Mel Willie is NeighborWorks America's new director of Native Partnerships and Strategy. He began this position in May 2022 to help expand NeighborWorks' investment in Tribal communities, and has spent his first six months speaking, listening and problem-solving as he's talked with representatives around the network. Willie comes to NeighborWorks with more than 23 years of experience in nonprofit management, government, political, public and intergovernmental affairs. A member of the Navajo Nation, he was born and raised on the reservation in Northeast Arizona. He now lives in Washington, D.C., where he ran a consulting firm, served as executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council and more. This month, NeighborWorks asked Willie to share some of his thoughts and strategies.
Why is this position important to you?
My past housing experience was largely focused on how tribes and tribal housing programs provided affordable housing to low and moderate-income families. However, to build vibrant tribal economies a community must have housing and homeownership strategies for middle to higher income families, or else they lose a valuable part of their community. I have witnessed this draining effect in many tribal communities where you are losing the essential middle class because homeownership opportunities on the reservation are very difficult to come by. When there is no housing to build a workforce, then you lose your professionals and you lose opportunities to build jobs.
With NeighborWorks, I saw this position not only as an opportunity to learn myself about homeownership, but to add my experience from being a practitioner on the ground at the tribal-housing level and seeing how my expertise and background culminates into the work at NeighborWorks. I have always admired the work of NeighborWorks and saw the work they were doing bringing together stakeholders. Also, the federal government has made a huge investment in Indian Country, post pandemic. We need to look at how we provide support and how we can leverage the work NeighborWorks does to support Indian Country in building up their communities.
How has your own upbringing informed your hopes and strategies for the communities you work with every day?
Having been born and raised on the reservation, I saw firsthand the housing and economic development needs in Indian Country. My father was very involved in economic and community development on the Navajo Nation. It was not uncommon for our family to have conversations at the kitchen table about things related to issues impacting our tribe, whether they were political issues or economic development.
When I was in high school, I did a research project on why there were such huge potholes on the roads that led to our house. I thought it was going to be this simple research paper. But as I started peeling away why the potholes could not be fixed on the road to our house, I realized that just that one road was caught up in all this jurisdictional red tape. They couldn't figure out if it belonged to the tribe or the county or USDA or the Navajo/Hopi relocation office. These agencies could never work together to get it fixed. I remember thinking, if that was the case, could you imagine all the other jurisdictional hassle that had to exist? That followed me. That one project influenced my way of thinking about community development in tribal communities.
What's something you've learned from your first six months at NeighborWorks?
During the time I've been here, I've learned that everyone at NeighborWorks is passionate about their work. It is a great feeling to be amongst people who love the mission and vision of the organization. However, I have also realized a great deal of work needs to be done educating our colleagues to understand Indian Country – we need a sort of “Indian Country 101” to have them understand what exists in Indian Country and some of the realities. We also need to provide education opportunities for the network, looking for organizations that should have a strong partnership with Tribal communities and seeing how we can assist them in building those partnerships. Then we need to look at our external partners and how we can support them in what they're doing, and how that can have an impact on homeownership nationwide. In addition, we need to focus on what we do best in NeighborWorks, like our training, homeownership education and capacity-building work. All of these areas can have an element of Native strategy in their overall work.
What sort of obstacles do you think we need to overcome in partnering with Tribal communities on creating wealth-building and safe and secure places to live?
I hate to use the word obstacles because I see opportunities. I think NeighborWorks has a great opportunity to broaden our view of various aspects of our work. For example, the ideas and concepts of wealth and homeownership is different in tribal communities.
For some Native people, the idea of wealth is more than just acquiring more money or financial assets; the idea of wealth is seen in many ways. The language and culture are valued more than living in a fancy house with a swimming pool. Back home, my brother stays in our community because he wants his kids to grow up with a strong identity. He values that his kids can learn the Navajo language in school and that they can spend time with their grandparents. His kids are wealthy because they have access to a strong culture that is building them to be resilient.
What does the word 'home' mean to a Native person? Its not uncommon to hear a Native person say, “well, I live in Window Rock, but my home is in Tsaile.” Some Native people have a traditional home, dwelling or space that they call home. However, they may choose to live in a modular unit closer to town so they can work.
Growing up Navajo, our home was not just a place where we lived, it was sacred place. We had often had blessings done in our home, we held ceremonies in our home, we had gatherings, and it was a place of worship. It was not fancy, but it was well-kept.
These concepts of terms like wealth and home are different to Native people, and we have an opportunity at NeighborWorks to think about these differences and how we approach Native people in the work we perform.
What's something you want people who work in this arena to understand?
People need to understand that Indian Country is diverse. There are 570+ Indian tribes across the United States, each one having its own language, culture, traditions and form of governance. There are rural tribes, urban tribes, tribes that rely on fishing rights, tribes that deal with water issues, tribes that are dealing with lack of land and development. There's no cookie-cutter solution, but it's really about the quality of partnerships you make with Tribal communities. That's where the big success lies.
What are some takeaways you can share?
There's some space in which NeighborWorks can make some great impacts. I'm excited about those spaces and how we can build upon the NeighborWorks programing to make an impact in Indian Country. I'm also really pleased with the work of Akwe:kon, the internal group that has advance the Native strategy within NeighborWorks. They've been doing phenomenal work for years and I take my hat off to the ways they've been able to organize and find a voice.
People were very pleased that NeighborWorks made a dedicated commitment to hire someone to lead their Native strategy. Other housing organizations have started to do this, too. I think this is a way we can build stronger partnerships. We can complement each other.
What are some of your goals for the year ahead?
I am working hard to get an understanding of NeighborWorks, and also getting a grip on the current trends in the tribal housing and homeownership arena. I am hoping that by the end of my first year we can have a framework for building a long-term Native strategy that helps position NeighborWorks to effectively build effective partnerships with tribal communities while also expanding the knowledge our own organization, its leadership and the staff. It's very exciting, and we have so many opportunities.