Barrow Project (Utqiaġvik): Family means culture, connection, and unity


My trip to Utqiaġvik (Barrow) took almost five years. But the perspective I continue to receive/apply and the family I continue to gain will last a lifetime. 

In 2016, a program called Fresh Tracks connected young adults from the greater Los Angeles area with young adults from across Alaska for a two-week immersive experience where each would learn about the community and culture of the other. 

This expedition involved young people getting a chance to see the beach and the ocean for the first time, to learn about subsistence living in Alaska, to be introduced to Ghanian Adinkra symbols, and to exchange culture in ways that are not common or practiced in today’s culture. Alaskan Natives learned about the seven days of Kwaanza and young adults from Compton learned Tongan dances at a time when the polarizing aspects of society were rearing their head.

At the core of this experience and program is this idea of building community through connection to culture. As the lead facilitator of the program and experience, the idea of creating a welcoming space for people to be able to share their culture and learn from others opened not only the participants but myself to the expansive nature and potential of true community. I experienced new things that were vastly different than the culture I grew up in, and also found similarities and parallels that tied me to the experience of another person/community without living the same life or telling the same story. 

This lesson on diversity, culture, and connection deeply impacted my approach to youth leadership development, community building, and informed my practice as a consultant on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. The understanding of how powerful connection to other experiences and perspectives could be in building community, and the necessity of fostering space for that to take place became central to my approach and work. 

But how did that bring me to the top of the world? 

As a lead facilitator and mentor for the Fresh Tracks program, I met Kimberly Pikok, an Iñupiaq young leader passionate about her culture, her community, and the environment. Although we visited Arctic Village during the expedition, the understanding that Alaskan villages are not all the same had her eager for folks to visit her home of Utqiaġvik (Barrow) to truly understand where she came from. 

Over the course of four years, Kimberly repeatedly invited folks on the program team and any of her fellow participants to spend some time in her home and experience the Arctic, the tundra, the land her family has lived in connection with for generations. 

And while it took some time (and reminders from Kimberly) for me to make it happen, in August of 2021, I hopped onto a flight with a friend and traveled to Utqiaġvik (Barrow) for a week with Kimberly and her brother at their family cabins in the tundra.

I kept an open mind regarding expectations of the trip, understanding that I would learn and experience new things and be introduced to different embodiments of culture and community. And just like in the initial Fresh Tracks 2016 program, I stepped into the new and felt the familiar. 

While learning about whaling camps and family roles, I felt my grandmother and aunt organizing how people were going to be fed for family dinners. 

While learning about Iñupiaq values of Ikayuqtigiigñiq (Cooperation), Avilaitqatigiigñiq (Friendships), and Avanmun Ikayuutiniq (Helping Each Other), I felt bonds strengthening in similar ways to my childhood growing up in New Jersey and New York. 

And in observing and participating in Kim and her family’s relationship to the land, in learning Kipakkutaiññiq (Respect for Nature), I heard the echoes of the importance of following Indigenous and ancestral leadership in taking care of our environment and planet, especially seeing the impacts that climate change has on communities of color.

Over the course of the week, we spent time riding in an Argo over the tundra (and pulling it out of the mud), fishing, exploring the tundra, tracking caribou, learning and asking questions about culture, laughing, and listening to music. Our exchange and blend of culture made us a community and a family, even as we built our connection with the land.

This connection, this proverbial linking of arms is essential to being a true ally and accomplice. There is often talk about what strategies and tips people and organizations can follow in order to engage with various communities. But at the beginning and end of the day, community and family are about relationships and connection, about time invested showing up for people when it matters and in places that are important to them. 

And these are actions that you can take in small ways everyday. I encourage you to step outside of your normal circles, to find opportunities to walk in someone else’s culture/community, and see what opportunities for support, learning, or collaboration arise.

It took almost five years for me to make it to Utqiaġvik (Barrow), and it will not be the last time. But those connections and that culture will continue to be a part of my values and how I live my life forever.