Indian Country the Site of New Developments in Community Wealth Building

Five projects seek to launch social enterprises and employee-owned business in Native American communities
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Sarah McKinley & Marjorie Kelly

Indian Country is the site of some exciting new work taking shape in social enterprise and employee ownership. Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest areas of the country, is the planned site of a “Regenerative Community” being built by Thunder Valley Development Corp. The new community – recipient of federal funding and praised in a public speech by President Obama – is designed to be a net zero community, producing all the energy it uses. And as construction proceeds there, Thunder Valley plans to create its own social enterprise to manage the process and create jobs for Native Americans. Meanwhile, elsewhere on Pine Ridge, Native American Natural Foods is a Native-owned all-natural buffalo meat snacks company that is expanding sales rapidly across the nation, and that plans to begin transitioning to employee ownership.  

Those are just two among five Native American projects being developed as part of an initiative managed by The Democracy Collaborative and funded by the Northwest Area Foundation, known as the Learning/Action Lab for Community Wealth Building. June marked the conclusion of the first year of this three-year program to launch employee-owned businesses and social enterprises that ground wealth in Native American communities and provide employment opportunities for Native people. The first year was an intensive training, advisory, education, and business development program, designed to help participants develop effective community wealth building strategies in their communities that foster ownership of enterprise, develop local assets, and create and anchor jobs locally. This new paradigm of economic development – known as community wealth building – is about developing local assets and creating systems of support for enterprises that are locally owned, and, ideally, broadly owned, rather than relying on recruiting industry from outside a community.

Throughout the course of the first year of the Learning/Action Lab, the participating organizations traveled to four meetings in a variety of cities, to see various projects in community wealth building. They saw, for example, urban farming projects, an employee-owned cleaning company in the Bay Area, an employee-owned solar company in Denver, and a Native-owned grocery in Winnipeg. The group also visited Cleveland and toured the network of three employee cooperatives there, the Evergreen Cooperatives, which The Democracy Collaborative helped to develop.

In addition to seeing community wealth building strategies in action, the participants met local experts, and engaged in one-on-one tailored coaching sessions with Democracy Collaborative project leaders. In addition to senior Democracy Collaborative staff, the leadership team also includes Jill Bamburg, co-founder of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and now president of Pinchot, a university for the common good, and an expert in sustainable business practices. The aim of this first year was to allow participants to come away with a better understanding of key business development skills, the different methods needed to construct ecosystems of support for enterprise development, and how community wealth building can be a more effective alternative economic development paradigm for their communities. 

Most recently in Winnipeg – a city where indigenous peoples are the largest minority population – participants had the opportunity to engage with groups building wealth in indigenous communities and learn how others are helping populations with little employment history work toward becoming engaged owners. Participants visited Neechi Commons and Food Cooperative, the only employee-owned Aboriginal cooperative in Winnipeg; Arctic Cooperatives, a network of 31 Aboriginal cooperatives in the far north of Canada; Diversity Food Services, a social enterprise that provides food services to the University of Winnipeg community; and Urban Circle Training Centre Inc., a training center led by Aboriginal women elders that specializes in spiritual healing as a means of workforce preparedness.  

In addition to Thunder Valley CDC and Native American Natural Foods, other participants in the Learning/Action Lab include the following:

  • Little Earth of United Tribes in Minneapolis, MN, a Native-preference low-income housing community, that is developing plans for three enterprises that will foster economic growth, provide employment in their community, and create income streams for the nonprofit parent organization.
  • Spokane Tribal Enterprises in Wellpinit, WA, which has plans to transition a tribally owned Trading Post to cooperative ownership, as a way to revitalize the business and provide healthy, affordable food as well as a community gathering place on the reservation.
  • Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, OR, which is devising a plan to create a holding company that will oversee their existing for-profit social ventures, helping them move toward creating an integrated network of employee-owned green businesses in their community. 

Over the coming two years of this project, these organizations will work toward implementing these visions in their communities – aiming to create inspiring new models and economic paths forward in Indian Country.  Justin Huenemann, a program officer at the Northwest Area Foundation, a member of the Navajo Nation and an American Indian community development activist, who is the convener of this learning cohort, recognizes the game-changing potential of this project both for Native communities and for the foundation. He recently emphasized the importance of this work, stating:

As Indian Country propels into the new century, creating and advancing sustainable, local economies that strengthen self-determination and promote tribal sovereignty is critical.  Community wealth building principles hold important lessons and methods that weave nicely with indigenous thoughts, values, and practices. We are excited about the opportunity to support the learning, exploration, and implementation of Native-driven community wealth building strategies, including social enterprise and worker-owner business development on and off reservations.”

The Learning/Action Lab has been an inspiring and deep learning experience for all involved, including the project staff at The Democracy Collaborative. Through close engagement with Native American leaders, The Democracy Collaborative has been challenged and encouraged to create a true co-learning environment; rather than simply delivering content in a traditional training format, the Learning/Action Lab team has worked with participant organizations to help them adopt the community wealth building paradigm to Indian Country in ways that are truly collaborative, interactive, and emergent. Perhaps most importantly, in learning about Native American culture and values, The Democracy Collaborative has come to a heightened awareness of the profound intersection between Indian values and the principles and vision of the community wealth building approach. As one participant put it, “What we perceive as a paradigm of building a new economy is really about returning to what our ancestors knew.”