The Phoenix Indian Center recently honored Christopher Sharp (Colorado River Indian tribes), a clinical assistant professor in Arizona State Univesrity's School of Social Work, with its 2021 Man of the Year Award.
Each year the awards recognize Arizona individuals and organizations “who have demonstrated outstanding leadership and commitment to the advancement, placement, promotion and development of the cultural, educational, social, economic or political welfare of the American Indian community, or have provided significant contributions to the American Indian economy,” according to a press release.
“Chris values the role social work can play in empowering tribal communities, particularly by training and mentoring practitioners from those tribal communities,” said Elizabeth Lightfoot, School of Social Work director. “We are proud of Chris and his steadfast efforts at the School of Social Work and in the community to foster understanding and respect for the unique social, political and cultural diversity of the Southwest.”
Read on to learn more about Sharp and his work at the Office of American Indian Projects and the School of Social Work, which are based at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions:
Question: Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.
Answer: I am a clinical assistant professor and have just completed my second full year as director of the Office of American Indian Projects (OAIP) in the School of Social Work. Prior to that I was the project coordinator at OAIP for seven years. My graduate education led me to this point in my career. I was a graduate student in the dual degree program leading to Master of Social Work and Master of Public Administration degrees, having completed those degrees in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
I am also a graduate from the original cohort of American Indian Studies program, earning my bachelor’s degree in 2002. After obtaining that degree I worked at Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Inc., in areas of policy and program development for education and the aging program. Eventually I worked in a residential treatment center for Native teenagers and at Salt River Elementary School as a substitute teacher and instructional assistant. I have pretty much spent my whole career working with American Indian/Alaska Native populations in various roles and capacities.
Q: Tell us about your receiving the Man of the Year Award. What does it mean to be recognized in this way?
A: This award is very special. When I first was notified, I felt hesitant and a bit undeserving. Especially now with the pandemic and all of the struggles and loss in our communities. I thought maybe a medical doctor or nurse should get the award. After reflecting, I realized that educators play a critical role in this pandemic. So I began to understand this award as an acknowledgement of the importance of education at all levels; I just happen to be in higher education. Our work at the Office of American Indian Projects focuses on empowering individuals and communities to create better futures by strengthening families and creating healthy environments where future generations can thrive. We do this through social work education, training provided to communities and projects in partnership with tribes and urban American Indian/Alaskan Native organizations.
While it’s getting better, higher education institutions don’t necessarily understand and award this type of work, especially the level of effort it takes to establish trust first and foremost and then establish working relationships with our communities. So receiving this award is an affirmation that OAIP is on the right track, and it’s especially meaningful coming from the community.
Q: Tell us about some of your latest research efforts and recently having submitted testimony to a congressional commission on child welfare.
A: We have a lot of great things going on, which I think will grow and expand our impact, not only for OAIP but the school and Watts College. We participated in the statewide study on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. This was a study established by Arizona House Bill 2570, which passed and was signed into law. The challenge with this is that there were little to no funds provided to carry out the study. We established a team within Watts College led by Professor Kate Fox in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and other faculty. One of the important goals for that project was to recruit and bring in Indigenous student researchers to contribute to the study. The final research was published in November 2020, but we were funded for continued research by Women in Philanthropy, a program at the ASU Foundation. We are looking forward to carrying out that project in the upcoming year.
There are other projects we are working on currently including a tribal opioid response evaluation, a training partnership with Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona Inc. and Tohono O’odham Nation Komckud Ki Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Program training for service providers to programs that work with survivors of sexual assault. Others are in the works.
I was able to provide testimony for the first hearing of the Alyce Spotted Bear and Walter Soboleff Commission on Native Children, originally scheduled for March 2020 but postponed due to the pandemic. They recently had their first in-person meeting since the pandemic shutdowns, which was in Tucson, and I had the opportunity to meet commissioners in person. They held the first hearing in Alaska in August and were gracious enough to extend an invitation for me to attend. While I respectfully declined due to the resurgence of COVID, I continue to provide support for a hearing in the Phoenix area in the near future. I look forward to assisting the commission on planning that event and hoping that the school, Watts College and ASU can support this important event.
Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you now teach?
A: Good question. There is a lot of personal family history in regard to social work. My father was one of the first — if not the first — tribal members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes to earn an MSW degree (which is from ASU), so he certainly was a role model. He went on to work for our tribe and become a council member, eventually working at Indian Health Service in Phoenix and at Fort Yuma. When I was 2 or 3 years old we moved from the reservation to Tempe so my mother could attend ASU’s SSW (School of Social Work). I was able to see her get that degree and work for our community for many years at Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. So basically I was saying I wanted to be a social worker at a young age.
As a teenager and young adult I moved away from that and was focused on an MPA degree. I had an opportunity to get back into grad school. By then, the dual degree MSW and MPA program was offered. I said, “Why not get a social work degree?” And now here I am fully within social work education, but I bring a lot of my background in American Indian studies and public administration into my current work. I give a lot of credit to two of my mentors, Edwin Gonzalez-Santin and Timothy Perry, for bringing me in to OAIP, giving someone like me a chance to move the mission forward.
Q: What is it about ASU that made it where you wanted to take your career?
A: First off, I bleed maroon and gold. Make no mistake about that one. I think that’s a good question, because I always have seen myself working for a tribe or organization that serves tribal populations. I didn’t envision myself at ASU because I did not see the alignment. My mentor Edwin Gonzalez-Santin contacted me late in my final year of graduate studies and mentioned that there may be an employment opportunity with OAIP. I took this opportunity and realized that I can both work at ASU and engage in work with our tribal partners and populations.
I believe OAIP is a model for doing that effectively over a long period of time. If you look at our student organization, the American Indian Social Work Student Association, this is a critical strategy for OAIP to meet its mission, and the organization has been in existence since the early or mid-1990s. Our advisory committee was established in 1990. I have the documentation from the first meeting, and we continue to maintain it as a critical linkage to our communities. Not too many units within ASU or even within academia have this kind of track record. So when you see that, it is something that you want to be a part of.
Q: What’s something you learned — either as a student yourself or since becoming a faculty member — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: There is so much that I have learned over the years as both a student, staff and faculty member. I would say that I have learned so much from attending meetings and conferences around the areas of domestic violence and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) movement.
The latter I participated on the research team for the statewide study. I attended a conference put on by SWIWC (Southwest Indigenous Women's Coalition) and began to understand the Indigenous anti-violence movement as having such a strong purpose and being very grassroots-level in its power. I realized there may be a disconnect between these movements and tribal leadership in many communities. I began to understand myself as an Indigenous male, the privilege that can bring and the importance of being an ally to anti-violence and MMIWG movements in a way that elevates the voices of Indigenous women, families and survivors.
Q.: What do you hope your students learn about you that will give them the best insight into what you are teaching them?
A: I approach learning differently, focusing on the learning process, critical thinking and especially reflective learning and practice. I am teaching a summer bridge class for the Yuma MSW program currently and really hoping the students realize the importance of their professional identity and elevating their own local expertise. Our students from underserved communities really benefit from fostering their self-understanding and vision of their futures as social workers. I actually went to high school in Yuma so I can relate a lot more to the students in the cohort and understand the complexities within the Yuma region. We are creating a community of changemakers out there in Yuma, Somerton, San Luis and California’s Imperial Valley; it’s truly special.
Q: Tell us about a “golden teachable moment,” when all the stars seemed to align and you were able to reach students’ minds in an unforgettable way.
A: This happens a lot within our required social work field placements, typically after the first semester when students begin to understand the connections between their coursework and field placement learning activities. I have served as both an instructor where I’m directly teaching and as a liaison that oversees student learning activities out in the communities. I would recommend to any social work faculty to serve as field liaison for students placed in agencies in their community or practice setting of interest. This is a way of having a presence in a community that one otherwise may not have.
Q: What is your life motto in one sentence?
A: Before the pandemic it may have been, “Live your dream.” I think during the pandemic we all have an appreciation of social support and mental health, and I have been saying, “It’s OK to not be OK” a lot more lately. It’s OK to talk to someone or ask for help, and we should do what we can as supervisors and colleagues to encourage self-care and building social bonds within professional settings.