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Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

“We are an isolated place with beautiful Native American and Lakota ceremonial culture. We are rolling hills with pine and cedar trees and thunderstorms that you can see several hours before they get here. But you’ll also see really, really extreme poverty: the sort of poverty where there’s not a lot of opportunities to work, overcrowded housing with tons and tons of people, and possibly violence.”

This is the vivid picture of stark contrasts that Nick Tilsen, executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, painted when asked to describe the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where his organization is based. Pine Ridge is home to about 30,000 residents of Oglala Lakota descent, 80 percent of whom are unemployed and 50 percent of whom live below the federal poverty line. Life expectancy on the reservation is the lowest of anywhere in the Western Hemisphere besides Haiti, and the infant mortality rate is five times the national average. Fifty percent of the population is also under the age of 18. These statistics have persisted even after the reservation was named an Empowerment Zone by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1999 with a stated focus on youth development.

Working to improve these grim realities and illuminate the good within the community has been Thunder Valley CDC’s central goal. Tilsen founded the organization with a fundamental belief that long-term change and significant improvements can only happen when young people and other community members believe in, own and lead efforts to transform their circumstances. This belief is core to the organization’s place-based approach to development, which respects the uniqueness of Pine Ridge’s history and culture and treats the residents as the authorities on their own needs. Thunder Valley CDC’s operating principles drew the attention of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Child Well-being Program staff, whose strategy to improve the outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families includes a focus on place-based work that coordinates community stakeholders. In 2015, the program committed $1.7 million over five years to support Thunder Valley CDC in the implementation of its principles. 


“We want to support a wraparound system that lifts up the whole family,” said Tilsen. “We could create really good early childhood education for youth over here, but if we’re not also creating a pathway for them to exit childcare and enter the workforce, we end up perpetuating this dysfunctional cycle.” 

This is the basic idea behind what Tilsen refers to as Thunder Valley CDC’s “ecosystem of opportunity,” currently a set of seven initiatives that are seen as interdependent and managed holistically to improve the lives of Lakota youth and families. The ecosystem includes community development, social enterprise, Lakota language, food sovereignty, youth leadership, sustainable housing and workforce development. All of these initiatives are a result of priorities local residents identified when creating the Oglala Lakota Regional Plan in 2012. One of Thunder Valley CDC’s very first projects upon its founding in 2007 was in fact a “community mapping” event with about 30-40 participants visualizing on one large whiteboard their current conception of life at Pine Ridge and, on a second board, their idea of the future. Thunder Valley CDC organized the exercise to develop a vision for Pine Ridge that was drawn up not by one or two individuals but by a larger, more representative sample of the community.

On the first whiteboard, residents drew images of public housing, broken-down cars, wild dogs, and words, such as “alcoholism” and “sexual abuse” and “addiction.” But, children also wrote “Lakota language” and drew teepees and Sun Dance trees, an important part of a sacred ceremony in Lakota culture. Moving onto the second board, young people again drew teepees and Sun Dance trees, but with excitement added buildings with gyms and swimming pools, playgrounds, and places for families to relax and have picnics. One community elder, arms folded in the back, silenced the bustling conversation by calling out Pine Ridge’s poverty as an obstacle to what he perceived as farfetched and unrealistic fantasies. Tilsen recalled this moment as rich with potential:

“I posed the question to the group: ‘Does it cost us a penny to have a dream? Furthermore, what’s the cost if we don’t? Where are we going? Are we just going to spin our wheels?’” The conversation that followed these challenging, introspective questions ultimately led to the elders joining and drawing alongside the young people at the board, continuing to write and circle words like “family,” “elder,” “empowerment,” “identity” and “strengthening.”

“I call that moment a triumph because it was a mentality shift,” said Tilsen. “It’s really important that some of the poorest, most isolated people in this country who historically and presently are experiencing some of the grossest inequities that could possibly exist in America, are making that mind frame change. The impact that could have is massive.”

The ideas that emerged from that early meeting were incorporated into Thunder Valley CDC’s mission statement and continually materialize in the organization’s work. Thunder Valley CDC broke ground in June 2015 on the 34-acre parcel of land with $2 million of committed funding for infrastructure development. The central role that Pine Ridge Reservation community members played in Thunder Valley CDC’s regenerative plan for this land led to the project’s inclusion in the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s exhibition, “By the People: Designing a Better America.” Running in New York City from Sept. 30, 2016 through Feb. 26, 2017, the exhibition featured design projects that respond to and involve communities in an integral way.

Since the groundbreaking, Thunder Valley CDC has seen more and more great signs of progress through its deeply interrelated initiatives. Over 200 people have been involved in discussion and listening sessions for community development. Over 100 families were fed by an early iteration of a community garden and farm initiative. Over 40 families have participated in the homeownership program in preparation to buy homes either on or off the 34-acre Thunder Valley development, which is estimated to house about 1,000 residents once completed.

In addition, this past summer, Thunder Valley CDC’s youth programs employed 40 youth and involved over 200 youth and their families from across the reservation. The Youth Leadership Development Program participants completed financial literacy and professional development trainings, and visited and learned about sacred sites. They also gathered their peers through several fun, healthy community events that included basketball and mud volleyball tournaments, a summer bonfire, and glow and color runs. The Lakȟótiya Škíŋčiyapi Program, a youth athletics and wellness program centered on the teaching of Lakota values, hosted weeklong camps in basketball, football, volleyball and cheerleading. Programs such as these have provided healthy outlets for young people, sustained a general increase in physical activity among young people and have helped to combat high rates of suicide.

The success of activities such as these has caught the attention of community development corporations on other reservations, as well, and Thunder Valley CDC has been happy to share incorporation documents and lessons learned, and to engage in ongoing communications about their work. However, exact replication of Thunder Valley CDC’s specific programs and initiatives is not an ideal goal, Tilsen mentioned.

“If our model is actually exported and working, none of these communities and programs are going to look exactly as they are here. They’re going to be more and more a reflection of the places that they are and are becoming,” said Tilsen. “We’re willing to blow the whistles on ourselves and say, ‘Is this working? If it’s not working, let’s change it.’ And that’s very different from grant or financial-driven programming. It’s driven by the community.”

Indicative of the success of this model is Thunder Valley CDC’s own rapid need for expansion in order to manage the rise in activities and community involvement. The organization has gone from five full-time employees to 24 within just the past year. There is much work to be done, but the community at large is also, perhaps for the first time, optimistic about its own authority and the powerful role it plays in relationships with the outside institutions that support its goals. The community is “sharpening its arrows,” said Tilsen, to tackle its biggest problems, and to find partners who respect an equitable partnership and the long-term nature of development work.

“With community engagement and capacity-building, there is no destination. We have to be committed to this in the long haul—always doing and crafting,” Tilsen said. “We’re always on the lookout for philanthropic partners who will invest in these things for the long haul, as well.”

In a setting still healing from a history of genocide and systemic oppression and now facing new social and economic challenges in America today, Thunder Valley CDC’s work on Pine Ridge continues to reveal the vast potential of a community that claims ownership over its future. Tilsen is adamant that this mentality shift from feeling discouraged and jaded to one of feeling empowered and hopeful is “what’s fueling this work to actually happen.”

Tilsen looks forward to a future where the children of Pine Ridge will say: “I grew up feeling safe. I grew up knowing a sense of my culture, my identity, and now, today, I have purpose because of it. I have a sense of responsibility to my earth, to my community, to myself… and I can accomplish anything that I put my mind to.”