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Ecosystem of Opportunity: Lakota grassroots systems development to build Sustainable Communities and Economies

An Ecosystem of Opportunity is a system of programs that support one and another to build sustainable economies in marginalized communities.

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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional Beneficiary Feedback in this field

cover drawing Don Montileaux.

Explain your project idea in two sentences.

From our comprehensive Regional Plan, drafted with extensive community input and 23 organizations, we built programs that together infuse our region with new life while creating sustainable economies

What is your organization name? Explain your organization in one sentence.

At Thunder Valley Development Corporation, we build systems where future generations will prosper

Is this project idea new for you or your organization? If no, how much have you already executed on?

We spent eight years laying the groundwork for the Ecosystem Of Opportunity, which is now into it’s third year of implementation. Of our 7 primary programs, 6 are highly developed and functional. The Ecosystem has propelled us into our third year building a Regenerative Community Development.

What is the problem you aim to solve with this idea? How would you define this problem as urgent and a priority in your target community?

The infrastructure needed to build physical and financial systems is absent or lacking. Community scale infrastructure and planning can bring into being many physical forms as driven by the Ecosystem of Opportunity. This is urgent- lives are lost every day because of the situation we face.

What is the timeline for your project idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Over the next 3 years, we will continue to document and communicate how the programs and their models in the Ecosystem of Opportunity function. We will complete a 4 year evaluation that will provide user and organizational feedback. We will launch phase 2 of the development, including design and construction of 14 single family homes, a 12-unit Apartment Complex, Community Building and Bunkhouse, Basketball Courts, Skate Park, Playground, Park facilities Pavilion, 4 retail spaces.

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of responsibility).

Our full time staff of 55 is part of a grassroots Lakota movement, partnered with designers and architects, plus partners in academia, the 23 consortium members of our Regional Planning Initiative, Promise Zone partners, agencies at the local and federal levels, and philanthropic organizations.

What do you need the most support with in this project idea?

  • Exposure

What is your primary goal over the next 6 weeks of Refinement?

  • Get feedback from experts

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) results for this project?

We are in the midst of a four year evaluation that provides feedback through the operation itself into the spheres of influence. We use customized forms, that document knowledge growth, habitat change, change in health and well-being, funding acceptances, collaborations, goal achievement, and more. We plan to develop a set of guidelines over the next two years for the design process and material choices of the development to ensure community engagement and sustainable building.

How has your project proposal changed due to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase?

This phase has pushed us to dive deeper into how our program areas function. Creating maps, and breaking down the processes within our programs to identify mechanisms that function uniquely, has re-invigorated our creative process and inspired a new round of innovation around user feedback. The feedback has itself helped us identify areas in which our programs can improve.

(Optional) What are some of your still unanswered questions or concerns about this idea?

Building sustainable housing systems can be more expensive than traditional building practices- sustainable design pays off over time (true costs). This creates challenges for TVCDC in that we must convince funders, including our partners at federal agencies, that the guidelines they have used for funding for decades are not adequate for building a sustainable future. We need partners that can help further aim, to help communities rebuild themselves using sustainable net-zero models.

During this Improve Phase, please use the space below to add any additional information to your proposal.

At this time, Thunder Valley is working with 3 other CDC’s on other reservations providing mentoring, technical assistance, and limited capacity. At this time, we do not always have operational capacity to answer all the inquiries that come our way. Our founding Executive Director, Nick Tilsen, devotes endless hours, day and night, sharing insights and mentoring other tribes and organizations. We see a cultural shift as occurring without ethnocentricity, as there is certainly a spontaneous renaissance of sorts happening in social innovation and in financial innovation- our financial partners are, to use a Lakota term, “allies”. At Thunder Valley, we emphasize the importance of place based initiatives and that people most impacted by the effects of colonialism be the drivers of change, and ultimately the innovators. Power must be restored to those most impacted by empires of any kind- be they corporate or political. As we plan for a more sustainable future, geographic communities and whole regions must consider their resources and socio-political-collaborative-capacity holistically and comprehensively.

