Leech Lake: Building a Nation through Workforce Development

Deep in the Chippewa Forest in North Central Minnesota it’s hard to get online. For the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, tall, thick pines and a lack of nearby providers mean steep costs for spotty service.

“When you live in the metro, you take Internet access for granted,” Sally Fineday, a member of the tribe, says. “You don’t even realize that there are people that don’t get it and, if they do, they’ve got to pay a lot of money for service that’s not as good as the urban areas.”

And remoteness isn’t the only barrier preventing many Leech Lake band members from accessing reliable Internet services. For Fineday (pictured right), Internet access isn’t simply an issue of convenience — it’s an issue of equity.

“It’s a disparity that we have just because we live on an Indian reservation in the United States of America,” Fineday says. “Indian tribes have always had the last opportunity and that’s why, for us here at Leech Lake, 48 percent of the 10,000 people within the tribal area live below the poverty level.”

So, in 2013, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe took action.

They selected Fineday to spearhead an effort to establish the tribe’s own telecommunications company — the first of its kind in the state of Minnesota — that could provide wireless Internet service at a reasonable price. The growing company now serves more than 130 customers and Fineday is on the lookout for staff.

To keep up with fast-paced industries like telecommunications, there’s a constant need for workforce training and education. And Fineday’s not the only employer in the region looking for capable team members. That’s just one of the reasons Fineday is part of a team seeking to implement a comprehensive workforce development system to meet the needs of the Leech Lake community and the wider region.

Along with several other Leech Lake community leaders, Fineday took part in the Native Community Development Institute (NCDI) — an 18-month program created by MHP that includes peer-to-peer workshops and trainings with customized assistance from an MHP staff member. Three teams from three tribes participated in the first round of the NCDI: Red Lake, White Earth, and Leech Lake. Leech Lake formed an NCDI team to tackle workforce development, with the ultimate goal to create a comprehensive workforce development system.

NCDI participants at the September 2016 workshop

For years, workforce development has been a priority for the Leech Lake community, but attempts to coordinate siloed training initiatives have proven largely unsuccessful. So the Leech Lake team utilized NCDI to look at the big picture and develop a plan to create a more effective, efficient workforce development system in partnership with the Leech Lake tribal college, local employers, and funders in the region. Their goal is to create a system that impacts the lives of all community members — from capturing middle schoolers’ imaginations and building recent graduates’ skills sets to giving middle-aged community members the tools they need to make more of an impact with their work or begin a new career.

Patricia Broker, Education Division Director for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and NCDI team leader, hopes that the workforce development system will challenge people to see themselves in a context greater than their personal experiences and perspectives — and to understand that their work can positively impact the Leech Lake community.

“I have people here who are considered good workers if they come in at 8 a.m. and leave at 4:30 p.m.,” Broker says. “But, I’m thinking, ‘Are they growing their program? Do they have a vision? Are they doing the same old thing day after day after day in order to collect a paycheck?’ From our workforce development initiative lens, we want people to look outward, to look at the bigger picture, and ask, ‘What are the services I’m providing for this reservation, and can I do more?’”

Broker feels that a broader perspective can help people find hope and meaning in their work.

“I really would like people to understand the big picture of what this means — connecting it to our nation building,” Broker says. “People are often in survival mode, and it’s hard to attach to anything that’s bigger and broader than just getting beyond today or next week. I think if people can see the big picture — what it is that we’re trying to develop and where we want to go with this project — then I think that gives people some hope.”

Leech Lake team at the September 2016 workshop

A major accomplishment by the Leech Lake team during the course of NCDI was to map out existing trainings and connect them to the tribal departments responsible to identify gaps and opportunities for interdepartmental collaboration. According to Bill Vanderwall, MHP Community Development Manager and liaison to the Leech Lake team, the way the Leech Lake team has facilitated information-sharing between tribal departments throughout the NCDI process is a major success in and of itself.

“In the past, different departments within the tribe have kept their own information,” Vanderwall says. “Almost all [departments] are doing job training, because they have to. Now, by working together, they might be able to consolidate some of those trainings and make them better. They haven’t had a lot of history of doing that kind of thing.”

In addition to identifying programmatic needs, the Leech Lake team is further along in building a brick and mortar workforce development center: a one-stop shop that includes space for classes, hands-on training, and access to workforce development information and resources. For Broker, Fineday, and the rest of the NCDI team, the workforce development project is about more than job training and career success. Rather, they see workforce development as a way to lift up the entire Leech Lake community. According to Broker, this view is what has propelled her team forward, even as she and her team faced challenges such as changing team members and a tribal election.

“I am a dreamer, and I believe that there is potential on our reservation,” Broker says. “I know we have passionate people who look ahead and think we can do something here that is going to be nation building. For me, that’s the most exciting part.”

“This is a big project —  it’s a huge undertaking — and it’s going to have ebbs and tides,” she adds. “There are going to be those frustration points, and then there will be a big surge forward, so I just learned to expect the unexpected and stay focused on our task. But our ultimate goal is building up the Leech Lake nation. That’s going to be one of the greatest tasks ahead of us.”

While the first round of the NCDI came to a close this month, Broker says she sees the impact of her team’s NCDI takeaways continuing well into the future.

“I don’t see us ending our relationship with NCDI,” she says. “NCDI has brought in so many wonderful resources — the training we received through our sessions, the learning that has happened, and being part of a cohort and hearing what other nations are doing, has been helpful. At the end of the 18-month period, we’ve made friendships and contacts that we can continue to call on. I think it’s been an absolutely invaluable experience.”

Learn more about NCDI here!