Nick has played a vital role in building a powerful youth movement on American Indian land that reconnects younger generations with their cultural and spiritual identities and leads them through a transformative process to become the innovators and energy behind a new era of community-led development.
The New Idea
Nick Tilsen founded the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota to cultivate a new generation of American Indian leaders and unravel the systems that perpetuate poverty on Indian land. In some of the poorest parts of country, he is confronting the culture of dependency and dysfunction left over from generations of failed policy and failed leadership, and transforming disillusioned youth into community leaders and changemakers. Nick and his team actively work with tribes around the nation, as well as the many federal agencies with responsibility over tribal land, to embed a new framework of economic and social progress that is defined by entrepreneurship rather than social services.
Unlike most of rural America, the young population on Indian land is booming -- nearly half the residents on Pine Ridge, for example, are under 30. They represent a potent energy that until now has been disconnected from tribal affairs, governance, and development. Yet huge numbers of them don’t even have jobs. Nick’s central innovation is to give tribal youth avenues of various kinds to be changemakers in their communities. He describes the process as giving young people a series of victories – however small – to replace the pattern of letdowns and the culture of cynicism they’re currently immersed in. It all begins with cultural revitalization: engage young people in the spiritual and reflection circles of their ancestors, and bring back to life traditions and practices that in some cases have been dormant for more than a generation. This process heals, builds community, and generates a renewed sense of cultural identity. Importantly, it also fosters responsibility, which rarely takes root in an environment of alcohol, drugs, and gangs. Nick and his team then channel that responsibility into social and economic development projects of all kinds, from affordable green housing to health and wellness campaigns to innovative workforce development programs and community wealth building strategies.
More important even than the social outcomes from these initiatives, Nick points to the process as the source of the true transformation. Nick’s formula is one that cultivates agency through a surge of civic action, and success will be a generation of young people with the will and the skills to strengthen their tribal nations and re-write the American Indian story. His approach represents a fundamental shift from the status quo, and has meant challenging traditional tribal governance structures as well as federal policy toward Indian tribes, which have always aimed to alleviate the symptoms of poverty rather than target root causes.
Nick’s efforts have already precipitated a series of “firsts” on Pine Ridge: establishing the first tribal-led community development corporation in South Dakota (now there are nine others); acquiring tribal leader support for young entrepreneurs on the reservation; and creating the first ever Tribal Regional Sustainable Development Plan. As Nick’s efforts have gained traction on Pine Ridge, he has begun working with other tribes from North Dakota to Arizona, as well as state and federal agencies, and philanthropists hungry for a more effective approach.
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has been called the ‘ground zero’ of poverty in the United States. Shannon County, located within the reservation, has historically been one of the poorest counties in the United States with 87 percent of its 40,000 residents falling below the federal poverty line. Unemployment hovers between 60-70 percent, up to 75 percent of adults and children are impacted by alcoholism, and tribal members score poorly across a range of health indicators from diabetes to heart disease. The story is similar on many rural Indian reservations across the U.S.: deeply entrenched poverty, economic isolation, and poor health. Seven of the eleven poorest communities in the United States are in South Dakota and they are all on Indian Reservations, Pine Ridge being one of them.
There is no simple explanation for these problems and why they persist. But many are a result of the long and tortured history of American Indian relations with the United States – one that left a legacy, like with so many indigenous populations, of colonization, forced migration, and treaty violations. Perhaps more worrying even than the discouraging statistics is the underlying lack of opportunity and sense of hopelessness that has come to characterize many tribal nations Decades of government-supported social service programs were designed to treat the impacts of poverty rather than their root causes, and have in fact contributed to a culture of dependency and an absence of innovation and changemaking spirit. Generations of young people have grown up in families with adults who have little or no work. Many are disconnected from their own history and culture, unaware of even the most relevant political and social issues that affect their land, their families, and their future. And despite the abundance of social problems in plain sight, the tendency is to look elsewhere for help.
