Summit Speaker Series: Nick Tilsen and the Revitalization of the Pine Ridge Reservation

As Equity Summit 2015 approaches, America’s Tomorrow will showcase the work of a few of the 100-plus speakers, presenters, and performers featured at the Summit — inspiring equity leaders who are using innovative approaches to build an inclusive, thriving economy within their regions.

This summer, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, broke ground on transformative housing development — the first phase of a project that hopes to be a model for Native and rural communities in building sustainable communities that deliver a triple bottom line: people, prosperity, and the planet. America’s Tomorrow interviewed Nick Tilsen, executive director of the Thunder Valley CDC, about how he is working to cultivate a new generation of Native American leaders to reverse decades of disinvestment and failed government policies and build culturally and economically thriving tribal communities.

What spurred the creation of the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation?

The Thunder Valley CDC was born out of a movement of young people here in Pine Ridge reconnecting to our culture, our spirituality, and our identity as Lakota people. This reconnection created a sense of empowerment, and a sense of responsibility. Here we are in a place that is rich in culture and spirituality, but it is also one of the poorest communities in America, with 48 percent of our residents living below the federal poverty line and an unemployment rate of 89 percent. We also have high suicide rates and poor health outcomes that are negatively impacting our community. We felt that it was our responsibility to organize ourselves to uplift our communities, to change our reservation from within.

What role did economic development play in your vision for revitalizing Pine Ridge?

When we started, at the beginning, we wanted to address the root causes of creating perpetual poverty in our communities — it boiled down to the lack of financial, political, and governance structures that create the physical infrastructure and investments that ultimately create jobs. If we don’t have roads, sewer, electricity, then no wonder there’s no development being done here or jobs being created. Thunder Valley CDC decided that to become a catalyst in the region, we had to set out a bold…new plan of development on the reservation. So our organization has purchased 34 acres of property and did a huge amount of community engagement to create a vision for what kind of communities we as Lakota want to live in in the 21st century. How can we live in the past, present, and future, and do everything through the cultural lens of who we are?

What specific strategies are you pursuing for creating a more sustainable, prosperous economy?

As part of the funding for the CDC, we received a Sustainable Communities Regional Planning grant from the department of Housing and Urban Development that really challenged us to assess the economic picture of the reservation. We conducted an Equity and Opportunity Assessment, partnering with PolicyLink and the Kirwan Institute, that helped us understand what was perpetuating poverty on the reservation. For example, we realized that 51 percent of our existing workforce is not living on the reservation, and there isn’t one house for sale or for rent to allow them to move here. So all of a sudden, that became our niche: we needed to make sure our earners, the people who will rebuild our economy, can live here. Because otherwise, because we are so rural, they are commuting 50–120 miles each day, just working so they can put enough gas in their car to get to work again, getting stuck in perpetual poverty just because the community they can find a house in isn’t the one they work in. That’s why creating housing and home ownership for the existing workforce became one of our priorities.

Second, we are focusing on creating job opportunities on the reservation and workforce development. We are ensuring the jobs created by the [construction of the community housing] development, which is a 10-year $60 million development, stay within the community. In that process, you create community wealth that ultimately alleviates poverty. People in our community are more interested in the idea of communal ownership and building community wealth instead of just individual wealth, so we are looking to social enterprise, nonprofit models to create a worker-owned construction company, and perhaps property management and technology-related companies [down the road].

What role do you see the youth population playing in this vision?

The very history of our organization is based in this very strong belief in youth entrepreneurship and youth employment — 25 of the 71 CDC employees right now are high school age youth and under. You have to empower young people to come up with creative solutions themselves. Through guidance, mentorship, structure...our youth are becoming changemakers, creating opportunities for connection and engagement for other youth in the reservation, building community gardens, running sports events, and other activities.

What do you hope to gain from speaking at and attending the Summit?

We’re in one of the most isolated places in America, and a lot of times we feel like we’re completely forgotten. The Summit is a place where people are defining what it means to build an equitable America, and Native American people have to be part of those conversations. Also, we’ll get to meet and learn from all these different people from different backgrounds, grassroots people rolling up their sleeves to achieve equity in their communities — being around that reminds us that we are all connected, we are all part of this movement.

To learn more, visit the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation website and watch this short video about their work.

Read the rest of the August 28, 2015 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.