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Former GF resident heads Dorgan's new Center for Native American Youth

GRAND FORKS -- Erin Bailey lined up a job in New York City as she prepared to graduate from college, but family ties -- and a quick meeting with her father's one-time employer, former Sen. Byron Dorgan -- instead helped her become part of a team now working to address youth suicide in American Indian communities.

The former Grand Forks resident, who moved to the Twin Cities with her family at age 8, completed college classes through the University of Minnesota while finishing up high school and then attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

She completed several internships while in college and did government affairs work for a small D.C. nonprofit, and she had already accepted a job and was preparing to start her new career.

But just two weeks before earning her degree in human sciences and international health, a little "nagging" from her mother, Joan, changed her mind in 2008.

Bailey said her mom had frequently suggested she introduce herself to Dorgan, who employed her late father, Rich, as his first intern after being elected to the U.S. House in 1980.

"He offered me a job, and you don't say no to a sitting United States senator, so I did not move to New York and I said yes to Byron Dorgan," she said.

Addressing the crisis

Bailey's background in health care issues landed her a job working with Dorgan on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and she later served as health policy adviser for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs led by Dorgan.

All along, she said, they shared a passion for addressing the plague of youth suicides among American Indians -- the second leading cause of death for youth ages 15 to 24, nearly 2.5 times the national rate of suicide in this age group.

So, when Dorgan announced in early 2010 that he wouldn't seek re-election to the Senate, Bailey said they wanted to find a way to keep working on the issue after their time in the Capitol came to an end.

In February, they launched the Center for Native American Youth, a Washington-based organization housed in the Aspen Institute. Dorgan, who serves as the center's board chairman, donated $1 million of excess campaign funds and hired Bailey to serve as director.

Bailey said there's no shortage of organizations across the country dedicated to diabetes research or finding a cure for cancer, but that's not the case when it comes to the most serious problems facing the nation's American Indian youth.

"There is no one organization that's focused nationally on awareness and advocacy on Native American youth issues," she said.

That can cause a "lack of knowledge and education" about where tribal leaders should turn for help, Bailey said, even when there are existing scholarships or federal grants.

"We can truly bring people together from all walks of life to this safe space and talk about the issues," she said.

Bailey said the center has begun holding meetings between federal officials and tribal organizations to talk about their strategies highlight successes and have an open discussion. Their efforts help coordinate ongoing work, she said, while also preventing duplication across several agencies that are seeking the same goals.

"I think the ultimate goal for us is really to be able to create a national focus on these issues and be able to work with those stakeholders and be able to drive an agenda forward," she said.

And while the center's work focuses on the youth suicide epidemic, Bailey was quick to point out that their mission will involve dealing with the other issues that contribute to this crisis among American Indians.

Nationally, about 36 percent of American Indians on reservations live in poverty -- more than double the national average -- and the unemployment rate is at nearly 22 percent. American Indian youth also have lower graduation rates than white students and attain the lowest level of education of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S.

"I think that suicide is a symptom of a bigger problem," she said. "I don't think you can talk about suicide without meeting the kid where they are; you can't talk to a 16-year-old that is worried about having a roof over their head or heat in their house about self-actualization."

Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to Follow him on Twitter: @JohnsonReports.

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