Citizens of all federally recognized tribes can find services and training through the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Workforce Development & Social Service. Whether seeking employment assistance, education or emergency financial assistance, the program – financed primarily through federal and Tribal government funds – offers a hand up rather than a hand out for those in need.
One critical component in this mission is Bobbi J. Middleton, a workforce and social services counselor who oversees community service block grants. CSBGs help reduce poverty and revitalize low-income communities and their populations in order to become self-sufficient. Middleton spoke to the Hownikan about her life and work at CPN. The questions and responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
Where are you from?
“I’m from Macomb, Oklahoma. I attended Macomb High school until my senior year when I moved to Shawnee and graduated from Shawnee High School. I then attended Gordon Cooper Technology Center. I studied diesel mechanics and have a certification in preventive maintenance. I’ve only had two jobs outside of the Tribe, not counting my on-the-job-training. I worked briefly for the Homeland bakery and worked in the Wal-Mart bakery for a little over a year.”
How did you first come to CPN?
“I actually came in (to FireLake Discount Foods) to order a birthday cake for my daughter and started talking to the ladies in the bakery about my experience. She told me they were shorthanded, and I should apply ASAP. I had my interview the next day and was in orientation the following Monday.”
How did you first get interested in taking on the position you have now?
“I worked in several different departments, and with some of those positions came office experience. I was working in housekeeping at the Workforce Development & Social Services office when I heard about the position. I applied hoping my office experience would make up for my lack of degree. I was so ecstatic when I got the job offer.”
Why do you think the program you work in is important?
“I feel that our program is important to the community because it utilizes funds that are available for use by households that have no other options when they are in need. Most Tribal members are either unaware that the funds are available or are unsure of how or where to apply. Our programs are steadily growing due to word-of-mouth and the coverage from the Hownikan. I feel that information about our program is reaching those in need, whether they are in town or in one of our many rural communities.”
What do you say to criticism of programs like LIHEAP and community service grants that some people see as welfare?
“I am very passionate about all of the programs that we offer, especially the ones that provide financial assistance. I was 19 when I had my daughter, and my husband quit school so that he could provide for us. But there were many times, though we were doing our best to maintain, we just fell short and needed that little extra assistance. I was given the assistance to get me through, and I find it extremely fulfilling to be able to turn around and do the same for another family in need.
“To people who see the Community Service Program and those like it as detrimental to our society, I like to quote our Assistant Director Margaret Zientek, who says ‘We help those who are trying to help themselves.’
“With our programs, before any assistance is given, we sit down with our client and go over an education development plan, which determines the reasons why a client is in need of the assistance. We develop an individual plan for each client on how best to utilize the funds they have available, and how they can improve their situation. Options include credit counseling, assistance applying for Social Security or disability, general assistance or a job search. Maybe they are going through a bad time at home and need referred to the CPN Behavioral Health Clinic.
“I feel that we are called counselors for a good reason. We aren’t here to assist you and move on. We are here for our clients for more than just financial assistance. We want to help the client in every way we can.”
What makes the Tribal Workforce Development & Social Services program different from non-Tribal services?
“The main difference that I would like to highlight is the fact that all of the resources needed are all in one location. Whereas with other agencies, you would go to DHS to apply for a portion of the assistance, then you would go to okdhslive.org to apply for other benefits, and then to workforce or staffing agencies to apply for jobs. Having to do all of these different things and go to so many different places when you are already struggling is more of a hardship than assistance. For our older generations
who have difficulty navigating a computer, some of the assistance is just out of their reach.
“However when you apply for our programs, we are all in the same building. If you come in for the Community Service Program to get assistance with a bill and we find that you need the help due to loss of employment, we will then refer you to an employment counselor.
“If you come in to get assistance with filing for SSI or disability and you need assistance with bills, a counselor will refer you to our community services or LIHEAP programs. We all work together very well, and by doing so, make the process much easier on the clients and ourselves. Overall, our goal for our clients is self-sufficiency, to be able to maintain all of their bills with the income that they have. Even though I love my job and all the different and wonderful people it allows me to reach, in the end, what we are trying to do is work ourselves out of a job. We would love for no one to struggle to make ends meet, to not have to worry about how the lights will stay on, or where their next meal will come from. Our hope is that everyone will one day be self-sufficient and our jobs will be obsolete, but until that day, we will be here giving as many people as we can the hand up they need.”
What’s something you see in your work that others might misunderstand about the programs you work with?
“I feel that the main two misunderstandings that people have about our programs are, that we have endless amounts of money for anyone and that this is continuing assistance.
“Even though we would love to help everyone that comes through our door, we have several guidelines that we have to follow, such as income, location and tribal affiliation. Our programs are federally funded through a grant. To qualify for these grants, and be able to distribute the assistance, there are criteria requirements that we have to meet. Even though some may feel like we are asking for too much information, we are required to get that documentation for the grant that funds our programs. With working under our grant, we are only given so much money to distribute and we have to make it last through our fiscal year, limiting our assistance per person.
“One of the other criteria is that I am only able to assist a client once in a 12-month period. Therefore, if you get assistance in August 2018 you wouldn’t be eligible for any further assistance from Community Services until August 2019. This prevents clients from depending on our assistance monthly and allows us to assist many more people. Though we know that there are people who do struggle monthly, this criteria allows the funds to go further and allows us to utilize all of our other programs.
“So for the people who feel that our programs are a waste of resources, I want to say please don’t judge a person for what you see now. You have no idea how many battles that person has been through, how many times they stood back up just to be knocked back down. Everyone struggles at some point in his or her life, my mom has always told me, ‘God will never give you more than you can handle.’
“I have come to learn that He may never give you more than you can handle, but sometimes you’re not meant to handle it alone.”
“Being able to make a difference in people’s lives every day is absolutely wonderful. People are looking to get that help and not be looked down on for it. Their lives are hard enough at this point in time, the last thing they need is to feel as if they are a burden on society. The majority of my clients are people who have contributed when they could and are just physically unable to do so now, or are people who want to get out there and contribute but are lacking the knowledge and resources to get a foot in the door. Either way, we help them the best we can in the hopes that they will become self-sufficient.”
What is it like working for a tribe?
“There is a big difference in having a job and having a career. While working for the Tribe, I have seen a completely new side to employment. There are many companies that promise inner company transfers, and you later find out that it’s really hard to get that transfer, so you end up leaving the company altogether instead of moving to find a better fit for you. That is the exact opposite of what I have experienced with CPN. I started in 2012 as a part-time bakery clerk and am now the Workforce Development & Social Services Community Service counselor. I have found that all of the supervisors and directors have not only encouraged you to better yourself but have shared in the joy of getting that job that you really wanted. My old department from the director on down wished me well. The workplace environment that is in place at this Tribe is wonderful and should be adopted by all employers.
“I just want to say a great big thank you to Margaret, Carol Clay-Levi and Lynn Heath. Thank you for the amazing opportunity that you’ve given me. Also to my mom, without whom I wouldn’t even be close to the person I am today. You believe in me even when I don’t. Thank you for everything you have ever done and more.”