#NEAOurTown Spotlight on Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

By Emily Perry
Four young Native American girls in casual clothing paint a mural in blue, yellow, and orange on an office wall

High school students paint a mural in the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation office.  Photo courtesy of Thunder Valley CDC.

“Our definition of placemaking grew to be engaging the community of a specific place to create pathways of opportunity for the people of that specific place to be empowered to create pathways of opportunity and prosperity. The people of that place are the people leading the process.” –- Nick Tilsen

Created for and by the Oglala Native American people, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (TVCDC) is a nonprofit, charitable organization located in the Porcupine District of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The organization strives to alleviate the poverty and housing crises on the reservation, while simultaneously strengthening the cultural and spiritual identity of Lakota youth and families.

The NEA recently granted TVCDC an Our Town grant to engage artists in the regenerative community planning process, the center point of which is called the Empowerment Center. The goal is to design and create a rally point and catalyst for change in the Pine Ridge community. TVCDC believes strongly in the central role of the community members and artists to this process.

We spoke with Executive Director and TVCDC Co-founder Nick Tilsen to learn more about the project.

NEA: How did the idea for your creative placemaking project come about initially?  

NICK TILSEN: We got to the place of understanding that, for this development to work, it's not really just about the physical development. It has to be focused on a process, an ability to empower people to become leaders in this community. We have to create a very physical place for that to happen. The centerpiece of this development, we're calling it the Empowerment Center, includes powwow grounds, a farmer's market, artist live-work spaces, a youth center, a fitness center, a workforce development training center, and a childcare center. These different components all have a relationship to one another and [form] the lens of our identity, in our case, being Lakota. That's how the project came to be, by [asking], “How do we cultivate that? How do we make that happen?”

What the NEA grant allows us to do is to continue community engagement and engagement with artists [who] are the keepers of our culture, some people call them culture bearers of our generation, to cultivate how we take this design and concept into a deeper focus. We want that to reflect in the architecture and in the planning of this awesome place we're trying to create to empower people. 

NEA: What needs of the community will this project address? 

TILSEN: [It will create] places for artists of all different forms to live and to work, a community gathering space for cultural celebrations, a place for a farmer's market, a place for artists that aren't necessarily living in the development to come sell their artwork and share it, and a place for entertainment for our people here on the reservation.

Another important part] is training and creating opportunities for the local people to engage in a variety of different types of workforce development. We want to pair up people's skills to their desires and help build their capacity. The other really important component is healthy living and healthy lifestyles. [We want to have] a place where farmers and ranchers can come and share their produce, a fitness center for people to exercise and work out all in a relationship to one another. The project addresses housing issues and poverty by creating a development that's going to create jobs and economic opportunity. It's also going to help us further package how we want to share our culture and our history through the development and different forms of art.

NEA: Can you tell me a little bit about your community partners and what role they will play in this project?

TILSEN: We're a community-based organization, and one of community partners is the First People's Fund. They're based out of Rapids City, South Dakota, but do a lot of work in the area and around building the capacity of artists. The work they do helps train the artists to take their artwork and turn it into a business and a way to provide for their families. We wanted to partner with them so that we can work with some of the artists that they have a history of working with that really are passionate about the idea of using art to transform a physical place. In this grant, they're also capacity building by using curriculums that help artists to be more effective at what they do.

Another partner is Artspace. They're nonprofit developers [who] develop workspaces for artists all over the country. We're going to work with them to try to figure out what brand of that works here. In partnership with them, we define what artist live-work spaces mean for Lakota artists living on a reservation in Indian country. We are the convener of this huge vision that the community wants to see happen, and so our idea is to bring in different partners with expertise in different areas.

Another really important aspect of this project is creating the artist advisory board so that we truly have artists participate in the process from start to finish. Their thoughts and ideas are totally incorporated into this space, and it's not an afterthought, "Oh we need to add a little culture to this. We need to add a little art to this." We've been operating entirely from the lens of our Lakota identity. A lot of the artists operate that way as well, and that translates into their artwork. We'll be working side-by-side with artists, through this advisory committee to really engage them and use their creative process and their minds to collaborate with us, to figure out this beautiful space and how it's going to help the people and reflect who we are and what we're doing. 

NEA: Why do think it's important for artists to be a part of community development projects? 

TILSEN: I think it's huge. I think that artists are the interpreters of our culture in a lot of ways--the music that we listen to, the clothes that we wear, everything that we're doing. And when we say artists, we don't just mean the traditional artist—the painter, the drawer—but people who are shaping the culture of today. Lakota culture is an ever-evolving and growing culture. It's not something that just existed 150 years ago or 200 years ago; it exists just as much today. We're also in the process of defining what that is. By engaging artists in the process, we're using the shapers of our culture, the shapers of how our culture is expressed, to help us define things like Lakota architecture and what Lakota community planning looks like.

Another thing we talk about is it's not just about engaging artists that have a craft, but we have people in our communities here that are culture bearers. They have extreme knowledge as spiritual leaders and cultural leaders, and by engaging those culture bearers and spiritual leaders in the process, we will also bring a whole other spiritual layer to how our culture and our art plays itself out in spirituality, and vice-versa. Bringing them together gives us a deeper look into what is it that we're doing here on the surface.

Lastly, in Lakota belief, we believe in symmetrical thinking. We believe that a lot of what we're doing here in the human world is what is taking place in the spiritual world. Artists, culture-bearers and spiritual leaders are the communicators of that space between those two things. That's why it’s really valuable and important for us to engage the keepers of that space. 

NEA: What do you anticipate will be the most challenging aspect of the project? 

TILSEN: I think that the most challenging aspect is always managing people's expectations. With any large development project, that’s huge. We get a bunch of people together, we do what's planned, and then after all of that, the real work starts—assembling capital, etc. So, managing expectations and keeping the momentum to make the project happen are probably our two biggest challenges in a project like this. Then, the third is getting people with capital to really believe fully in what we're doing and believe that it's possible. I think that there's plenty of money out there to make the projects happen, but you have to make people believe that it's possible. We are quickly becoming articulators of how to do that, but it's always an uphill challenge because often people do not really believe things like this can happen in extremely rural, isolated communities that have generational poverty. And they'll say, "Oh this is great, this is really beautiful, I'm glad you guys are doing this." But a lot of times, people say, "Well that's a neat little vision you have," but not really believe it all the way. So I think one of our big struggles is how do we do this in a way to make people truly believe in what we're doing, so that they invest the capital to help make it happen. 

NEA: What have you learned in the creative placemaking process?

TILSEN: The number one thing that we've learned in the process is having a commitment to community engagement and to see the process through. I'll be honest, at the beginning, we said, "We want to make this all happen! We want to create a dream, we want to create a vision, and we want to go after it, because our people deserve it, and we deserve it." Through the process, however, we also realized that if you really invest into the community engagement process that will help build the momentum that will move you toward implementation. At the beginning, we probably weren’t as patient. We wanted to see the building built tomorrow. We wanted to see the development underway now, but by struggling through the process, we learned that it helps build the momentum which helps build the momentum for capital that moves you closer to implementation. It's this continual process. Keep engaging the community in as many ways as possible as you’re doing creative placemaking so that they feel like they're really a part of it, and they feel like they're bringing value to it, and contributing to it. [It’s also important] not to have your own preconceived notions of what the end result may be before you enter the process. I have my idea and the developers have different ideas, but we're also just another seat at the table. Our specific idea is no more valuable than the next person’s. Equally and collectively, we're all extremely valuable. 

NEA: How would you define creative placemaking? 

TILSEN: We started doing placemaking before we knew it was placemaking. All the sudden these terms like 'placemaking' came out and it wasn't until I started reading other definitions of placemaking that we realized we were doing placemaking. So for us, it's been really organic. We wanted to be a creative place that was by and for Lakota people here on the Pine Ridge in the reservation to create a culture of the innovation and pathways of opportunity. Our definition of placemaking grew to be engaging the community of a specific place to create pathways of opportunity for the people of that specific place to be empowered to create pathways of opportunity and prosperity. The people of that place are the people leading the process.

NEA: How important is NEA funding to the success of your project?

TILSEN: I think that it's really, really important because most funders don't fund visioning, don't fund predevelopment, and don't fund process, but with NEA Our Town, they believe in those things. It’s a breath of fresh air to us. It's like we're speaking the same language. They see the value in this. So, it’s extremely important because they deeply value process, visioning, planning, predevelopment, and community engagement. They believe in this project as a funder. They're not funding this project because we're on an Indian reservation, and we're a bunch of poor people. They're funding the project because they believe that we're committed to process in the same way that they are. It matches up with Our Town's purpose for being created in the first place. It's extremely important to have funders and partners that feel more like collaborators we can share things with. Also, the gaining of knowledge and the process of learning between the NEA and Thunder Valley is going to be reciprocal. We're going to learn a lot from NEA by being a grantee, and I think that we actually have a lot to offer and share with the NEA and with the other grantees too. The NEA is also a credible institution that has invested into these processes and to these types of projects around the country, and the NEA funding helps attract other funders in what we're doing and other tangible things like that that really help build our capacity. That increases the importance of working with the NEA. 

NEA: Art matters because...

TILSEN: The arts matter because they are connected to our identity. 

For more stories like this, select "Creative Placemaking" from the Category pull-down menu on the right margin of the blog.