On October 22 I had the immense pleasure of attending First Nations Oweesta Corporation “NEDTalks” (Native Economic Development Talks). During the talks, I was struck by how well the format reflects the spirit and strengths of Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs), which focus on and amplify the hopes and dreams of the Native communities they serve.
NEDTalks are part of Native Gathering Day, a highlight of Oweesta’s Native CDFI Convening, held during the annual OFN Conference. The Conference, located this year in Washington, DC, is a central event of the CDFI industry.
Native CDFIs meet their communities’ hopes, dreams, and needs.
Let me set the scene for you: a conference room, after the lunch break, unfortunate banquet hall lighting, a raised platform with a row of chairs and a microphone-topped podium, screens set up in opposing corners for visual material. You’ve probably found yourself in a similar situation; I know I have many times while attending conferences and training sessions.
Native CDFIs as Game-Changing Allies
NWAF spotlights how Native CDFIs grow the economies of Native communities, serve as great investment partners, and weave culturally informed relationships. Native CDFIs are proven—and often underutilized—opportunities for sustainable, secure impact investing.
But then, memorably, begins an inspiring series of speakers—all three of whom are executive directors of Native CDFIs that are grantees of the Foundation. Speaking unscripted, they transcend the (let’s face it) somewhat stale confines of the conference room with engaging and kinetic presentations that center on how Native CDFIs hinge on the hopes, dreams, and particular needs of the communities they serve.
An inspiring series of speakers—all three of whom are executive directors of Native CDFIs . . . [focused] on how Native CDFIs hinge on the hopes, dreams, and particular needs of the communities they serve.
New initiatives such as ag lending keep Native CDFIs innovating.
First we hear Tawney Brunsch, executive director of Lakota Funds, which serves the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, discuss the need for ag lending in her community. Ag lending—providing Native farmers and ranchers with access to credit and capital—isn’t an area usually associated with CDFIs, which are more known for business loans, community development initiatives, and affordable housing.
As Tawney notes in her talk, the Lakota people have a historical connection to agriculture as hunters and gatherers. It’s part of a legacy of a love of the land, and caring for place. But today, of the 3,218 ag operations on Indian reservations in South Dakota, less than one-third are Native American owned.
Lakota Funds aims to change that ratio on the 2.2 million acres of the Pine Ridge Reservation. This agricultural initiative, like most Native CDFI projects, will have a generational impact. Native CDFIs are creating products for Native consumers that are financial in nature, but that spring from an impulse to help communities realize their dreams.
Native CDFIs are trusted allies for long-term impact—and also safe spots in their communities.
Up next is Rob Aitken, executive director of Leech Lake Financial Services, serving the Leech Lake Reservation of northern Minnesota. It’s possible Rob missed his calling as a stand-up comedian—he begins by riffing on the acronym CDFI, which doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
As he paces energetically, his passion for Native CDFIs as trusted safe spots in their communities is clear. Rob shares the example of auto loans as a financial need among the community LLFS serves. The discovery of that gap led LLFS to launch a program to help their clients secure safe and reliable transportation while building credit.
“Nobody knows your community like you do.”
Rounding out the trio is Ted Piccolo, executive director of Northwest Native Development Fund, a Washington State–based Native CDFI. Ted speaks at length about Native CDFIs’ vital role in helping Native communities dream big.
“Shame on you,” he admonishes. “Shame on you for thinking your vision or the vision of another is too ambitious. Nobody knows your community like you do. . . . You were born for this.” What an inspiring and timely reminder.
And, significantly for those of us on the funder side of things, he challenges us not to blanch at the size of Native communities’ dreams. He memorably quotes a Hebrew proverb: “Without vision the people will perish.”
Oweesta continues leading the way for collaboration among Native CDFIs.
This year Oweesta celebrates its twentieth anniversary: twenty years of culturally grounded impact, of nurturing lasting connections among Native CDFIs and current and potential financial partners, and of strengthening economic sovereignty in Indian Country.
The Foundation partners with Oweesta in two ways—as a grantee in our Native CDFI portfolio and through mission investing. At the Foundation, we focus on building on the strengths and assets of our target communities—Native Americans, communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and people from rural communities. Funding for Native CDFIs is one vital way we act on that focus.
Anything is possible.
Great news: Even if you missed Oweesta’s initial livestream of NEDTalks, they remain available on Oweesta’s Facebook page. I hope you’ll check it out. NEDTalks are an opportunity to experience how these leaders—these storytellers and dreamers—describe the myriad ways Native CDFIs are fueled and strengthened by their grounding in Native culture and traditions.
Native CDFIs drive positive change that will be felt for generations. They draw from the rich culture and traditions of Native communities as they build economic stability and wealth in Indian Country by providing capital, financial assistance, and training.
The wisdom shared at Native Gathering Day and during these NEDTalks reflects the indigenous value that sharing to help family and community survive is a communal responsibility. My takeaway: that truly anything is possible if we aren’t afraid to dream big. It’s more than a message, really. It’s a blessing.