space.

I think maybe the larger community needs to understand what they have. I bike to work. On my current route I see women on the streets in the morning carrying their belongings, walking in shoes that hurt; people in pain who, if they had a place to go, they would. If the larger community would just be aware! Understand, for example, what it is like to be kicked out of your place and have to charge your phone at an outdoor outlet when its cold and damp. We get caught up in our lives and act like some problems that have existed a long time aren’t really problems anymore. If the greater community knew, they would be more compassionate, give what they can give .

There are people who see drug addiction, homeless and street walkers and think that it is their own fault. Seeing drug use, street work, and homelessness on an individual level you know that no one would stay in that situation if they could help it. Kids who come from great homes and families will be homeless for a little bit or a while. You would never know it. Kids have to learn to hide a lot a young age. I think white people often have no idea what other communities deal with on a daily basis. Whether its grieving, homelessness, hunger, abuse, seeing drug use, not having their own bed. If they understood they would be more accommodating and less judgmental. Instead of being angry and disappointed, they might see an opportunity to help. Even just explaining how some systems work.

I am emotionally connected to my work. I think about the youth I work with all the time. I’m at Home Depot, I see a pile of hand warmers and I think — I should get those to give out. The “community” relies on everyone working against a big system to make change. I hear the stress from co-workers and youth about improving their community for their loved ones and people.

Where I live in South Minneapolis, community is not in my consciousness. I guess that is one more part of the privilege. Even though I work two miles from where I live, my neighborhood is a world away. I think very few of my neighbors are aware of cultural gatherings and community events that are happening two miles north of them.

I share with my friends if something out of the ordinary happens at work. But I also to try to mentally leave work when I can. As a white person who works with Native people I can do that. I get a break. My Native colleagues don’t get a break. It is easier for me. I just need to remember that, but I don’t begrudge myself the break. My job involves helping 16 year olds make healthy choices. It helps me remember to seek health and balance in my own life.

I don’t talk about work that much with my family. They don’t understand what I do, or I don’t take the time to explain the context to help them understand. My father in-law wants to know how many people are Christian. My parents think I should be challenging myself more professionally in a different type of setting. I don’t see my family that often, so recently I intentionally try not to talk about work during holidays. I want to live in the moment.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I knew I was on Native American land, but I did not know Native people. The Ho Chunk Community was nearby but we had no contact with them. My dad was my U.S. history teacher. I remember as a kid learning about Columbus, the French and Indian War, how Native Americans were part of fir trading, and the Trail of Tears.

When I was pregnant I didn’t  fully understand that a baby was growing inside me. I didn’t fully understand how special and unique my tiny brand new boy would be or that there are no breaks from being a mother.  During this huge change in my life, I see my co-workers as family. When I brought my son to meet them they embraced him with so much love and kindness. I am so thankful. He will grow up around cultures who are different from his. He won’t start from a place of unknowingness. If he asks questions I will explain. His high school will be with very different from mine. He can decide what kind of person he will be.

(Yes, I’m already worrying about him in high school… As a new parent, most of the things I worry about, I shouldn’t).

Working in the Native community I have been invited to join tobacco and water ceremonies. It has made me feel like everything fits together. I don’t want to compare these rituals to Catholic rites because of the negative role the Church has played in the Native community, but I do see many connections with my Methodist upbringing. So many universal things humans need that all our spiritual practices provide us: community, forgiveness, love, and giving to others.


Minneapolis Project. 


Julius Lee. Came from Alabama to Escape Jim Crow.

Julius and Effie Lee have been my neighbors for 23 years. We live in South Minneapolis on a block of stucco houses built in 1932. Going into their home felt familiar — the same little cubbies built into the walls, the same arches between living room and dining room, the same crack in the living room wall. Their cubbies were filled with books. Volumes of stories. A collection of Negro Poetry. Black History. I watched their grandchild take his first steps. Julius loved to walk the baby up and down the block, showing him off. He’s 16 now. They have a large photo of him in their dining room, sporting a mohawk.

He got a bad grade in math and his parents made him shave the mohawk.

Julius says I’ll be 85 if I live to July.  Effie is a few years younger. Effie worked up until recently. She had a stroke in February. Julius is blind now, but he still walks up and down the block most days and I feel lucky when I happen to see him. On Sunday June 5, 2016 he was out in his yard dressed in a suit. Members of Zion Baptist church had just left after conducting a private service and communion for him. I asked him about an interview.  

The next day when we met, he was wearing a sweatshirt with the names of his grandchildren on it, and a Mason’s crown. He gave me the 2016 Spring Bulletin of the Mason’s to educate me. The Black Masons are a Fraternal organization with roots going back to the 18th century. Today chapters engage in school supply drives and Black History programs. The Minnesota chapter just initiated a “Take the Kids Fishing” program and a “Healthy Lives” event that included private HIV/STP screening.

I was born in 1931 in Demopolis, Alabama, the oldest of nine children.

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand-me-down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….

My parents were sharecroppers. As hard as they worked, they didn’t have anything to show for it. They encouraged us to get out of the place, get moving. Most of my siblings went out east. A brother went to Chicago.

I was drafted into the military out of high school. Served in the Korean War. I fought for my country and put my life on the line. Afterward I said I’m going to get my freedom one way or another. It wasn’t right being treated like that – being an American citizen — I couldn’t live with those (Jim Crow) conditions.

I went to Tuskegee. Afterward I was offered jobs in Miami, Washington D.C, Detroit and Chicago. I didn’t want nothing to do with those places. I didn’t want Chicago. Shoot-me-up, drug-me-up, too much violence, too much poverty, too much suffering. People stacked on top of each other. Not for me.

I wanted go farther North. They said ‘How far North?’ I said ‘As far as I could go.’ They said ‘How about Minnesota?’ I said ‘I’ll take a shot at that’. They said, ‘Well you know, not many Blacks live up there’. I said ‘I’m not looking for Blacks, I’m looking for equal opportunity.’ I wanted my children to live in a better environment. I wanted the best education they could get.

There was a man who graduated Tuskegee before me and had set up his own catering company in Minnesota. He was looking for Tuskegee graduates to work for him.

When I came to Minneapolis I lived in the YMC downtown. The old building, you know? They had place for single men to live. Kept it nice and clean. Economical. It was like a dormitory, had a nice restaurant and coffee shop. That is where I stayed until I became engaged and married.

I first met my wife at Tuskegee, but she didn’t know nothing about me then. Coincidentally she came to Minneapolis to do an internship for the Industrial Catering company. I was working on the top of a roof . My boss stopped to throw me up a lunch. I saw her in the car and I almost jumped off the building. My boss said, ‘Man, don’t jump off that roof! Man, you might hurt yourself! You’ll get to meet the young lady.’

Julius laughed. In that laugh you could hear the young Julius, seeing the lady of his dreams.


Minneapolis Project.