Note that you may also edit any of your previous answers within the proposal. Here is a great place to note any big final changes or iterations you have made to your proposal below:

We have made a concerted effort to re-tell our story. A perpetual challenge we face, is communicating how a whole ecosystem works in a limited space. We do not have a linear problem-solution model. Our impacts are often realized in almost mysterious ways as the ecosystem as a whole, and it’s potential, is bigger than any one program. The big iteration we have discovered, is we must improve our ability to tell our story in simple terms, and that’s a big challenge, but there’s a lot of potential we can harness if we can improve and incorporate the lessons learned from this process including mapping user’s experiences and incorporating more targeted feedback. Pilamaye! (Thankyou)

We are a grassroots organization that emerged from a youth movement and cultural revival within the Oglala Lakota nation.  Just over ten years ago, just before our organization came into being,a group of young Lakotas stood by a fire;  there was a lot of frustration, and much to blame for the world into which we were born.   In a ceremony, a challenge was put forth by our ancestors:   “How long are you going to let other people decide the future for your children?  Are you not warriors?  It’s time to stop talking and start doing.  Don’t come from a place of fear, come from a place of hope.”    

The living conditions on reservations today can be described as, by in large, resulting from to the Dawes Act, which fragmented land once held in common. With most of our land held in trust by the Federal Government, or leased to ranchers, access to land or its equity, is greatly diminished.  Many indigenous people (like other disenfranchised communities) lack a vehicle to participate in an economy based on access to capital; this results in a cascading series of systemic failures. There are no homes for sale on our reservation — we need 4,000 immediately. The climate is changing, and current building practices and energy use are unsustainable; our resources, including the Missouri River, are vulnerable.

We are a sovereign people navigating a challenging web of a political and economic systems that were superimposed on our sustainable and holistic way of life.  We are isolated geographically and economically.  Therefore, there is no one solution that will transform the world we live in, lacking infrastructure, basic services, housing, and operational capacity for regional planning- we had to find a way to address all these considerations.  As our founding Executive Director Nick Tilsen said: “We must envision solutions as big as the problems we face.”  We could try to save our language, stop suicides, or create jobs, but we realized, with a holistic approach, we could develop a comprehensive strategy to change all these things and much, much, more.

In response, we launched a Sustainable Regional Planning Process (funded by the HUD Sustainable Communities), where we could initiate comprehensive regional planning for economic development, including land use, language and education, health and wellness, and transportation.  From the Regional Plan, a the cluster of programs was inspired that became Thunder Valley’s Ecosystem of Opportunity.  From the Regional Plan, and Thunder Valley’s Ecosystem of Opportunity together, came the dream of our 34 acre Regenerative Community Development.  That dream is becoming a reality as the first phase in the development nears completion.

The Ecosystem of Opportunity is a result of at least ten thousand years of systems thinking.  It  rejects the reductionist conceptions of life (or problems) existing in a vacuum.  We see our lives as being intrinsically dependent on, and connected to, the multiple generations before us, and after us.  You could say, we have a duty to them and a responsibility for their future.  

Explain your idea

An Ecosystem of Opportunity is a system of programs that support one and another to build sustainable economies in impoverished Communities. The concept of relationships, be they partners or programs is essential to the Lakota worldview. Our systems approach model begins with the simple process: Listen-Do-Learn-Share. As concepts, the alleviation of poverty and the pursuit of sustainability depend on one and other, thus we have created programming in Youth, Food, Lakota Language, Housing, Workforce Development and Social Enterprise. Together these programs and their related projects comprise the Ecosystem of Opportunity. We are known best for our 34 acre Regenerative Community Development, currently under construction, but this success is a manifestation of the Ecosystem our people have built from the ground up. We strategically plan, pilot and build programs to drive mutual support, creating a thriving ecosystem that is more powerful than any single component. For example, our Workforce Development Program builds the houses that are in part funded by a future homeowner’s sweat equity subsidies, that have been produced through our Sustainable Home Ownership Project consortium — a group of partner organizations we convened to shape and streamline a system that assists future home-buyers. It all fits and grows, together; it is all very complicated and yet very simple.. Our projects become vehicles for people to transform themselves and their lives as we are guided by our culture to build hope and power. Each project in the Ecosystem of Opportunity becomes a shared learning lab that creates toolkits to provide resources for developing culturally and environmentally responsive initiatives elsewhere. For example, in 2014, with our partners we launched a Lakota Food System Assessment, which resulted in a demonstration space for our youth programs and community members. With our one unit of production Demonstration Farm, our Lakota Food Sovereignty Coalition, and our dispersed and varied community gardens, we have created models that are driving similar projects in new Community Development Corporations elsewhere. As we gauthier people, build partnerships, identify programming and project opportunities, we facilitate (by demonstrating success and through advocacy) a new framework through which governments, philanthropy, and tribes themselves, convene to address socio-economic conditions. This results in a radical new cross-sector economy. Our Regional Equity Initiative, which scales the model, has resulted in part with the designation of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as a Promise Zone which propels the work of our Regional Plan 23 member consortium. The Promise Zone Designation, in combination with the Regional Sustainability Plan, have leveraged at least $40 M in regional investment in the last 10 years.

