February 18, 2010

On the road of life…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Diversity, Health at 2:55 am by dinaheng

I was driving up to Sedona, Ariz. when I saw a couple standing in the car rental line ahead of me. The man, an African American, was talking with the woman, an Asian American, as they patiently waited their turn.

A few minutes later, after checking out my car, I discovered a problem and went back to ask for another car. The same couple was in line with me again. We smiled at each other, and then took off in different directions.

An hour later, I stopped at an outlet mall to browse and get something to eat. As I sat down at the food court, who should be at the table next to me but… the couple from the car rental counter.

Since there are no accidents in life, I had to introduce myself to find out who they were. Instead of being a married couple on holiday, I discovered that they were a project manager and scientist with the Environmental Protection Agency who travel the region, helping to clean up leaking underground storage tanks on Tribal lands.

“We’ve worked with about two dozen tribes, cleaning up about 153 sites since 2005,” says Carl Warren, project manager for the Leaking Underground Storage Tanks Cleanup initiative. “After World War II, there were a number of trading posts established across the southwest, but many gas stations were later abandoned.”

Now, Warren and his colleague Tess Salire, a physical scientist with the U.S. Army Corps  of Engineers, are charged with identifying problem facilities, determining the responsible parties, and cleaning up the leaks that threaten natural resources, drinking water and the health of Native American communities in California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.

One reason the two have been able to establish good working relationships with the tribes is because they make a point to respect the viewpoints of the Native Americans. Warren’s gregarious personality also helps.

“I’m a people person, and I don’t ever meet anyone with preconceived ideas,” Warren says. “A lot of times you can get hung up on the differences between cultures.”

Salire, who’s a Filipina, says in many instances, her racial background has been an advantage in working with the various tribes.

“Most of the tribes think I’m one of them because of my color, and the way I look,” Salire says. “The advantage is they welcome you, and talk to you like you’re one of them. The disadvantage is when you’re in a community, they know you’re not from there, so some may have a personal mistrust.”

It’s interesting how we decide whether to trust a stranger or not. Most of us probably have an instinctive trust of people who look like us. Whenever I see non-Asians who have adopted Asian babies, I notice that the babies always look at me with a smile of recognition, as if on some level, they know that we are kin.

Beyond skin color, though, I think we tune into the energy of people we feel safe around, as well as those that threaten us. Some of us are comfortable with trusting people immediately. Some of us prefer to let others into our lives gradually.

Listening to Warren talk about the Tribal communities is a reminder that many live in our midst under conditions that most would find appalling.

“Tribal lands have some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and their graduation rates are among the lowest,” Warren says. “They don’t have full coverage of electricity, and all don’t have clean drinking water. You hear about Tribal casinos, but most of the tribes aren’t benefitting from them, like the big tribes do.”

What has working with the Native Americans taught them?

For Salire, “The Native Americans are very sincere people who are proud of their race and culture. As a Filipina, it’s taught me to be more proud of my race and culture. I’m confident being around anyone now because of that.”

Warren admires the connection that Native Americans have with Earth and Mother Nature, and says he was honored once to receive a blessing for safe travels from a Navajo medicine man.

“I know my great-grandparents on both sides, and there’s 150 years of history as an African American that I know about,” he adds. “With the Native Americans, I feel a brotherly connection, and they remind me that regardless of the obstacles you confront in life, knowing where you come from really makes a difference.”

Knowing where we come from is half of life’s journey. Meeting new people on the road is the other half. If we’re lucky, those encounters will change strangers into friends.

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