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Keen's Work Against Poverty Leads To United Nations Invitation

Dec. 11, 2014
SHSU Media Contact: Julia May

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Valencia Browning-Keen kneeling next to her dog wih a young boy
Valencia Browning-Keen (shown here with her dog, Scarlett, and a Navajo child) has spent years using her expertise in nutrition to make a difference in the lives of those who could benefit from healthier lifestyles.  Her work with the Navajo people and with after-school programs within Region VI Education Service Center earned her an invitation to make a presentation at the United Nations in August.  To view a slide show of photos she and two SHSU students took during their time in the Southwest USA, as well as her trip to the UN, click here.

 

From the Navajo Nation to the United Nations, Valencia Browning-Keen, graduate director and food science and nutrition program director of Sam Houston State University’s Department of Family and Consumer Sciences, has been a gentle, yet persistent, warrior in the fight against poverty.

Her desire to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate began when she was growing up in Ohio in a family that treasured its ancestral heritage. Among her Scots-Irish roots, “with a smattering of English and German,” is Cherokee on both sides of her family.

“My family taught us about our native culture and the cultures of other indigenous people throughout the world,” she said. “I learned that life has often been difficult for them, and many of them are still adversely affected by impoverished lifestyles.

“Some have placed themselves in that situation by choosing not to develop their talents,” she said. “However, some of it results from generations of living in poverty. I don’t think anyone sets out to bring a child into the world and their only aspirations for that child is to live in poverty or to be on government aid.”

Keen developed a heart and quest for learning. Her family also emphasized to her that those who were given much had responsibilities to help those who were trapped in impoverished lifestyles.

“Poverty is an issue that should be everyone’s concern,” Keen said. “It is very real. There are certainly different forms of it. There is absolute poverty, there’s relevant poverty and then there is one that we don’t speak of enough—the impoverished spirit. That’s when people are trapped in either the absolute or relevant form of poverty, and they just lose hope and faith that they can ever resurrect themselves out of these conditions.”

Her interest in nutrition led her to become a registered and licensed dietitian, specifically in the area of health care. One of her first jobs took her to Nigeria in West Africa.

“I was on a medical team, and in this particular village, I believe I was the first dietitian who had been on that team,” she said. “It was a life-changing experience. We saw how good nutrition, along with safety, sanitation and hygiene, improved lives within 24 to 48 hours.”

After returning to America and continuing her education and research in dietetics, she became a member of several non-government organizations (NGOs) and devoted time to numerous community projects. In many of those opportunities, she was able to not only be a practitioner, but also a project coordinator for efforts that intervened with individual and families caught in impoverished lifestyles.

Through her involvement, she became aware of poverty in the United States and recognized that not having access to food was only part of the problem.

“People need to feel safe, have a warm place to sleep, and be able to have their children grow up healthy,” she said.

“War is probably the biggest contributor to poverty world-wide. But in the United States, there are families who have suffered as a result of losing a job,” she said. “Unfortunately, some people are just one paycheck away from losing many of their resources.”

Approximately 20 years ago, Keen learned through her church in Fort Worth about an opportunity to work on the Navajo Reservation in the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States. Remembering the stories of her own heritage along with the desire to make a difference in the lives of those who could benefit from healthier lifestyles, she took on the challenge.

“I soon fell in love with the individuals and families of the Navajo Nation,” she said.

She earned their respect and appreciation, as well; they’ve asked her to return to their reservation year after year.

“The Navajo have allowed me to become part of their planning as we work toward a solution to their problems relating to nutrition,” she said. “We have kept bridges open through the years. They’re much more than part of a research project. I consider them friends and colleagues.”

Since coming to Sam Houston State University and serving as a nutrition director and graduate director for the family and consumer sciences department, Keen has been able to take two students to the Navajo nation for each of the past two summers.

Keen and her students developed a series of nutrition education videos that demonstrated healthy food selection and preparation practices for prenatal and post partum Navajo mothers. SHSU student Katherine Hernandez and Chef Bryan demonstrate how to prepare mango salsa in this video.

As part of their project, the students have assisted Keen in developing a series of videos to re-introduce heritage foods. The series was developed after working with the Aztec Ruins heritage seed anthropologists, Navajo chefs and the Crownpoint Culinary Institute, as well as an “exhaustive review of literature with the Navajo nutritionists and interviewing many Navajo people, including one Navajo Code Talker.” The videos will be available on the Internet.

“Heritage foods are vital because the indigenous people in many nations have fallen prey to higher levels of obesity than they have ever seen in their entire culture,” she said.

“Globally, heritage food exploration of indigenous people is becoming a hot topic,” she said. “Researchers are examining how these foods were used, not only as sustenance but also for medicinal purposes and in celebrations.”

Keen said that sharing her own experiences with her SHSU students has been one of the most gratifying parts of her work with the Navajo.

“The students have been able to learn first-hand about nutritional assessment and how to contribute to resources that assist with patient care, dining with dignity, and embracing food habits—all part of the healing process and prevention of disease.”

Before the SHSU students go, they are trained in cultural competency, and they learn about disease and how different cultures define disease and illness.

“When we are working with the Navajo, we are mainly working with pre-natal cases, post-partum, the infant, and the child,” she said. “We are also aware of the domestic violence issue that exists within part of the culture as with many other cultures nationally and internationally.

