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The Ladder

A Blog from New America's Asset Building Program

Building Assets & Wealth among Native Americans: Part Two, Opportunities in Urban Areas

Published:  November 15, 2012
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This blog post is part two in a two-part series on building assets and wealth among Native Americans as a means to advance financial stability in low-income communities around the country. The first part is available here. The blogs describe how and why the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) supports nonprofits in their efforts to reduce poverty and achieve sustainable prosperity in eight states across the upper Midwest and Pacific Northwest. The blogs are authored by Kevin Walker, CEO and President.

On one of the most storied streets in urban Native America, you can see a dynamic future taking shape. Colorful banners along Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis proclaim the only Native American urban business district in the country. Established in 2010, the American Indian Cultural Corridor features five Native-owned businesses, including a tribally owned bank. The Corridor, reminiscent of New York’s Little Italy or San Francisco’s Chinatown, spans a half mile of a previously crime-ridden, poverty-stricken neighborhood. Culturally relevant concepts and programs, rooted in the community, are making it possible for residents to build their assets by opening businesses, developing job skills, and owning a home.

The Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) is galvanizing partnerships to drive this change. The catalyst is the American Indian Community Blueprint, a vision framework for business and community development along the Cultural Corridor. Our Foundation and several other funders have supported this work, but the critical factor has been the people of the Franklin Avenue neighborhood themselves.

Andy Hestness, interim president of NACDI, describes the work of the partnership: “The community articulated a vision of what was possible and came up with a plan to build a successful Native retail center near the city’s light-rail system. NACDI has since designed a website, created a map, completed street beautification and promoted the district as a unique cultural destination for retail.”

It’s been a multi-sector approach including Native American community development organizations, nonprofits, neighborhood groups, philanthropy, and city and county leaders. The result has been a mix of Native, non-Native, local, and national retailers, all bringing new jobs. The partnership is planning to expand small business opportunities by creating a pedestrian mall and Cultural Corridor gateway near the light-rail station that will feature food carts and retail tents. The idea is to lower barriers to entrepreneurship.

“It’s easier to start someone out in a tent and then build the business to the point where it could sustain a brick and mortar building with a lease,” Andy Hestness says.

Such asset and wealth building work is being re-established within the Native American community, returning to a tradition of self-sufficiency and innovation. Little Earth of United Tribes, a Native-preference public housing complex also in Minneapolis, recently introduced a homeownership program anchored within the cultural value of caring for family needs. Little Earth is developing a public-private partnership with the City of Minneapolis to acquire land and build and rehab homes while working to prequalify prospective buyers.

Bill Ziegler, president and CEO of Little Earth, says, “Native people are used to the concept of community ownership. We showed them they could own a home and build individual wealth without turning their backs on the community.”

Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, Ore., also found more interest in its homeownership program when it starting talking about it in terms of the cultural value of stability. Since then, Matthew Morton, executive director of NAYA, says the program has really taken off: “We explained they could have a place to congregate and open up to other family members. We’ve had 115 people purchase homes in the past few years during one of the most challenging times for homebuyers. We have not had one foreclosure.”

Both NAYA and Little Earth take a holistic approach to preparing community members for building personal assets. Both organizations encourage expanded job skills, financial management, and education as a pathway to homeownership and family self-sufficiency. Little Earth offers a college preparation program that has grown substantially in just the past year, as well as apprentice-style job training in which people develop skills through volunteer work.

“By volunteering, they can learn which careers interest them. We’ve had a number of success stories in which our volunteers have either gone on to paid positions or to college to further their skills,” Ziegler tells us.

We at Northwest Area Foundation welcome the chance to support these organizations in their cutting-edge work to overcome poverty and foster lasting prosperity. Their community-centered approaches hold great promise, and we are honored to participate in their journey.

For more information on the Northwest Area Foundation and its work with Native American communities, please visit www.nwaf.org.

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