Getting Connected with Shelly Knight

To promote connectedness and healing across the CCAC team, each edition of the Equity Inclusion and Racial Justice newsletter will spotlight a CCAC employee. The questions asked in the interview are intentionally designed to promote getting to know our spotlighted coworker and to promote dialogue about healing and getting more connected as a CCAC team. We begin with our first spotlight on Shelly Knight, Early Achievers Coach and Tribal Specialist.

You have a strong affinity for tribal communities. Can you say more about that?

I have native heritage on my mom’s side. My grandfather was part of the Blackfoot tribe. My father’s side has native heritage, as well, but I don’t know so much about his background.

In college, my major was in Education and I minored in international studies. I didn’t know exactly where it would lead, but knew I wanted to teach and work in foreign cultures.

When I moved to Alaska, it felt like my Native DNA kicked in. For over ten years I was mentored by the Athabaskan and Tlingit Alaska Native peoples before moving to a Native Alaskan Yup’ik village. I was teaching 3rd grade when I volunteered to take a group of Teens to Nome, AK for the end of the Iditarod. I made this trip three years leading mission groups to Nome.

One summer, I visited another remote Native village on the Kuskokwim River, called Kalskag. I saw in a newspaper there a job opening for a Head Start Lead teacher. I applied and got the job and within two weeks, had moved to the village and started my Head Start job. All the children and families were Native Yupik and the only transportation in and out of the village is by plane or boat. There is no police and fire department, but there is a small store with about three isles. In the village we lead a life of subsistence. This means we eat what we catch or gather, and we must help each other, sharing our catch with single mom’s or elders. Helpfulness is essential for survival of life.

After a few months teaching in Kalskag, the Elders gifted me with a Yupik name – Sayak, which means red salmon, “the giver of life to the village.”

What would you do if money were no object 

I would devote my life and resources to the villages in Alaska so mothers and children would benefit. In Kalskag, I did many service projects such as, coat and socks drives, organized toy drives for holidays, and supported families getting the necessities they need; so many people struggle with poverty and powerlessness and I want to alleviate some of the suffering.

If I had the power to change the past, I would prevent colonization of tribes, and tribal genocide; I would prevent residential schools. Native people would have more power and not be oppressed. Native people are resilient.

When you were a child, what did you dream you would be when you grew up?

When I was little my aunt owned a dance studio and I dreamed of being a dancer, like her. I was on the dance and drill team in high school and I would create new dance routines. Funny thing, I remember I never wanted to work with children. In College, I got a job in an after-school program in a local elementary school and I found my “calling”.  While working with the Native families for over 20 years I enjoy creating dance as a way of storytelling. I have used dance and storytelling with children to teach them Native culture.

Moving Forward and the Work of the EIRJ Committee

How does your work with EIRJ committee inform your work as an EA coach and trainer?

My family is open to diversity. My mom married a Japanese man, my brother married a woman from India, I am married to a Hispanic man. Also, I had worked and lived with Alaska Natives for 20 years and fell in love with the people.  Because of my experiences with native peoples and my family’s openness to diversity, I was interested in equity, inclusion, and racial justice and wanted to join the team. I had been discussing with the Early Achiever’s leads about the need for a Tribal specialist on the EA coach team. I don’t quite know what that will look like yet, but I feel I can use my experience and knowledge of tribes to help other coaches.  Did you know that the Oly Penn Region has the most tribes in our state?  I work with Squaxin Island and Chehalis tribes and support other EA coaches working with tribes.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned from your work on the EIRJ team?

The work is hard, no doubt about it, and I’m still here! Our team has come a long way, as each of us has been challenged to think deeply about inequities in our life and our communities.  I feel like our work on the glossary, land acknowledgements, and newsletters are important steps toward Racial Healing.

From your perspective what is the most pressing work that needs to be done by CCAC and the EIRJ team?

I think the most pressing work within our group is to work toward a common ground, unified goals and racial healing within our committee.  We all come from different backgrounds and worldviews and its not easy to work through the racial issues we face in our culture today.  Our subgroups are beginning to collaborate, and our work overlaps sometimes. Working together gets more equity work done for CCAC and it also builds relationships. Relationships are what will keep us going when the going gets tough. This is true for most things in life.

Moving Forward with Healing

Staying connected to others in healthy relationships at work and in your personal life leads to resilience and healing when life throws us challenges. How do you stay connected with friends, family, and coworkers?

The first thing that comes to mind is my relationships I have formed with friends and colleagues.  Staying connected with people is definitely a priority through virtual meetings,  face-to-face meetings, phone calls, texts and emails helps to keep me connected. With my family I have virtual calls frequently.  We gather together frequently in different time zones from Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Massachusetts to talk about things going on in our lives.  We started this during the pandemic and just kept it up.

What do you do to manage stress in your life?

Being in nature helps me manage stress. While I lived in Alaska, we would go on snowmachine trips to hunt or fish in the dead of winter in below 0 weather.  We would also go out for picnics and build fires and roast moose meat on sticks.  It was a good way to connect with my native family and have fun.  Today, I live on a lake so I like to take the kayak or paddleboat out on the lake, watch the morning mists that float across the water, and see the wildlife in nature. It’s very peaceful.