The latent dissatisfaction with the status quo is palpable in places like Pine Ridge, and yet until now few have been able to translate that dissatisfaction into vocal demand for a new path forward. This is in large part because tribal members – and young tribal members in particular, despite making up more than half of the tribal population – are so rarely asked what kind of community they want to live in, let alone given a chance to build that community. The lack of opportunity together with a lack of voice has become an especially toxic mix, and overcoming it requires much more than even the most well-funded and well-conceived interventions. It requires a new mindset on the part of tribal members, and a new framework within which homegrown social change is both possible and encouraged.
Nick’s goal is to shift the narrative on Indian reservations from victimhood and negativity to empowerment and possibility, with a youth movement as the primary catalyst. His strategy is three-fold: first, reconnect youth with their cultural and spiritual identities as a foundation for responsibility and ownership; second, engage youth as both the drivers and beneficiaries of a new wave of citizen-led activity on the reservation; and third, facilitate (by demonstrating success and through advocacy) a new framework through which governments, philanthropy, and tribes themselves address the social and economic conditions that persist on Indian land.
Nick acknowledges that the road to a new framework of community-led social change on reservations will be long and believes the only suitable strategy to get there is a generational one: give young people a renewed sense of purpose and agency so they grow up shaping – rather than just being shaped by – their world. This starts quite simply by first getting them to care and then giving them the opportunity to act. As such, Thunder Valley began as a youth cultural and spiritual revival effort – the only one on the reservation organized and attended by members all under the age of 30, including many who were still in high school. This group found solace and rejuvenation in their spiritual practice and sun dances, and because of previous U.S. laws, they were the first in a generation to be able to fully and openly participate in such traditions without having to be in hiding or condemned for doing so. Inevitably, conversations outside the sweat lodge turned to what was broken on the reservation, but the reaction was usually the same: why weren’t others doing this or that? These were the critical moments when Nick realized that there were no structures and no precedent in place to translate this general dissatisfaction and angst into meaningful change. He imagined his children and their children having similar conversations – and waiting instead of acting. Then what began as a simple question – ‘how do we want to live?’ – led to the next phase of Thunder Valley.
Nick recognized the power in that simple question, but even more powerful was being able to make a contribution. As such, Thunder Valley’s strategy focused on giving young people the opportunity to achieve small collective wins, and then build on that momentum. The organization’s motto became “Native Youth On the Move”, with core values of regeneration, self-sufficiency, and participation. Nick’s efforts were many and varied. He organized informal field trips for elementary school students to the sacred Black Hills so they would understand the significance of a land dispute, and then gave them a chance to gather petition signatures to halt a proposed development. (Today, such field trips have spread reservation wide as an educational priority). Nick and his team spawned a number of youth-run ventures, including the E-Tanka Café that focused on helping teens gain valuable entrepreneurial and financial literacy skills. More recent is a reservation-wide sustainable development plan that will address the major housing shortage on Pine Ridge. Once again, young people played a central role, participating in design charettes and channeling community preferences into a remarkable housing plan that is the first of its kind on Indian land, and which won a million-dollar grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was a finalist for the 2014 Fuller Challenge, receiving a special recognition from the Buckminster Fuller Institute.
As this ambitious development has taken shape and grown, so too have additional opportunities for youth civic engagement – and in his case, employment as well. Thunder Valley is in the early stages of partnering with Ashoka Fellow Dorothy Stoneman and YouthBuild USA to employ and train hundreds of young people as green homebuilders – job skills that are increasingly in demand in the plains states. This will be done with support from the Northwest Area Foundation and with a grant from the U.S. Department of Labor Youth Build Program. Nick and his team will soon found a worker-owned construction company that will specialize in locally produced green housing components – again, anticipating a growing market.
Once again, Nick links back to the importance of participating and of achieving small wins: there is the immediate win of getting quality homes built on the reservation, but also the long-term transformative power of a young person driving each day past homes he or she built.