Who Benefits?

The effect of the Ecosystem of Opportunity will directly impact 1000-2000 persons living in our 34 acre regenerative development amid a population of 30,000 on our reservation. Because we have grown substantially, we launched a four year evaluation that provides feedback through the operation itself into the multiple spheres of influence. Scaling our model can impact earth’s inheritors everywhere. Imagine people building sustainable communities that are representations of environmentally responsive cultures. Reconnecting people and ecosystems may be the only counterbalance to the rampant individualized exploitation that perpetuates all degradation. By building a Regenerative Community at ground zero for poverty in America, we are establishing a powerful precedent. With our working model, we have developed durable partnerships that produce long term cross-sector funding strategies that transcend markets; the programs we incubate become Ecosystems of Opportunity in other regions

How is your idea unique?

We differ from others because we emanate from a culture that has always viewed the world in interdependent systems; we take a comprehensive and relational approach to innovation and system building. We believe even where we choose to limit our programming, we must build programs that contribute to a regional strategy. Because developers are often outsiders, we are perhaps the most unconventional developer in the world. We do not exist to build for profit (with consideration for communities). Because we be believe in a place-based initiatives, we help communities rebuild themselves; the models and resources we pilot breathe life into local economies. Because we are community led, we have prioritized building capacity from within. We have not been so fortunate as to be located geographically near a major economic center. Funding our project has forced us to challenge assumptions about the role of rural America in the continent’s future and build durable partnerships across r

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Tell us more about you

Our operations are based in the place our ancestors called “Thunder Valley,” in southwestern South Dakota. We are transforming our built environment and our economy, but we convene nationally and partner in multiple sectors and fields, especially in multiple shared learning communities (including this one). From grass-roots community level outreach, to alliances with federal agencies and philanthropy, TVCDC has been an effective thought leader shaping the scope, scale and functionality of partnerships to drive empowerment for traditionally marginalized groups. Some would say Thunder Valley started with founding director, fourth generation organizer Nick Tilsen, but we know the the cultural teachings that emphasize the power of interdependence have been passed down through great sacrifice. In addition to the partnerships Nick has forged with tribal governments, Nick is an Ashoka and Rockefeller fellow, serving as a board member and consultant to multiple organizations and shared learning communities, focusing on philanthropic and economic development, child wellbeing and health (Ashoka Change-makers and National Academies of Science/Engineering/Medicine), design (Artplace America), and Indigenous Environmental Organizing, and much more. The word Lakota, means “allies”. Our essential partners at BNIM and Pyatt Studio have spearheaded the design process from the Regional Plan and its 23 consortium members (including the Oglala Sioux Tribe), to broaden the range perspectives and build our network. We have been featured by, or partnered directly with organizations as diverse as the Buckminster Fuller Institute, Cooper-Hewitt, Policy-Link and the Democracy Collaborative. One emerging partner, who is helping us meet our Net Zero energy goals, is progressive financier Solar Mosaic, whose innovative funding models are making solar accessible to new markets. With TVCDC, Solar Mosaic convened multiple solar resources including Sunpower and Genpro Energy to help install our first 26 kW solar system. With 5 megawatts planned over the next 7-8 years, partnerships like this demonstrate that together we will make the energy revolution inevitable. We have partnered with many academic institutions, organizations, associations, and finance innovators across the country that have contributed to our comprehensive strategic planning that merges Lakota culture with a pragmatic approach to design. We are perpetually developing durable partnerships that continue to build the Ecosystem of Opportunity through social entrepreneurship. TVCDC recognized early in its financial strategic planning process, that a diverse funding portfolio would be essential to build a robust ecosystem. The choices we made specifically regarding debt, reflect our priorities as developers in so far as we believe creating equity for home-buyers is essential to empowerment. To date, our work has been funded through over 50 different federal and philanthropic grants.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


Join the conversation:

Photo of eldy wullur

Dressing up, developing and coping with the potential of the existing natural resources will surely be of tremendous power ... this is also what our community is striving for .. salute for you

Photo of David Stephens

i totally agree with you, Eldy. I would also suggest that we need to address the adoption issue. I recently published an article on LinkedIn that speaks to the adoption issue regarding Internet but applies to almost anything we try to do to help others. Seems like we always try to solve the issues by looking at tings from the birds eye view when we perhaps should be looking from the worms eye view. See:

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