Nick Tilsen (Center) with employees accepting award in Claremont California March 24, 2018
The Social Impact Award aims to shine a spotlight on changemakers that are making a difference in their community and society through their work. Claremont University’s Social Impact Award honors people from businesses, social enterprise organizations, nonprofits or volunteers that are making a significant impact on communities in our nation. The university honors individuals that have made significant outreach efforts that serve to uplift the community, specifically by promoting strong principles, ethical leadership and integrity. Candidates are chosen from Ashoka Changemaker Fellowship directory.
We are proud to announce Nick Tilsen, Executive Director of Thunder Valley CDC as the 2018 Social Impact Award honoree.
Nick Tilsen comes from a family of changemakers. His mother is Lakota from Pine Ridge and his father is from Minneapolis. Both of his parents were entrepreneurs and activists who spent much of their lives fighting for environmental and indigenous rights on the reservation. His mother and father founded the first Native American-owned and operated public radio station in America. His mother won a Goldman Environmental Prize for her work resisting munitions testing in the sacred Black Hills. His grandfather, meanwhile, was a lawyer and activist who played a key role during the Wounded Knee siege in 1973 in bringing justice after police force brutality against Native Americans. He credits all of them for having a profound impact on his desire to create change in the world.
When Nick was just a toddler he and his family were tear gassed during a protest for Native American political prisoners at the gates of the Sioux Falls State Prison – one of his earliest memories and one he often cites as influencing his life choices. After finishing high school in Stillwater, Minnesota, Nick moved back to Pine Ridge where he has lived ever since. As an 18-year-old, while working for an NGO called Odyssey U.S., he traveled across the United States researching and writing about American Indian history through the eyes of the people rather than the government. He met dozens of community leaders across 30 states and came to recognize the important of local action and local ownership as the only true path forward for his tribe. When he returned to Pine Ridge he co-founded the Lakota Action Network to organize tribal members to protect sacred land from a planned shooting range. He began to think of himself as an enabler of other changemakers.
Spotlight on Social Impact
Nick Tilsen founded the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota to cultivate a new generation of American Indian leaders and unravel the systems that perpetuate poverty on Indian land. In some of the poorest parts of country, he is confronting the culture of dependency and dysfunction left over from generations of failed policy and failed leadership, and transforming disillusioned youth into community leaders and changemakers. Nick and his team actively work with tribes around the nation, as well as the many federal agencies with responsibility over tribal land, to embed a new framework of economic and social progress that is defined by entrepreneurship rather than social services.
Unlike most of rural America, the young population on Indian land is booming -- nearly half the residents on Pine Ridge, for example, are under 30. They represent a potent energy that until now has been disconnected from tribal affairs, governance, and development. Yet huge numbers of them don’t even have jobs. Nick’s central innovation is to give tribal youth avenues of various kinds to be changemakers in their communities. He describes the process as giving young people a series of victories – however small – to replace the pattern of letdowns and the culture of cynicism they’re currently immersed in. It all begins with cultural revitalization: engage young people in the spiritual and reflection circles of their ancestors, and bring back to life traditions and practices that in some cases have been dormant for more than a generation. This process heals, builds community, and generates a renewed sense of cultural identity. Importantly, it also fosters responsibility, which rarely takes root in an environment of alcohol, drugs, and gangs. Nick and his team then channel that responsibility into social and economic development projects of all kinds, from affordable green housing to health and wellness campaigns to innovative workforce development programs and community wealth building strategies.