Nick Tilsen

Ashoka Fellow
United States,
Fellow Since 2014
Thunder Valley


This profile was prepared when Nick Tilsen was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.
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.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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