Connecting with Local CDFIs: Coalition Chair Visits Native CDFIs

By James R. Klein, CDFI Coalition Chair

“Not knowing when the dawn will come I open every door.” ― Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s quote points out a fairly well known principle that is oft forgotten, or at least overlooked. We miss a lot of good things by not attempting to do them. As Chair of the CDFI Coalition Board, I’ve taken this little life lesson to heart and applied it to my limited time in office. My opportunity to connect with local CDFIs, which are the basic element of the CDFI concept, is not something I’m willing to overlook.

My first visits were as a result of the 2016 CDFI Institute, held in March in DC, where there was a presentation of Native CDFIs and their work around the country.  The follow-up conversations resulted in invitations from Ted Piccolo, Director of Northwest Native Development Fund in Nespelem, WA, and Tanya Fiddler, Director of the Native CDFI Network based in Rapid City, SD. My visits to Coulee Dam and South Dakota made me feel welcome on arrival and better informed when I left.

2016-07-18 15.46.05Northwest Native Development Fund (NNDF) is a CDFI focused on helping individuals create and build assets, such as housing and small businesses. Their work also involves training, small business assistance, and helping make connections with state and local agencies.  NNDF serves the Colville Indian Reservation, Spokane Indian Reservation, and Kalispell Indian Reservation tribal members and descendants, as well as those employed by area tribes. My conversation with staff reinforced my admiration for local people whose diligence, persistence, and passion is the backbone of our industry.

South Dakota is the home of nine reservations, and Tanya Fiddler comes to her role as Executive Director of the Native CDFI Network through the challenges of development in these local communities. Formerly, the Director of Four Bands CDFI in Eagle Butte, SD, Tanya has the understanding and unction to move the needle of public policy, local ambivalence, and cultural reticence.

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Art is an important piece of Native life. On the left is an award given to NNDF for Native Art. On the right is art out of South Dakota Native community.

2016-07-18 15.43.04Both of these CDFIs are doing something that is both basic and profoundly critical, not only in Native communities, but also in any unstable economy, low-income neighborhood, or disadvantaged enclave in the nation—and, indeed, in the world.  They are creating systems that allow for the building of wealth and, more specifically, individual wealth. Individual wealth stabilizes local economic systems, because it is transferable to the next generation. This work is local and it is systemic.

For far too long, we have focused almost exclusively on the symptoms of these dysfunctional systems and spent billions upon billions of dollars to alleviate their impact. But as those dollars move away, because of political will or economic volatility, the symptoms return with a vengeance. Expecting that doing away with the symptoms will change the systems that cause them is not wisdom, it is “wishdom”. This phrase was coined by Gardiner Morse in a Harvard Business Review article “Bottom-Up-Economics” (August 2003). Morse talks about the Bottom of the Pyramid and its relevance in the stabilization and strengthening of local economies/communities.  It is not good enough to rely on public-sector intervention or investment, because it is almost exclusively pointed at the symptoms. These Native CDFIs, as well as their non-Native counterparts, is the type of model to which Mr. Morse is eluding. There is overwhelming evidence that investment in local communities, and specifically local entrepreneurs and small business, is the most effective approach to the viability of local areas.

The challenge in Native communities is exacerbated by the diversity of the communities. Issues of tribal ownership of land and assets, varying forms of tribal governance, levels of support for basic development efforts, levels of collaboration between native and non-native institutions, and simply doing things differently, makes the work even more challenging. It is my intent to do some follow-up on what is actually happening on the ground in these communities at another time.

“A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.” ― Francis Bacon