What suggestions do you have for helping others to protect themselves from negative outside influences?

Wow, we all have been inundated with negative influences! I’d say get professional help if it is too much, find a good counselor. Talk to a trusted friend or coworker. That’s what I do.   Become aware of how your stress can best be managed. Only you know what works for you.

What activities at work keep you feeling engaged and happy after you have done it? Describe why this brings you so much happiness?

I feel engaged at work when I am intentional about relationships and that brings me joy. I have a professional relationship with many of my providers.  Some have shared personal struggles with me because of the trust in our relationship.  I even have providers ask me about my mother and son who have health challenges!  That brings me joy, knowing that my colleagues have picked up on little tidbits that I’ve shared and are concerned about my life struggles.  I try to reaffirm others and notice people’s strengths.  I do this through coaching but also try to be intentional with my coworkers.  I may comment on a person’s strengths or successes in a conversation, this is especially true of new coaches and my leads too.

What are some ways you can be kind to others today? What could you do to support your coworkers, friends, and family?

I make a conscious point to listen to understand. I can provide words of encouragement to someone who feels alone or stressed, and I can validate feelings so people are heard and seen. If I’m face-to-face in person, I like to touch their shoulder or arm.  Touch is powerful.  It’s too bad we’ve gotten away from that with the 6 foot social distancing the last couple years.

When you are scared or overwhelmed, how do you reassure yourself that you can keep going?

When I am scared and overwhelmed, I think back to all that I have overcome. I had a difficult first marriage and I think about how God got me through it. I think about my ancestors and all that they have had to overcome and I think to myself, “If they can overcome this or that, then I can too.”  I realize that I am resilient just as my grandmothers before me. I think of the greatness of resiliency.

Without naming names, imagine drafting a thank-you note to a coworker. What would the note say?

I would thank them for listening, for support through conversations, and drawing out what is already inside me, helping me to verbalize what is important to me. I think it is important to personally recognize our friends, family, and coworkers.

Helping others can help us have better days. What can you do for others at CCAC to help them experience a sense of calmness and joy in their work?

I can pull out and shine a light on a person’s strengths.  I can listen and validate, asking more questions. Sometimes it’s just being present.

What can you do to improve your relationship with someone at work? Without naming names, Is there someone you need to forgive? How do you go about forgiving?

I had a difficult divorce with my first marriage. To heal from that, I would reflect on and write out the big and little things that were done to me in a notebook. After each thing, I would say out loud, “I forgive you”. Now, at work, when I feel triggered by something said or done, I make a mental note to say to myself, “I forgive you”, then I listen to understand. The offence might be perceived, or it might be real and if it is real it usually is more about that person’s issues than it is about me. But no matter what, I have the power to forgive.

Without naming names, is there someone at work who you perceive needs connection, belonging, and affirmation? What could you do to help that person be more connected?

I think our new staff always need connection into CCAC program and team.  I remember when I was new and the pandemic hit.  I felt alone at my office from home.   I like to reach out with a text, phone call, stop by in person if I can, and just offer to help. I can always listen and affirm them.  Sometimes I’ll ask them out for a cup of tea or coffee, or even to accompany me on coach visits, or help me with a work project I’m working on.

Think about all of your accomplishments. What do you still feel the drive to achieve?

My drive is to make a connection with First Peoples Nations. I want to help EA coaches to better connect with tribes.  Beyond that, I want to raise the awareness of the historical trauma that Tribes have faced, understand Tribal sovereignty and treaty rights, contemporary and current innovations with Tribes and form relationships by respecting and learning the culture in a way that is recognized yet non-intrusive and leaves no harm.  One way I can do this is through my participation in the EIRJ team and the Tribal PLC.

Values Are Our Guiding Light

What are three values you have related to your work with children, families, and your community? Why are these your top values, what experiences in your life led you to have these top values?

I would say (1) helpfulness (especially helping women out of poverty), (2) justice (especially for women suffering from oppression, domestic violence or assaults from a romantic partner, and (3) relationships. I have seen young women suffer through assaults and I have seen young mothers in poverty try to give their children what they need to be secure, and it is hard when there is poverty.

How are these values demonstrated in your work, with providers, children, families, and your community. How are these values demonstrated with your co-workers?

I try to build relationships with other coaches, tribes that CCAC partners with, and providers. I focus on celebrating quality and valuing the unique sovereignty of tribes that is their evidence of quality.

Your values were Helpfulness, Justice, and Relationships. We can do a simple values guided meditation.

  1. Take an in-breath and say in your mind – helpfulness
  2. Hold your breath for a few seconds, saying in your mind – justice
  3. Breath out as you say in your mind – relationships

Values guided meditation is a simple and powerful way to stay focused to your true and authentic self. Over time, it helps us stay calmer and more energized. It helps us heal because it is so personalized.

Kumak’s Fish and Shelly’s Amazing Fish Story: