“The Original Community Organizers”

July 1, 2013
Photo credit: Daniel Yang

                                                                                                        (Photo credit: Daniel Yang )

The continued challenges that tribal nations face when it comes to protecting their sovereignty in relationship with the United States government were well illustrated recently as Congress debated reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Back in 1994, Sheila Wellstone helped lead the movement to pass the original version of the law. And in 2013, its reauthorization provided an opportunity to strengthen the law.

The Senate version of the reauthorization included language specifically designed to protect Native women from non-Native men on tribal land; but, conservatives in the House objected to that provision and threatened to derail the entire bill. Including the Senate language was a critical issue, Native women experience the nation’s highest rates of sexual and domestic violence and human trafficking and the new language would help address that profound injustice.

After tremendous public pressure, conservatives relented and allowed the Senate version to move forward. The ordeal was yet another reminder of the unique trials that Native people face when it comes to protecting progressive policy at a tribal, state, and national level.

So it was truly significant that when President Obama signed the reauthorization, standing behind him was Deborah Parker, the Vice Chair of the Tulalip Tribe and a prominent advocate for Native women. Parker had spent the previous six months as one of the most vocal proponents for the Violence Against Women Act and especially the specific language to protect Native women and children.

Deborah is part of a growing group of Native leaders who are graduates of our Native American Leadership Program (NALP). “Paul understood the importance of Native Americans being engaged and involved in electoral politics and community organizing, so it was important for us to continue that work at Wellstone Action,” explains our Director of External Affairs, Peggy Flanagan, an enrolled member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe who founded NALP.

As Paul once said:

“I am committed to improving the social, educational, and economic opportunities for American Indians, both on and off the reservation. It is essential that this country does its utmost to recognize the importance of fostering improved opportunities for all American Indians.”

Wellstone Action’s NALP program was created by, with, and for Native leaders. Our all-Native training team partners with tribes and Native organizations across the country to empower Native people and effect positive change through community-based organizing, advocacy, public policy, and nonpartisan electoral work. And our ultimate goal is to create a pipeline of American Indian leaders who will seek – and win – key leadership positions in our communities. “An intentional non-partisan civic engagement and leadership development training program for and by Native Americans didn’t exist before NALP” says Peggy, and that’s exactly what we built. “In many ways, Native folks are the original community organizers, so we created a training program that built on these inherent assets to teach about crafting a plan, being intentional about conversations, and how people should ask for what their communities deserve.”

Through NALP, we focus on Native Leadership, to expand capacity and translate indigenous organizing talents into electoral power, and collaborate with Native communities to develop a year-round approach to nonpartisan voter engagement.

It’s work that has had a tremendous impact on Native communities across the country including Washington State, New Mexico, Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. And it’s work that is empowering leaders to run and win in their communities, including Theresa Sheldon, a NALP alumna from Washington State.

“Thank you Wellstone and Peggy Flanagan for training me in grassroots organizing! It truly works! I am very thankful for the Native American Leadership Program as it was my path to success! t'igwicid - thank you!” -  Theresa Sheldon, newly elected member of the Tulalip Tribes Council.

It is the stories of alumni like Deborah and Theresa, and our growth over the past five years, that Peggy is particularly proud of, “Some folks already are doing organizing work and see a pathway for themselves into elected leadership. And at a national level, we’re partnering with the National Congress of American Indians, a clear illustration that we’ve grown our reputation as the organization that trains Native folks to do exceptional work as organizers and advocates.”

The fight to keep strong protections for Native women in the Violence Against Women Act is just the most recent example of the continued economic, social, and political struggles facing Native communities. NALP develops leaders who move forward real, viable solutions to the challenges in Indian Country, with trainings that build community power and create a pipeline of Native leaders who champion progressive change. Together, we’re strengthening Native American voices in public life – shaping policies that actually reflect the real needs and hopes of Native people and increasing the number of Native leaders who are engaged and effective in creating progressive change. Noted Peggy, “It is Native people ourselves who have the solutions to protect our people; our culture, language, tradition and way of life.” It’s work that mattered to Paul and Sheila, just as it matters to us, and we can’t wait to train the next Deborah or Theresa in the months to come.