In order to facilitate similar youth movements and community-led development on Indian land, Nick is systematically educating, advocating, and demonstrating to key decision makers why this new framework is superior, and what they can do to reduce barriers to change. This takes many forms, including by shifting the perspective of tribal council leaders to be more amenable to citizen-led change and outside private and philanthropic dollars. Nick also provides assistance to neighboring tribes and has helped spawned nearly ten other community development corporations on reservation land since 2009. Meanwhile, Indian nations from much further away – including from Arizona – now send representatives for training from Nick’s team on how to lay the groundwork for their own movements.
Nick isn’t naïve, however, about how remote Pine Ridge is in southern South Dakota. Therefore, while he encourages this tribe-to-tribe spread of ideas, he sees a more potent point of leverage within the many agencies – public, private, philanthropic – who work with and on tribes across the United States, and who control the significant flow of resources into Indian land. The speed at which his ideas can get national traction depends a great deal on changing how they do business and how they direct their resources. To this end, Nick has adopted the role of reform champion, and positions Thunder Valley as a reference point for the field, and a petri dish for a new paradigm that is long overdue. He advises several major foundations on how to effectively cultivate social enterprise on Indian land. Meanwhile, the sustainable housing development in particular become a rallying point to engage key players at the state and federal levels, and the Secretary of HUD Julian Castro visited Pine Ridge in 2014 to learn about the effort and the community-driven process. At the state level, Nick has played an active role in a 50-person delegation from the South Dakota Home Ownership Commission – including representatives from the Governor’s office – to visit Thunder Valley and consider the unique housing and workforce development model as an alternative to current state initiatives, including a program that builds cheap homes using prison labor. Nick also consults regularly with leadership within the USDA to unlock and direct resources more creatively – for example, USDA-backed loan products that could dramatically increase home ownership and build equity on reservations.
In each conversation, Nick’s approach is to share a new vision and framework for change, and leverage the successes at Thunder Valley as a demonstration of what is possible elsewhere. Nick has twice been invited to the White House and has consulted White House staff about expanding initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper beyond inner cities to all young men and boys of color. He was even highlighted in a speech by President Obama himself as an example of the power and possibility of community-led innovation even where poverty has the deepest roots.
Thunder Valley is entering a major growth phase. What began as local development program is rapidly evolving into a new way to envision the future of Indian reservations and a powerful and transformative way to engage young tribal members as key actors in this process. Nick and his team have not only received financial support from prominent foundations and national agencies (and have millions in their pipeline) but equally important, are becoming recognized as a source of inspiration for other Native American communities. The sudden national attention gives Nick even more opportunities to leverage his successes and disrupt how the nation thinks about the persistent “Indian problem.”
Nick comes from a family of changemakers. His mother is Lakota from Pine Ridge and his father is from Minneapolis. Both of his parents were entrepreneurs and activists who spent much of their lives fighting for environmental and indigenous rights on the reservation. His mother and father founded the first Native American-owned and operated public radio station in America. His mother won a Goldman Environmental Prize for her work resisting munitions testing in the sacred Black Hills. His grandfather, meanwhile, was a lawyer and activist who played a key role during the Wounded Knee siege in 1973 in bringing justice after police force brutality against Native Americans. He credits all of them for having a profound impact on his desire to create change in the world.
When Nick was just a toddler he and his family were tear gassed during a protest for Native American political prisoners at the gates of the Sioux Falls State Prison – one of his earliest memories and one he often cites as influencing his life choices. After finishing high school in Stillwater, Minnesota, Nick moved back to Pine Ridge where he has lived ever since. As an 18-year-old, while working for an NGO called Odyssey U.S., he traveled across the United States researching and writing about American Indian history through the eyes of the people rather than the government. He met dozens of community leaders across 30 states and came to recognize the important of local action and local ownership as the only true path forward for his tribe. When he returned to Pine Ridge he co-founded the Lakota Action Network to organize tribal members to protect sacred land from a planned shooting range. He began to think of himself as an enabler of other changemakers.
Nick’s work is motivated both by frustration – with generations of failed policy and development efforts – and by optimism – that so much of what American Indian tribes need exist already, latent, and ready to be unlocked by a new mindset.