“This is a culture that was almost annihilated with the Indian wars, and then alcohol was introduced to them,” she said. “When alcohol was used for trading purposes, it began disrupting family. We, unfortunately, see several families that are comprised only of a grandmother, mom and the children, some fathers, with extending aunts, uncles and cousins.

“But we also see a lot of healthy fifth- and sixth-generation traditional families, that have passed down knowledge of the trades that are so valued world wide, showcased in the Smithsonian, and revered in artwork, music, song, dance, rodeos, and sports,” she said. “My students get to see a true representation of the Navajo culture, their festivals, and their hospitable spirit…not what has been portrayed inaccurately in folklore and some movie scripts.”

Keen is hopeful that working with the Navajo each summer will one day become a rotation for SHSU’s food science nutrition and dietetics internship, and instead of taking two students at a time, the group would include 10 to 12 students. But for now, two students at a time works well.

“Safety for our students is my No. 1 concern, as well as making sure their experiences are true to life,” she said. “The students don’t just meet the Hopi, the Zuni, and the Navajo. I actually walk them through different archeological sites before we ever begin our work. We go to from discussions of the Paleo-Indian theories to Chaco Canyon, the Aztec ruins, Mesa Verde, and they learn all about the Pueblo. They have to know the politics, history and economic issues that the indigenous people have faced before they even begin their journey to understand the reasoning behind reservation living.”

In addition to the work with the Navajo, since being at SHSU, Keen has directed students in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences’s dietetics program as they have worked in local community projects. Many of the projects have been coordinated through Education Service Center Region VI, headquartered in Huntsville.

With Region VI, Keen and her students have worked with after-school programs as part of the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant, as well as with the Boys and Girls Club.

Earlier this year, the 65th Annual UN DPI/NGO Conference, hosted by the United Nations Department of Pubic Information, issued a call for proposals for presentations to be given at their meeting in August.

“One of the NGOs I belong to is the International Federation of Home Economics,” she said. “It’s one of the older NGOs, and there are approximately 1,500 members and 150 organizations that are represented by IFHE. More than 50 countries have representatives.

“The proposals were expressions of interest that were linked to one of the themes of the conference, which was entitled ‘2015 and Beyond,’” she said. “The themes were poverty eradication and fighting inequalities; sustainable development; human rights; and climate change.”

All members of the IFHE had the opportunity to submit, but only five proposals were accepted. Keen’s work with the Navajo and ESC Region VI on interventions and programs that are useful not only in America, but can be grass roots efforts that are applicable all over the world was one of the five.

“The opportunity to submit a proposal on the ‘Focus on Families to improve sustainable development and eradicate poverty by providing basic conditions and empowerment,’ just really touched my heart,” she said. “It connected with my profession as well as with the opportunities that we provide to our students at Sam Houston State.”

In addition to Keen, the other presenters selected for the workshop were from Guyana (representing Latin America and the Caribbean), Missouri, Canada, and Australia.

“The unique thing about IFHE is that it has ‘consultative status’ with the UN,” she said. “Our voice actually went into the documentation for helping to address the Millennial Development Goals to overcome poverty and support sustainable development across the world. When you are an NGO with consultative status, your voice is heard by the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Economic and Social Council, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the whole Council of Europe.”

SHSU graduate student Melody Chang and Crownpoint Culinary Institute Chef Bryan demonstrate to Navajo mothers and children how to select and prepare heritage foods.

While at the conference, Keen attended other sessions and activities, absorbing as much information as she could to bring back to her students and colleagues.

“The UN has numerous roles,” she said. “It is an ally for all cultures, all countries, for peace and good governance.

“Students sometimes don’t see themselves as being a part of the global solution to eradicating poverty, but they are,” she said. “The world is huge, but at the end of the day, food, clothing, shelter, safety and relationships are the bottom line. We attempt to instill in our students the value of their degrees. While we know that their education is an investment and comes at a high price, either from their parents or their own efforts, their degrees set them apart to be able to lift others out of their impoverished status.”

Coming away from the conference, Keen says she is convinced more than ever that staying in silos is not going to work in civil society.

“We have to look outside our frames of reference and our own lingo to establish a more civil way to develop solutions,” she said.

“We’re seeing now that art, music, pet therapy, technology, and many other approaches are all helping individuals, who may not have had a traditional family unit to direct them, develop their skill sets and their talents,” she said. “We, in all of our disciplines at Sam Houston State University, have a stake in looking for solutions for poverty eradication and for aspiring to developing our curriculum around the UN pillars.

“We should realize that much of our work is cohesive, and we need to be collaborating more among our departments and colleges to understand the different skill sets we all bring to the table,” she said.

“Right now, poverty eradication is projected to be achieved by 2030," she said. "That’s almost 15 more years that we have to be working on empowering people through technology, health education, women’s rights, bringing Dad home, protecting marriage and the family, and rule of law for all individuals and families to thrive.

"At the end of the day diversity is what America is all about. Poverty, whether mind, body or spirit must be eradicated."

More than 80 indigenous peoples have recently received compensation for treaty agreements that had been litigated for decades. Keen is the founder of The Ronald Wayne Keen Memorial Foundation in honor of her late husband. This 501C3 also includes in its mission a focus on projects linked to poverty eradication.

Keen is a nutrition consultant for private and corporate nutrition assessment and counseling to multiple individuals and groups.

 


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