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The director of a Native American community development corporation serving Oglala Lakota communities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is helping form a new organization to assist other tribes in starting similar development programs.
Nick Tilsen, executive director of Thunder Valley CDC, will be spending 2018 moving from his current staff position at Thunder Valley to serve on the organization’s board, according to an announcement from the organization.
He said the new work grows out of requests from other indigenous communities for help establishing their own community development initiatives.
“In the past 18 to 20 months, we have gotten calls … and emails from about 27 different Native nonprofits and about 43 different tribes representing over 70 separate indigenous communities that want to do something similar to Thunder Valley in their communities,” Tilsen said. “For the most part we have been able to help here and there, but we haven’t had a vehicle or mechanism to do that.”
Tilsen said his goal for the new organization, to be called the NDN Collective, will be to help other communities establish “hundreds of organizations out there like Thunder Valley.”
Thunder Valley, located on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, celebrated its 10th anniversary in fall 2017. The group grew from a young-people’s cultural movement on Pine Ridge that conducted a community listening project and started creating programs to address underlying economic and social issues.
Thunder Valley programs include new housing development, workforce training, arts groups and facilities, Lakota language education, a local foods initiative, and others. A “regenerative community development” project calls for the construction of scores of single-family homes and apartments on a 34-acre tract that will include a grocery store, artist studios, and public spaces.
In a region of chronic unemployment and sometimes extreme economic strain, Thunder Valley employs approximately 60 fulltime and 60 part-time workers.
In 2015 then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Tom Vilsack visited Thunder Valley as part of announcing more than $2 million in grants to projects on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
Last year Thunder Valley was one of seven organizations to win the Bush Prize for Community Innovation, which included a half-million dollar award from the Bush Foundation in Minnesota.
The organization is supported by individuals, public entities like the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and private philanthropies such as the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Surdna Foundation, and Northwest Area Foundation.
Thunder Valley will start a search to replace Tilsen February 15, the board announcement said.
Tilsen said he was looking forward to seeing other leaders in the organization take on new roles.
“Another reason for this journey is to create space for other leadership to make sure that this organization continues to grow and evolve and celebrate leadership that is already here and that is coming in,” he said.
He said he was leaving “but not going far.”
“Being part of Thunder Valley over the last decade has changed my life. It has changed many, many people’s lives. It has been an honor to have walked this journey from an idea that started as a prayer and as a concept and has grown into this movement.”