Compass: Media fail to see achievements in Native communities

As we begin to take hold of this new year, many of us find ourselves making ambitious resolutions about what we hope to accomplish in 2014. It's also a time to reflect on the past 12 months, and there's no shortage of print and broadcast coverage to remind us where we've been, how we compare and even how we've fallen short.

I'm proud of our progress as a state but at the same time I'm concerned - in particular with how Alaska Natives from every region, including the North Slope, are portrayed by anyone with a keyboard, microphone or camera. Stories exploring rural Alaska's poor graduation rates trump those highlighting the Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program, or ANSEP. Articles showcasing the high incidence of violence and suicide among our Native people are prominently featured when the focus should be on the many resources available to eradicate those issues.

Even stories on successful dividend programs in the Native community are painted in a discouraging light.

For example, after Arctic Slope Regional Corp. distributed some $110 million in dividends to about 11,000 shareholders late last year, our return from some in the local media was a misguided chorus of criticism. These dividends are vital to many families living with severe housing shortages, extreme conditions and enormous cost-of-living expenses. As hundreds in our community put down payments on homes, installed flooring or paid their fuel bills, those examples were once again treated as the exception rather than the rule. Rather than underscoring the benefits, some reporters and editors chose to focus on the social ills these distributions might perpetuate.

Make no mistake, the struggles facing our communities are significant, but they are not a systemic byproduct of Alaska Native corporations or shareholder distributions. These are social and socio-economic issues that many Alaska Native-owned organizations have worked hard to resolve through jobs and career training, educational opportunities, social programs and even investments in the local infrastructure - from the soon-to-be-constructed Walter Soboleff Center in Juneau, to roads constructed in the Bering Straits region through innovative partnerships fostered by Kawerak Inc., to the new Top of the World Hotel in Barrow.

The media often is silent on the successes of Alaska Native corporations, nonprofit organizations and tribal entities, choosing instead to make it even more difficult to help us portray the full spectrum of the beauty of our communities, which is the fabric of the identity of our state. The negative perception of our organizations perpetuates a cycle that has to stop because it simply is unhealthy for all of us.

Just as the social challenges affecting communities are not confined to rural Alaska, neither are the economic benefits provided by Alaska Native organizations. We are the backbone of rural communities and make significant contributions to every area of the state.

All 12 land-based regional corporations rank within the top 49 Alaska-owned companies. Cumulatively, they grossed nearly $9 billion in revenues in 2012. When you include the top performing village corporations, they account for more than 73 percent of the revenue earned, 62 percent of Alaska employment provided and 83 percent of the employment generated by Alaska's top 49 companies. The philanthropy component is equally impressive; together, they awarded $7.6 million in educational scholarships and donated more than $24 million to charities and other nonprofits in 2012. These figures do not include the positive roles our nonprofit and tribal sectors play in the Alaska economy.

While the news media should provide an outlet for positive stories, we as a Native community need to be better about showcasing our successes. We need to be proud of what we've accomplished and not shy away from the challenges that remain. Let us always remember what we've done and continue to do to make Alaska a strong, healthy and successful state.

This year, let's make a resolution to build on the foundation we've created. Let's make a collective effort to educate Alaskans, reporter and non-reporter alike, about why we are who we are, and the values that drive us to promote the growth and economic strength of Alaska. As Alaskans, it is time to rise as one with the Native community to embrace our mutual success for the benefit of future Alaskans.

Tara Sweeney is the senior vice president of external affairs for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. She was elected co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives in October 2013.