When Kara McDonagh speaks about her work as a Grants Management Specialist in OJJDP's Intervention Division, her modesty belies the central role she plays in the Office's work with American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. But Kara's passion reveals her expertise.
Kara joined OJJDP in 2009 and currently oversees an extensive portfolio of programs, including Tribal Youth Program grants, tribal juvenile healing to wellness courts, and the Tribal Youth Leadership Development Initiative. But, OJJDP's tribal team also includes three other Grants Management Specialists—Leanetta Jessie, Heather McDonald, and Geroma Void—and Kara stresses that the four work together to ensure that grantees receive culturally relevant services sensitive to tribes' unique circumstances.
Although resources exist outside of OJJDP for professionals in youth development and justice programs, they often fail to address cultural considerations for tribes, Kara said; OJJDP’s work strives to embrace them. "Because Native American tribes and communities encompass an extremely wide variety of languages, histories, cultures, and geographies, the training and technical assistance and other support we provide must understand and value that diversity," she said.
Kara is currently the Team Lead due to her long history of tribal work and her position as Program Manager for the Tribal Youth Resource Center, OJJDP's largest training and technical assistance center for tribes and tribal programs. Team member Geroma Void, Senior Grants Management Specialist, is Program Manager for The Resource Basket, which provides training and technical assistance to OJJDP grantees in Alaska.
"I have been taught that the work of supporting all youth is seen by many Indigenous people as being a 'good relative,' and I am continually inspired and humbled by that profound way of seeing the work we do."
—Kara McDonagh, OJJDP Grants Management Specialist
Kara began working with youth as a young adult when she joined Community for Creative Non-Violence in Washington, DC, where she advocated for and provided direct services to people experiencing homelessness. That work cemented a commitment to advocate for people who are marginalized, "to address unjust conditions that create and maintain their marginalization," she said.
Kara went on to earn a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland, Baltimore, with a concentration in community organizing. This led to work in many settings, including jails, neighborhood community centers, and residential treatment programs. Kara joined a grassroots effort to open an afterschool youth development center in southeast Baltimore, and then directed the center for 7 years. Before joining OJJDP, she developed and led a partnership between AmeriCorps, the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and a consortium of nonprofit and civic organizations in Baltimore. That work laid the foundation for MICA's Master of Arts Program in Community Arts; Kara helped found the program and was a faculty member.
Kara first encountered OJJDP while developing youth programs, and was impressed by the Office's reach and impact on youth programs nationwide, she said. Kara became a Program Specialist in 2009 and joined the tribal team the same year.
"I was honored to have been given responsibility early in my career at OJJDP for working with tribes," Kara said. "There is so much to learn about Indigenous people and cultures, and I continue to be amazed and alarmed that so much of the country does not know basic facts about the people whose land we now inhabit." Kara said she feels lucky to work closely with people committed to building programs that nurture Native youth and foster their resilience.
"Young people know what works and does not work with their peers and in their communities, and they will tell you when asked in a genuine and respectful way," she said. "I believe strongly that listening to their experiences and supporting their leadership is a critical part of building a better world."