Rachel Byington devotes her time, energy, and talents to four different jobs, all having to do in one way or another with education, be it teaching or learning. She works two part-time jobs including one as a Teacher’s Assistant (TA), is a full-time student, and a full-time mom.
She’s been working with the Biomarker Research Department, Department of Kinesiology at UW-Madison. The Voices Heard Project is gathering the opinions, attitudes, and beliefs of unrepresented groups toward biomarker research. Biomarkers include saliva, blood, tissues, structural imaging, etc.
“With the disparities in health issues, the medical community needs to know how to get people to participate in research, “ she said.
Having started with the project as an intern over the summer, she found that she enjoyed it, so she asked if she could stay on. Byington said she wanted to learn more about the process and continue to work with the people she was working with.
An important part of the research project is involving the community itself. “The team and I were hoping to do presentations to different communities, so I particularly worked with the Native population so they can see where things are at and how things are coming along,” she elucidated.
When it comes to research, historically there have been “issues against specifically African Americans and Native people,” she explained, “bad things happened with research, and then people don’t want to participate….”
“With health care becoming more individualized and looking at what medicine works best with different people, we need to know how to get people to participate (in studies),” she said. Differences exist in populations of people that have diabetes, stroke, heart disease, etc. so research and facts are important “so that treatment and prevention can be tailored to that population or that individual person.”
As far as folks being open to participating in research, she said, “I think a big thing is having someone from the (your same) community itself. To be willing and open to talk, without fear of being judged…” The participants in many instances know who the interviewers are from seeing them in the community, which helps establish trust and assists with communication flow.
Folks that know folks
“Having our interviewers well known in the community has been a big advantage for us,” Byington stated. They’ve already signed up more than the number of people they had hoped to participate in the phone survey, she reported; in fact, they met their goal in late Nov. and have since exceeded it.
About 140 adults of American Indian heritage agreed to participate, and quite a few of the phone interviews have already been completed. Like Byington, Crystal Tourtillott Lepscier, who is also working on the project, is Native American, and she, too, has helped with recruiting folks to participate in the research and has helped with the phone interviews.
“We know people that know people,” Byington explained. “I think that’s been really beneficial to this project.”
She said that from what she understands, the other interviews for the project are also matched by race; meaning that the person asking the questions is of the same racial background as the person responding as a study participant.
Byington’s been encouraged and energized by how the project has gone so far. “When people thank me for doing this…it’s nice to be thanked for something like this…”
Byington is currently on academic leave from Madison Metropolitan School District, where she is the Title VII Program Coordinator. She is busy pursuing her graduate degree, a Master’s in Civil Society and Community Research. Byington obtained her B.S. degree in Community Leadership and Family and Consumer Education in 2008.
Byington also recently started working part-time for the Wisconsin Hope Lab, a Madison-based project in the School of Education. “I will be working with the Oneida Nation and we will be looking at what higher education institutions are serving students best,” she said.
So how did she get to this point, and this place? Byington discussed her roots and racial ethnic background. “My tribe is Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, but I was born here in Madison,” she indicated.
Her grandparents first came to Chicago from Oklahoma, and it was very different as well as difficult for them, since they were used to a small rural community.
“My grandpa found work at Badger Ammunition. When that plant closed down, he got a job at the VA hospital,” she said. “So my grandparents raised their kids here and their kids (my parents) just stayed here and had kids.” In fact, Byington resided the majority of her entire life to date in the greater Madison area.
Four in four — schools, that is
She shared more about the challenges she faced and the journey she took in obtaining an education. As a young person, she struggled in school, and eventually became a high school dropout.
In the course of only four years, she attended four different schools-one actually twice- on her quest to get through high school in a way that felt right to her. “I went from East High School, to Shabazz, to West High, to Shabazz, to a private school, and we didn’t (ever) move,” she explained. “That’s because I was trying to find the right fit.”
“I decided it would be easier to quit,” she recalled. “It seemed easier to go get my GED. I should’ve been encouraged to go to school and get my education that way.”
So on her own volition at the age of 18, she stated, she made arrangements to take the GED test and passed it the first time.
At 42, she looks back on her high school experience, which was almost 25 years ago now, and yet over the span of more than two decades, she contends, not all that much has changed. “….We still have kids that aren’t finding the right fit,” she said.
Then there was the issue regarding what would come next after she left high school. But one thing Byington was crystal clear at that time was this: “I knew I did not want to continue to live in poverty.” She grew up in poverty and adamantly wanted to experience a different kind of life going forward as an adult.
Hot off the press
So how did Byington, after four years of struggling and not really finding her way in high school, get to the seemingly unlikely next step, college? She was working in a hotel, in the laundry in August, “which,” she said, “is incredibly hot, hard work” of physically demanding nature. A life-changing moment came when she saw an advertisement for MATC (Madison College), which read, ‘Register now. Classes begin August 28.’
