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I am driven to improve educational opportunities for Native Americans

American Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide in Minnesota and the nation. It’s a serious symptom of a wider problem: Native youth don’t feel connected to their school or the larger community.

Heather Peters is on a mission to change this.

Heather Peters
“It’s not enough to just tolerate others. We really need to start valuing others, so that they can be the best that they can be and contribute to the society that we all want to live in.” Heather Peters, associate professor

Peters found in talking to Dakota youth that they weren’t feeling like they were part of their school, because they weren’t seeing themselves represented in its curriculum.

“That absent narrative sends them the message that their history and culture are not important,” says Peters.

The challenge

2.5x

National average

American Indian youth have the highest rate of suicide in Minnesota and the nation.

2nd

Leading cause of death

Suicide is the second leading cause of death nationwide among American Indian youth ages 10-24.

American Indian youth report experiencing the highest levels of mental distress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse when compared to other ethnic groups.

In partnership with the Dakota Wicohan community, Peters assisted in developing the MniSota Makoce curriculum. This culturally based curriculum is more inclusive, instilling in Dakota youth a sense of belonging.

1:02

The initial project has met with such success that Peters is currently working with Dakota Wicohan on evaluating the revised curriculum with sixth grade teachers and students across the state.

A sense of belonging

Research has found that a sense of belonging relates to many positive factors. If youth have a higher sense of belonging, then they have higher graduation rates, higher GPAs, higher retention rates, lower absenteeism, and are more likely to go to college. The reverse is also true: a lower sense of belonging relates to increased suicidality, increased teen pregnancy, and increased drug and alcohol use.

  • A sense of belonging means higher graduation rates
  • A sense of belonging means higher GPAs
  • A sense of belonging means higher retention
  • A sense of belonging means lower absenteeism
  • A sense of belonging means they are more likely to go to college

Working with marginalized communities

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“I know how it feels to be marginalized. And I know what that can do to an individual’s sense of well-being. And so that has really driven me to work with individuals who are marginalized within our society.” Heather Peters, associate professor