In the world of community development, it’s an all-too-familiar tale.

A charity organization or research group targets a developing community. Paying little attention to the culture, history and needs of the people there, the group plants itself within the community for a short time to conduct tests or provide aid. They suggest and implement development solutions, only to see them fail — often quickly — after they leave.

In the Navajo Nation of northeast Arizona, students from Regis University’s Master of Development Practice (MDP) program are working to change that storyline.

In July, along with Assistant Professor Emily Van Houweling and a group from the Colorado School of Mines, four MDP students spent 12 days with professors and students at Diné College, a Navajo Nation institution in Tsaile, Arizona. They engaged in discussions and exchanges to lay the groundwork for research and collaboration, with an ultimate goal of aiding sustainable and culturally compatible development in an area harmed by the oil, gas and mining industries.

MDP, which began in 2015, emphasizes development solutions that adapt to different cultural contexts. For the purposes of the trip to the Navajo Nation, program director Nina Miller and her team encouraged students to focus on learning rather than immediately attempting to solve problems.

“We really learned a lot of things, but for me, the main thing I learned was to listen, listen and listen again,” MDP student Karoli Kolokonyi said. “Especially ... when you are going into a community as someone who wants to solve problems.”

The Regis group that traveled to the Navajo Nation included two African students, Kolokonyi (from Rwanda) and Balchisu Adam (Ghana), as well as two American students, Kelsey Householder (Denver) and Tiffany Carey (Watertown, Wisconsin).  

As part of their coursework and to prepare for their trip to the Navajo Nation, the students met regularly through video conferencing organized by MDP’s hub at Denver’s Posner Center for International Development.

During their trip, the students also learned about the Diné — the people of the Navajo Nation — and their relationship with the environment. To many Diné people, the environment is closely tied to culture, identity and lifestyle. For that reason, solutions that might be welcomed in other places or are considered environmentally sustainable might not be a good fit for the Navajo Nation.                                            

“[For example,] solar panels use a lot of copper, and copper is mined on the reservation of the Diné’s neighbors, the Apache,” Carey said. “Having gone through the resource extraction themselves, the Diné don’t want to promote that.”

Throughout the trip, Householder recalls being asked, “Who are you?” For Kolokonyi, that question helped him think about how his roots affect his identity and work. It helped Adam and Householder understand how to relate to the philosophy of the Diné people. Carey also saw within the question a test of trust.  

“They wanted to see how we would show up for each little increment of it,” Carey said. “Will you do what you say you’re going to do?”

For Miller, the question is at the heart of MDP’s intentions with the program.

“You have this deeply entrenched model of development where the development worker is this abstract hero, and you drop into a situation and solve things, then disappear,” Miller said. “The question, ‘Who are you?’ is a really relevant one for someone who’s experienced that kind of externally driven intervention.”

One of the next steps for the partnership is a fall MDP course, “Grassroots and Indigenous Activism,” that Michael Lerma, dean of the School of Business and Social Science at Diné College, will teach with Van Houweling.