Wažoki means family: Creating inclusive practices for the populations we serve

By Allie Long

The QIC-AG Project

In September 2019, our Institute wrapped up its work on a five year project called the National Quality Improvement Center for Adoption and Guardianship Support and Preservation (QIC-AG). QIC-AG was a project in partnership with the Children’s Bureau and Spaulding for Children. This project worked with eight sites to develop, test, and implement evidence-based interventions and practices to achieve long-term, stable permanence in adoptive guardianship in homes.

Out of all the state sites, the QIC-AG team worked with one Native American tribe, known as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. At this site, the team was tasked with adapting the Family Group Decision Making (FGDM) intervention to provide tribal children and youth with permanent family units. Although this was the long-term goal, it certainly wasn’t something that happened quickly. In actuality, it took a series of conscious actions, both large and small, to increase trust and rapport between the QIC-AG team and the Winnebago tribe in order to operate within tribal values.

Winnebago target population Nebraska map
Figure 1: Map of Nebraska and the Winnebago tribe, in context.
First Impressions Matter

How you introduce yourself across groups of people is not only different depending on the context—it also really matters. “If anyone has been in the presence of Native Americans before, you’ll notice that when they speak, they open their introduction with their tribe and where they’re from,” says Rowena Fong, EdD, who was the Co-Principal Investigator on the Winnebago report. “When I was introducing myself as the researcher to the group of Tribal Elders, it was very clear that they did not want to know my credentials, but rather who I was. This was a natural thing for me. Traditionally in Asian community as part of filial piety, I would always be introduced through my relationship to my father, so in that way it was very familiar. Instead of introducing myself as Dr. Rowena Fong, I introduced myself as Rowena Fong, daughter of Owen Fong, who is a farmer from Southern China.”

Dr. Fong has been studying and writing on cultural competence in social work for over two decades. With the ability to understand, communicate, and interact with people across cultures comes the necessity for tailoring the work being done to the client’s values and norms. Over the course of her time working with the Winnebago tribe, Dr. Fong adapted her plans to reflect her willingness to work from the tribe’s starting point. “Of the 8 sites in the QIC-AG grant, Winnebago was the only site that that asked for face-to-face visits on a monthly basis, so I ended up knowing that small Nebraska airport inside and out,” Dr. Fong recalls the memory, laughing. “Going the extra mile in little ways like that builds trust. It shows a readiness to change behavior in a way that says, ‘you are important, and I honor your practices.’”

Frameworks Are Flexible

Logic models are incredibly important in social work because they help projects stay on track and always link us back to the intended outcomes that were set to improve the lives of the people we serve. For example, the Vermont Logic Model, like many of the other QIC-AG state site models, allows the reader to see how all the processes are associated to the intended outcomes of the project from beginning to end:

Wažoki Means Family: Creating Inclusive Practices For The Populations We Serve
Figure 2: The Vermont Logic Model, which is an example of a Western society’s linear approach to a logic model.


But if a framework is made through one specific cultural lens, that doesn’t mean that it will translate well in another cultural setting, if it will transfer at all. In Western society, logic models are often linear—looking at long and short term outcomes. For the Winnebago tribe, that type of Western logic model didn’t make sense. In Native communities, a holistic approach is important.

“We took our cues from another federal grant that had already worked with the Winnebago tribe,” says Dr. Fong. “They had created a circular logic model when working with the Winnebago tribe, which was based off the historically Native American Medicine Wheel’s four directions: caring for the spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional dimensions. Their logic model is circular so our research had to reflect that.”

QIC-AG Winnebago Framework
Figure 3: The Winnebago Tribe Logic Model is circular instead of linear. This structure more accurately reflects tribal values based on the historically native medicine wheel.


In other words, Dr. Fong and her team quickly realized that the Winnebago tribe needed something that took into account the individual, family, and community outcomes, which is what the circular logic model could do in ways that a Western linear model could not.

“When you do good research, you learn first from Native people and what other non-Native people have done to modify their work previously. This automatically broadens your experience going into anything, because you’re learning from people who have already built relationships with the community,” says Dr. Fong.

Honoring Others

In addition to altering the project’s logic model and researcher relationships to participants, there were many other adaptations the research team made. The Tribal Elders took a large role in renaming the study, processes, procedures, and protocols using their Ho Chunk language in a way that best reflected their culture.

Ultimately, the Winnebago tribe’s chapter in the QIC-AG report is a fascinating look into how social work practice achieves inclusivity in a variety of ways. As for Dr. Fong’s final thoughts on applying what she learned to future practice, she had a couple tips: “For any researcher, it’s so incredibly important to prepare through your own due diligence first,” she says. “Once you’ve done that, it’s time to go in and listen. Then you begin to ask and clarify to understand the meaning behind what your clients are saying. If you’re working in multicultural communities, it’s important to remember that you’re there to honor their habits and beliefs most of all.”

To learn more about Dr. Fong’s work, click here.