The University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health’s Agnes Attakai, MPA, recently was selected to join the National Rural Health Association’s (NRHA) Health Equity Council and was named to the inaugural cohort of the American Indian Policy Institute’s Indigenous Leadership Academy (ILA) at Arizona State University.
The Health Equity Council highlights issues related to rural, underserved and often under-represented populations, including LGBTQIA+, veteran and homeless rural residents as well as multiracial and multicultural members of rural communities. The ILA’s goal is to work with emerging Indigenous leaders throughout Arizona and help expand their knowledge, skills and networks to address long-term issues faced by Indigenous governments, communities, associations and corporations in the state.
Attakai is the director of Health Disparities Outreach and Prevention Education in the UArizona Zuckerman College of Public Health. “My role is to engage and collaborate with tribal Nations and underserved communities in Arizona to reduce health disparities and promote health equity. My area of specialty is health education, with an emphasis on health communication and health promotion/disease engagement in rural/urban American Indian communities,” Attakai wrote in a recent statement to the ILA.
She also is the program coordinator at the UArizona College of Medicine – Tucson’s Arizona Indians into Medicine program (AZ INMED). The goal of the AZ INMED program is to enhance the recruitment, retention and graduation rates of Native students in the health professions. A member of the Dine (Navajo) tribe, Attakai’s past experience informs and motivates her current work in health education, reducing health disparities and promoting health equity, with a special focus on Native populations in rural communities.
“When I first came here in 1988 to the University of Arizona, there were very few services offered to Native students to help them to adapt and to succeed,” Attakai said. “Throughout my years of trying to get my undergraduate education – it took me several tries before I finally did – and then my master’s degree, I saw that there was a need for a more supportive environment for (Native) students.” The AZ INMED program was inspired by Attakai’s experience and was made possible by a grant from the Indian Health Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Last fall, AZ INMED was honored with the National Indian Health Board 2021 Area Impact Award for improving American Indian/Alaska Native health care in the Tucson region.
“My experience is not unique; there are other students who have gone through the same thing and have said the same thing, which is that we need people who help guide students during their freshman to senior year,” she added. For AZ INMED, this may mean referring students to services they might not be aware of, advocating for them if they’re unsure how to do something themselves or alerting them to resources.
While Attakai has spent years working toward health equity at local and state levels, she said she hopes that being on the NRHA’s Health Equity Council will develop her national health equity and rural health experience as well as result in national policy actions that will improve the quality of life for people living in rural areas across the country. The Health Equity Council also convenes the NRHA Health Equity Conference, which provides an opportunity for those interested in promoting and enhancing the physical and mental health of people in rural areas to learn and engage with experts in health equity, view research posters and network with peers. As a member of the Council, Attakai and her colleagues are reviewing abstracts, presentation proposals and research posters for the next conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in May.
Additionally, as a member of the first cohort of the ILA, Attakai will be among 26 peers representing 11 Arizona tribes. As the first leadership program of its kind focused on developing the knowledge and skills of Native leaders, the ILA will provide personalized mentoring and networking support for civic development; offer learning opportunities about public policy and critical thinking to act on issues facing tribal nations, the state and the country; teach participants how to execute strategies and lead change; and foster connections with government, nonprofit and business leaders in the state. “The reason I wanted to attend this leadership program was to focus on civic engagement and getting young people to start thinking about voting and our responsibility to our communities in terms of ensuring that we have a voice in public processes,” Attakai said.
The NRHA has more than 21,000 members nationally and provides leadership on rural health issues through communications, advocacy, research and education. The Health Equity Council is comprised of members representing various levels of rural health expertise such as physicians, researchers and health program administrators. The American Indian Policy Institute at ASU is an Indigenous-led and staffed research institute, whose work supports Tribal communities and Indigenous peoples nationwide.