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By LeAnn Littlewolf, Economic Development Director,
American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO)
This past year, I have often thought about when I started out as a community organizer in 1992. I was 19 years old and my daughter Teague was almost a year old. We lived in a small town, Virginia, in Northern St. Louis County in a subsidized housing project. I felt locked in public assistance and it was difficult to find any place that would hire me. I relied on work experience programs that gave a fair shot at getting hired. I started community college, knowing education was my only chance out.
In my community, we were all in it together. We swapped food, fixed meals together, and taught each other how to make it as a community. Right here, out of love for our people, we started to organize.
As a young mother, I door-knocked, organized meetings, challenged HRA and started youth programs. We established the first Native nonprofit in our city and converted a small house into our community center. We wanted a way out of poverty with opportunities to build resources for ourselves, learn, be safe, go places without fear of overt discrimination, and belong. Here, in my community, I was loved and supported. Together, we worked for change.
Now, more than ever, this work continues. Back then, we recognized we needed Indigenous solutions not just for ourselves but our whole community. Our Native approach can inform and transform our community. The answers come right from the root source of ourselves: our culture.
Today, I belong to a community working to create a vibrant Indigenous economy of healthy Native and local foods, rich arts and culture, and safe, sustainable housing. We never forget the conditions around us. We never stop seeing how our community exists right now, because economic development must be in touch with the reality of our lives. It has to be centered in community and grounded in the cultural strength we all carry.