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Impact with Melissa Herman

Meaghan Szapk
BY Meaghan Szapk
(1 Vote)

Melissa Herman was a fellow with Alberta Social Innovation Connect (ABSI Connect) until it’s sunsetting in February.  She joined Russell Thomas on IMPACT to discuss her focus on social innovation within Indigenous communities in northern Alberta during her time with the project. 

Melissa’s focus on social innovation within Indigenous communities pertains specifically to the Treaty 8 territory, where the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo resides. 

“Essentially, I’m trying to change the system,” said Melissa.  “My focus is on things that are working in Indigenous communities and to support people where need be.  So if something is working, it’s my job to align, connect and support and direct them to the resources to help them flourish.”

To support her project, one of the things that Melissa worked on was a language resource.

“What I’m doing is I’m exploring Indigenous languages and trying to evolve them to include words such as justice, success and industry - to help us communicate with one another,” said Melissa.  “I feel like a lot of the communication breakdown is happening because those words are, in fact, not defined by Indigenous languages.”

Melissa went into communities and asked what specific terms mean to them.  During these visits, she found that some of the people she spoke with say that Cree individuals relate the word ‘industry’ to profit, whereas Dene and Chipewyan individuals relate it to destruction.

“You can see how if one industry is consulting Indigenous people how right off the bat if we don’t have that common word defined that a breakdown would happen,” said Melissa.  “I want to include those and help evolve and help us as Indigenous people create those definitions.”

To coincide with the language resource, Melissa has also facilitated meetings with the objective of creating a safe space for tough conversations to take place. 

“I try to hold certain conversations…” said Melissa.  “I’m making it less about a space and more of a process in terms of creating numerous safe spaces to have conservations like that-around reconciliation, around missing and murdered Indigenous women and just making sure that the conversations are still happening.”

During its fruition, one of the major impacts that ABSI Connect has achieved is the hiring of a Dene translator at the Fort McMurray court house.

“Since the translator has been provided, in partnership with the Multicultural Association, not only are jobs being created for people who speak  fluent Dene, but we’re actually having people communicating better within the justice system,” said Melissa.

Through her experience with the ABSI Connect project, Melissa shared the most important lesson she has learned.

“To empathize with people who I want to empathize with me,” said Melissa.

Melissa noted that this was professionally and personally groundbreaking for her to learn this. 

Before this learning experience, she was frustrated as she assumed that people didn’t care about the issues that plagued Indigenous communities.  She realized that in fact this is not true and people just don’t know about them. 

“When I learned that I needed to empathize with people, when I wanted them to empathize with me, it was really easy because that frustration kind of disappeared.”


IMPACT is a collaboration of The United Way of Fort McMurray, FuseSocial, Shaw TV Fort McMurray and 91.1 The Bridge.  It is heard on Tuesdays at 10:30 am. It is rebroadcast on Shaw Cable 10.