Meet Justin Kii Huenemann, executive director of the Notah Begay III (NB3) Foundation, a Native national nonprofit that focuses on Type 2 diabetes and obesity prevention in Native American communities. NB3 was founded ten years ago by professional golfer Notah Begay III and his family. In the last five years the organization has evolved from doing sports camps and events into an organization that supports grassroots efforts across the nation that focus on reducing Native American youth obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
Interviewee Name: Justin Kii Huenemann
Title: Executive Director
Organization: Notah Begay III (NB3) Foundation
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
I was born and raised on the Navajo reservation. I come from a large Navajo family, and I have grown and worked in and with Indian country all of my life. I have seen the health challenges first hand across Indian Country, and have been involved with young people and sports since college. This job bridged my love to work with Native youth and youth sports, wellbeing and nutrition. Previously, I worked in community economic development focused on poverty reduction, which included access to good jobs and capital. It is a different arena than what I do today, but as I have looked at health access and food access for example, I see the direct correlation between economic challenges and health outcomes.
What inspired you to start working on childhood obesity?
Working on childhood obesity issues is personal to me, it’s in my blood. My mother is from a family of eleven – nine sisters and two brothers – and unfortunately many of my relatives are obese and have diabetes. I have seen first-hand the impact that these health issues can have. I can trace a lot of it to a type of modern-day diet, lack of physical movement, poverty and generational history. All of these elements collectively affect our everyday life, and I have lived it personally and I have seen the loss that comes with it. I want to help work on these issues not only for my own family, but for all people.
How are you helping to reverse childhood obesity?
When I think about the challenges of diabetes and obesity, what frustrates me the most is that we are dealing with preventable diseases. We can actually do something about them. These are issues and diseases that are in our control and are solvable problems. Today, NB3 is the only national Native nonprofit working to reduce Native youth obesity, which means that we are sometimes the sole voice at national tables talking about these issues surrounding Native youth health. Our national advocacy work often finds us before national foundations, federal agencies, tribal governments, and national health advocacy groups. NB3 has learned that there is a lack of good quantitative research and data on Native youth health. We are currently working with Native-led organizations across the country to help build their capacity to collect, analyze, understand and disseminate their own data and to conduct community health assessments to help drive investment and further understanding.
We are also helping address childhood obesity through our role as a direct service practitioner. We run Native Fit clinics, camps and youth programs that utilize sports as a doorway to teach and educate youth on nutrition and leadership.
NB3 is also increasingly being able to financially support organizations. We provide grants to Native-led organization working to reduce Native childhood obesity. We are seeing a ground swell of grass-roots activity utilizing indigenous knowledge and practices, for example farming practices or traditional sports. It is great to see these solutions and knowledge that we have had for generations being returned and making a difference.
What would you say are the unique challenges to tackling childhood obesity among Native American youth? And on the flip side what offers hope?
Our greatest challenge is going to be overcoming the complex layers that we are dealing with in our communities. There is no silver bullet. We have to understand that if someone is overweight, it is not simply a problem associated with eating right and exercising. Although those elements are fundamental, there are many other factors that are contributing to that health outcome, such as economics, policies, and structural and institutional layers. We have to understand how all these forces work together to either positively or negatively impact our health and wellbeing. Today, I find that talking about people being overweight in Native communities is difficult. We all know it, but we don’t necessarily like to talk about it. We all have relatives or children that are obese, so we don’t want to talk about them or be hurtful in anyway. But we need to continue to create safe spaces and places where we are able to talk openly and directly about these major health epidemics. It is a matter of life and death for many.
We have a ton of hope. We have seen a resurgence in indigenous practices and values, a renaissance of cultural-based activities largely driven by young people. They are eager to learn and to reincorporate these teachings back into their lives. We see young people learning and participating in cultural practices, annual harvests, traditional games, ceremonies, growing traditional seeds, canoeing, dancing, and the list goes on. Young people are clamoring for these traditions and they are taking ahold of them as their own again. I view this as a movement. This all said, unfortunately, if you look at where most investments go (philanthropic, tribal, federal, etc), you see very little investment in prevention-based programs. Last year out of a $4.4 billion Indian Health Service annual budget, over one-third went to treating adult diabetes. Less than 1% goes to Native youth prevention. By any stretch of the imagination, this is ridiculous health and economic model designed only to serve Native people when they are very sick. Overall investment by mainstream philanthropy into Indian Country remain less than 1%. This needs to change. We need to change these models. We need proven prevention models. We want community-based prevention practices and programs to be the norm.
What's your organization's biggest accomplishment so far in helping reduce childhood obesity?
We are celebrating 10 years as an organization this year. The first five years were largely Notah Begay III and his father doing youth sport activities in the Albuquerque area. Our organization really took off about five years ago. In the past five years, we have raised and funded $2 million in grants to 42 different Native communities in 8 states. We have also helped serve over 24,000 Native children and families in 14 states since 2005. The fact that we have accomplished that in five years is amazing. Not many other national organizations have been able to do this in this amount of time and to do it in Indian Country. But I also must remain humble and acknowledge we have a long way to go, but it is a nice to step back and look at what the NB3 Foundation has been able to do.
Last year at our 1st Annual Grantee Gathering, we had about 45 participants. This year we had over 125 participants attend. That exemplifies the interest we are helping to generate across the country. We have far greater accomplishments waiting on the horizon.
Who is your role model in your work?
My mom and dad are two of my role models. My dad is a retired teacher and my mom is a diabetes nurse. They have always had a sense of service to Native people, and I saw their dedication to help people. I have been blessed to see servant leadership personified through many teachers, elders and leaders. They have taught me so much through their dedication and commitment to serve communities and to help improve the quality of life for all.
What game or sport did you play growing up?
I am a basketball player. It is my favorite sport, and I still love it. Unfortunately, I never broke the 6-foot mark, but I still love to play. I also was a runner. I didn’t like to run but it came easy, so I was on track and cross country teams growing up. I am also a traditional Powwow dancer.
Each week, our own Amy Stone speaks with a Leader to get a quick look at why he or she loves working to create healthy environments for kids. Want to take part? Visit Amy's profile and contact her.