Building Economic Opportunities in Alaska Native Villages through Rural Development and USDA’s StrikeForce For Rural Growth and Opportunity
When I traveled to Alaska with USDA StrikeForce National Coordinator Max Finberg last month, our eyes were opened to both the beauty of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta Region and the challenges of living in that landscape. We were heartened to see firsthand that USDA’s investments are improving the lives and well-being of Village residents and their communities. That support will be augmented by the expansion of USDA’s StrikeForce For Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative (StrikeForce) into the western and interior regions of Alaska.
The StrikeForce Initiative is part of USDA’s commitment to growing economies, increasing investments, and creating opportunities in rural communities facing extreme poverty. Ten southeastern Alaskan boroughs and areas joined the StrikeForce efforts in 2013. This year, we expanded the number to eighteen to reach the northwest and interior of the state.
On the first morning of our visit, Max and I traveled to Bethel in the Yukon-Kuskokwim (YK) Delta region. There, we presented a $780,000 Rural Development DLT Award to help Bethel Broadcasting enhance its programs in the YK Delta Region. This will help Bethel Broadcasting, which is a public television station, transition to digital technology and provide advanced educational resources to the village communities. This, in turn, will deliver much-needed technical training and help expand local economies.
From Bethel, we flew further west to the Village of Kwethluk. Upon inviting me into her spotlessly clean house, a 90-year-old woman embraced me, then wept and apologized for the stench of the overflowing “honey bucket” sitting imposingly in her tiny bathroom. In the sink was another small bucket of grey water.
Leaning into her, I told her that it was I who should apologize to her. Max and I were deeply moved by the reality that such conditions could persist in 21st Century America. We are so proud of USDA’s on-going work in Kwethluk of installing a new waste water system to mitigate such dire sanitation conditions and that her tiny house will be hooked up to the system by the end of the summer.
During our visit, several of the small rural airports that we stopped at were crowded with many young mothers and their babies who needed to travel great distances for basic medical care. Rural Development’s telecommunication grants will help upgrade or build distance learning and telemedicine networks and will significantly expand access to much-needed health care and education in rural areas, thus reducing the expense and stress in accessing medical care. StrikeForce will continue to address rural poverty. These services are much appreciated by Alaskans across the state.