Cornell Magdalena’s journey after attending the Center’s Training Program

Building the capacity of Native Americans to lead health care, public health and biomedical research in their communities is the most impactful way to promote health equity. The Center for American Indian Health’s Scholarship and Training Program provides financial support for Native Americans to come to Johns Hopkins for world-class training in the health sciences, and thanks to many generous donors, has supported and provided mentoring to over 1,000 individuals over the past two decades. We are proud to highlight here one past participant in the program, Cornell Magdalena, and his work in service of the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico. 

Cornell Magdalena completed the CAIH Training Program in 2018 and has worked in the field of public health for over ten years. A proud member of the Jemez Pueblo, he has served his people both in Tribal Government as well as in his current position as Health Advocate with the Jemez Public Health Program. In this interview, Cornell describes the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic in a small tribal community (enrolled population 3,700), his role as a leader in public health, and the influence of the CAIH Scholarship and Training Program on his career. Please click here to read our full interview with Cornell.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Cornell F. Magdalena. I am from the Pueblo of Jemez. I have been working in the public health field for over 10 years. It has been a good journey. I love that I get to work in my own community. I have served Jemez Pueblo from the beginning stages of the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic; it was a period full of anxiety, feeling isolated and distanced from our friends and families, and a time of uncertainty in terms of emotions, health, finances and what the future might bring. Difficult as it was, it felt even more important to be hopeful, love, and find time to come together as a community.

What years were you part of the CAIH’s Scholarship and Training Program and how has that experience helped guide you in your work? 

I was accepted to CAIH’s Training program to start Winter Institute at Johns Hopkins in 2015 and completed my Certificate in July 2018. It was an amazing experience to attend such an elite school that many dream of attending. When I was notified that I was selected to attend, I was so excited and nervous. In the Institute classes, I was able to meet students from across the country with various professional backgrounds. Many fellow classmates gave me the support I needed to complete the program, and I am still in touch with them. This helped me build a network of professionals and friendships. The experience also helped me better understand the needs of Native communities across the country, including my own. 

2020 is a year we will not forget for a very long time. As a leader for the community, we are tasked with taking care of our people the best way we know how. When the pandemic made its way to Jemez, we started looking at ways to prevent the virus from spreading. We strategically set up a command center, a response team consisting of Tribal Leadership and Jemez Health and Human Services programs, and set up three checkpoints within our community as part of a lockdown to slow the spread of the virus. We also put travel restrictions in place.  

I worked at the checkpoints to help with traffic control and keeping families safe. We would document on Google forms when people passed the checkpoint either as an essential worker, leaving to a medical appointment, or leaving on essential days. The data that we collected became useful in understanding when people were more prone to getting the virus. At first, Saturdays were left as an essential day to let people take a breather, go up the mountains, or run to the store. Cases started to hit our community without a clear sense of how our people were being exposed to the virus. When we closed Saturdays, we saw cases start to come down. 

People in the Jemez community went through stages of stress, depression, anxiety, and other behavioral changes.  I was glad to have learned through CAIH’s mental health class how to help people in such situations. I have been able to help families and youth by assessing their situation and referring them to appropriate tribal programs for assistance. 

My public health colleagues and I also used social media outlets to share information about the virus, and promote health and wellness through virtual events. This was an essential tool to keep our community updated on the pandemic.

For those who are not familiar with Jemez Pueblo, please describe it for them.

Pueblo of Jemez is nestled on the southern end of the Jemez Mountains in rural north central New Mexico, 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque. Its landscape, especially the Red Rocks, bring such beauty to our community.  We have a total population of about 3,700 tribal members who live both in and outside of the community in more urban areas.

I believe our language, tradition and culture are the core of who we are – it is what keeps us strong. The majority of our people speak the “Towa” language. We are known for arts and crafts; many families have been making pottery from one generation to the next. We are also known for farming and we have a vast land used to cultivate gardens on the west side of our community. Jemez Pueblo is also known for producing elite long-distance runners who compete across the country.

In a small community like this, everyone knows everyone. We are all related one way or another.  People help each other when the time comes.  This is part of our culture.  It is who we are. The advantage of living in such a small community is we are close-knit and have strong values in our tradition and culture. 

As a public health professional and community leader for Jemez Pueblo, please share your perspective on the past year as you worked to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a leader, there were many difficult decisions to be made to help protect our people. My dad always taught me to be respectful of the role bestowed upon us as tribal leaders and to be mindful of the people. In this position, we may have to make decisions that do not please everyone, but a true leader is someone who puts their heart into taking care of people. 

One of the first things I had to address was the lack of resources needed to protect Jemez Pueblo and prevent the spread of the virus. We also took a close look at the health disparities in our community with the knowledge that certain conditions put us at greater risk for COVID, and we needed to protect the most vulnerable.

A team of Tribal Leaders and medical professionals put a plan together for educating our people as we learned more about the pandemic. We did a lot of community outreach and used a variety of strategies to communicate and engage tribal members in order to get through this pandemic. 

Right before the pandemic hit, you were appointed to lead Jemez Pueblo as part of the Tribal Leadership of Governors. What were your primary responsibilities and challenges in that role? 

In January 2020, I was appointed to be part of the 2020 tribal leadership. We had a peaceful beginning, looking at what the year was going to bring us. 

The COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Jemez in March 2020.  As part of the tribal leadership, I worked with our Governors to share ideas, plan and assess programmatic changes, and get our tribal programs to operate remotely. We had continuous dialogue with the Jemez Health and Human Services department and other tribal programs.  

Jemez Health and Human Services has been instrumental in providing critical support to the community as well as strengthening our virus prevention efforts. The Public Health program has also done a great job monitoring those that in quarantine, sharing information and educational materials on social media, and conducting testing and vaccinations. They also started virtual activities such as Endurance Jemez, to promote running and healthy lifestyles.  We tried to be creative in planning activities to help our people stay strong in mind, body, and spirit during these challenging times.

Some of our biggest challenges have been helping our children to adapt to distance learning – especially dealing with network issues – and supporting families who lost loved ones to the virus. We drafted a guide for funeral and burial services to inform families about the process for those deceased to be cremated and directly transported to the burial site once cremation is completed. Not all families could afford to pay the cost of the cremations, so the tribe stepped in with financial support. Cremation has never been our traditional way, but as a tribe we chose to adopt state and federal recommendations in order to protect our community in the long-term. 

I give thanks to all the tribal members who adhered to the policies and guidance set in place to protect them. Having been in public health for over ten years, I have a new appreciation for tribal employees who continue to work to meet the goals and objectives of the tribal leadership, even under adverse conditions. The work I do for my community has been satisfying in many ways because I am from here, speak the language and understand the traditions and culture. Since the start of the pandemic, I have always put my people first and worked to help them with understanding, healing, hope, and simply being there to help them through these challenging times. 

If you could share one piece of advice for Native public health leaders, particularly in smaller communities, what would it be? 

Open your heart to the people you serve with dignity and respect. Be professional and personable.  People will see your true self if you get to have a conversation not only about what is going on in this world today, but in order to learn about how you can lend a hand. Share some laughs and surround yourself with positive people that are making great changes in Native communities. 

The story I share is with the passion and love of my family and community. It brought me to tears working long hours, taking care of our people the best way I knew how, and dealing with stress, hardship, depression, not spending enough time with family, and feeling drained at times. There were times I wanted to quit, but my heart told me no. 

Love one another and pray for a better tomorrow. Enjoy your family. We live in a society and a place and time where we don’t know what tomorrow will bring us. We have to understand we live on borrowed time, so my message is:  live for today.

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