“I said, ‘I gotta go to school!’“ Byington indicated. At that point, she already had her daughter, who had been born in April; furthermore, the job she was working at the hotel paid minimum wage, involved less than 40 hours per week, and did not offer any health insurance coverage.
So in late August, Byington walked into the college, waited in line and said, “I want to go to school here.” The person behind the desk asked whether she was registered yet, to which she responded, “No.”
“I didn’t know what the process was. All these steps, I had no idea of what they were,” she said. “I didn’t know it cost money to go to school (college). I didn’t know you had to register to get in, and then register for your classes.”
At that time, she remembered, MATC had a Native American advisor, who literally walked her through, station to station. Thanks to him, she succeeded in getting enrolled in college.
“For some, high school is not part of the family,” she said. “The same thing is true for college; people who’ve not had exposure to it may not be able to navigate the (that) system.
From a struggling community
Byington shared that she grew up in the Vera Court neighborhood, an area that for some time had a reputation for difficulties. “People look at our struggling communities, and they don’t see that this person should have just as much opportunity as someone who comes from a great neighborhood,” she stated.
She stands strong in her position that it’s critical for kids from a poor, disadvantaged background, to know that people believe in them. “We should help them fulfill whatever it is they want in life”—be it going on to school/college or entering the workforce after an apprenticeship or trade training. “We can’t look at people’s backgrounds as a way to define them,” she reiterated.
Also serving on the Communities of Color Committee/Council at Madison College, Byington wanted to share her story of how she got to college with folks in her subcommittee.
For her, having NASA (the Native American Student Association) was really helpful, “finding people like you, that you can relate to, that you can all be a support system for each other…”
Integrating culture, a natural fit
Byington, who is active in bringing key information on Indian culture to teachers in the Madison area and elsewhere, talked about Act 31, a law passed in 1989. It requires that teachers in Wisconsin receive instruction on the history, culture, and sovereignty of Wisconsin’s 11 tribes. From there, the key is for teachers to take this information and integrate it every day into classroom lessons “where it naturally fits.”
Often, students learn about Native people in a unit on Native Americans. “I don’t see myself as a unit,” she declared. “Why would you teach me like I am a unit?”
Instead, she suggests that if immigration is the topic that’s under discussion that teachers also talk about the movement of Native people in which they were forced out or forced in to a region or state.
“If you’re talking about geography, where are the tribe’s housing structures? Why wouldn’t you talk about the historical structure of Native people?”
Byington believes that kids are not being taught enough about contemporary Indian people. “Native people are being taught about like they no longer exist, or they existed in the past,” she said.
Byington recalled what happened when she went into a class of 4th graders, and one of the students asked, “’How ancient are you?’ I’m thinking she’s thinking I’m a relic of the past.”
One kid actually asked if she woke up that morning in a tee pee. “’No,’ I said, ‘in a three-bedroom brick home.’”
She lamented, “I don’t see why mainstream (culture/history) gets to be the norm, and minorities get to be ‘units.’” Byington reiterated that she would like to see kids learn about Native people where it naturally fits with the other things they are learning in school. For example, she attested, “If you’re talking about slavery, why not talk about how the Choctaws helped families escape from slavery?”
The law requires that teachers receive instruction about Native people, but it doesn’t specify what that instruction needs to be. It could just be a one-hour seminar, she pointed out.
What’s required is not necessarily what’s needed to be able “to teach about Native people in an authentic and accurate way.” It’s important for teachers to see how to move from a unit about Native people to integration into their other lessons.
Three local professional development courses that show teachers how to integrate it include the WIEA (Wisconsin Indian Education Association) annual conference in April, “Widening the Circle” in La Crosse, and DPI also hosts a local conference. She acknowledges that it can be very difficult for teachers to find time to attend courses such as these.
The tough get tougher
Byington looks back on her childhood, and the tough times she and her sister went through being raised by a single mom, in “extreme poverty.”
“My mom did an amazing job with what she had,” she said. “With limited resources, she was able to raise two kids, with the help of my grandparents. People probably looked at us—me and my sister—and said, ‘They’re never going to amount to anything….’ People didn’t see past my neighborhood, like that was somehow supposed to mark me for life.”
The reality is, today the two sisters are both successfully raising their kids, and contributing to society by working hard. Byington’s family includes her children Callie (age 22), Timothy (15, at West High), and Cayden, (11, at Lincoln), as well as two grandchildren.
She described how her grandparents , both now passed on, “would give anyone the shirt off their backs” and were not judgmental people. One aspect of their lasting legacy is that they instilled in Byington a core value, that of “just being helpful” to other folks.
So what does Rachel Byington envision her dream job consisting of? “(Working at) an intertribal community center for Madison, that would be my dream job because we don’t have something like that (here),” she said. While a number of different organizations address specific different problems/issues, like NASA, she observed that unless you’re affiliated with MAC or the university, you do not have these opportunities to connect. “Where do people go together, to get their needs met as far as a (Native) community? There is nothing here… “