Philomena Kebec Headshot (Circular)

Title: Economic Development Coordinator
Organization: Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians
City: Odanah, Wisconsin
Project: Sustainable Funding for Tribal Harm Reduction Programming

For over a decade, Philomena Kebec has worked as a tribal attorney and policy analyst focusing on environmental protection, human rights, treaty rights, food law and policy, and healthcare law. Along with several other members of her community, she launched the Band’s first Syringe Services Program out of her garage in 2015. Now, it has grown into a program with a budget of over $1 million. She works with pregnant Native women who are incarcerated — fighting for their basic human rights and health care for prisoners. This work drove her to run for office to serve on the Ashland County, Wisconsin, board for two years. Since her tenure on the board, there has been a new sheriff and a new jail administrator. The jail is now also offering medications for opioid use disorder and harm reduction services.

Philomena’s work has also focused on traditional foods as medicine. She wrote a comprehensive food code for the Ojibwe Tribes to incorporate traditional foods, including wild fish, game, and berries, into a commercial production realm. Part of her work has been to provide more opportunities for her tribe to purchase and distribute local healthy food. After securing a $750,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she has used the project to pilot a prescription food program for the tribe in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Since starting with Bad River as the economic development coordinator in 2021, she has worked with tribal programs to bring in over $12.5 million for economic development projects — including $10 million in financing for clinic expansion to increase the footprint of the tribal clinic and add services, including behavioral health, community health, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and alternative pain relief. She has been on the leadership team developing a multi-use center with a gym and aquatic center.

During her 18 months as an Addiction Policy Scholar, Philomena has regularly advised the federal government; influenced public policy on the national level; secured significant grant funding for Tribal initiatives related to harm reduction, healthcare, and other issues; and received a prestigious 2023 Bloomberg American Health Initiative Fellowship.

“I was called to do this work. While I was working as an attorney and doing child welfare cases as a cog in the wheel of the criminal-legal system, I began praying for the people that were engaged in these systems. My spirit connected with them. I got a really personal and intimate view on the struggles that they had with their basic existence. I found the systems ripped every connection from these Native women who had substance use disorder. It ripped out their agency, their self-worth, and their voice, and, oftentimes, they were left with nothing. They had nothing of material value and resources to draw upon, and yet they were expected to magically recreate themselves and resume parenting their children, while dealing with the very deep grief of losing their children, their family, and their self-respect. Once I was able to see how the system worked from the inside, I could no longer participate in that. I was driven to create something from a different approach that was a better reflection of our Indigenous values and produced different results.”

During her 18 months as an Addiction Policy Scholar, she has advised SAMHSA on a range of issues, including psychedelics and their recently published harm reduction framework. She serves as a subject matter expert for the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

In 2023, she was the recipient of the prestigious Bloomberg American Health Initiative Fellowship to pursue her Doctor of Public Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

She lives in her traditional Anishinaabe territories with her two children and long-time partner.

Philomena has been working on the development of a model for sustainability for tribal harm reduction programming. Given the high rates of overdose morbidity and mortality among American Indians, harm reduction provides an important intervention point. However, limited funding mechanisms for tribal harm reduction are a major barrier to implementation in this population.

The Latest