Board Voices: An unexpected transformation with Environmental Initiative as a catalyst for personal change

My home is the Leech Lake reservation. After college I said I would never leave home again. The life, the lakes, and the forest here offer everything so one can truly be Ojibwe and live all four seasons off the land. Everything I need is here, and I use my personal and professional energy to protect my home.

Early in my career as environmental-land director for Leech Lake, our tribe often reacted to decisions made by others and worked through attorneys to ensure our home was protected. I was not convinced this was the best way to operate – creating walls and barriers to protect what I loved. I grew up with a deep awareness of my differences, and I had made assumptions about others in the same ways they made assumptions about me and my people.

Fortunately, my worldview was expanded at an Environmental Initiative forum more than 10 years ago. I was invited to speak about my priorities as the environmental director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. I lacked trust in people and entities outside my Tribe but went because a colleague, Brandy Toft, encouraged me.

The forum was full of legislators, government officials, and concerned community members, and I was on a panel with a state regulator and nonprofit organization. The panel discussion and conversations that followed was so productive and with people I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to talk with otherwise. Being in the room with people who included the commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, energy company representatives, and federal elected officials was terrifying at first because I did not trust them, but throughout these conversations I realized how little many people know about Indian Country. But they were curious and wanted to know more. They asked, “How can we help? What approach do you recommend for this challenge? What do we need to know?”

Misunderstanding, from a lack of knowledge, leads to conflict. By engaging with others at this forum a door was opened, and I realized we can find solutions if we all come to the table for a conversation. Conversations are not always easy or simple. Listening to people for their perspectives is essential.

I am now in a statutory role as tribal liaison for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a position that allows me to work with others and ensure tribal nations are correctly represented and their inherit sovereignty is recognized at the decision-making table. Environmental Initiative’s ability to bring different people together to solve challenges is a model I now base my work on. I have learned that I cannot isolate myself because if I do, I’m always going to be reacting instead of working with others. It’s so much easier and more productive to pick up the phone to talk, listen, and understand.

There’s a lot of overlap in people’s views, but systems divide us. Environmental Initiative facilitates connecting people from different systems, creates a big space in the middle for deep conversations, and proves that there is power in understanding and honoring differences. After being approached about joining the Environmental Initiative Board of Directors a few years ago, I realized I was being offered another opportunity to help people like me continue to have spaces to convene and be transformed.

Environmental Initiative is open to trusting people and trying different things, including having a 30-year-old man from Leech Lake speak to a room full of strangers. Join me in supporting this work so more voices can be heard.

Board Voices is a periodic series curated around a specific topic. The 2022 Board Voices explores board member’s relationships to the organization, board tenure, and reasons to support our work.