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Madelyn Lazorchak, Communications Writer03/26/2021

When she needs inspiration, Chrystel Cornelius looks to her grandmother. A member of the tribal nation of The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Mary Cornelius was the victim of assimilation, sent to boarding school to learn to be someone else's idea of "American."But after she graduated, she became a founder of the American Indian Movement, a civil rights organization.

Mary Cornelius also helped her tribe file a lawsuit against the federal government, which had forced the Chippewa of North Dakota to cede their land around the Red River Valley in the 1860s for 10 cents an acre. The going rate had been more than a dollar. Native Americans still refer to it, disdainfully, as the "Ten-Cent Treaty."

Chrystel Cornelius smiles at the camera. She is wearing a red jacket.Cornelius recalls stories of her grandmother's trips to Washington, D.C., where she searched for documentation in the Library of Congress to help the tribe in its suit – something only sovereign tribes could levy. Filed in the 1950s, the lawsuit took 40 years to settle, but other tribes used it as precedent. 
Her grandmother's history helped Cornelius, now chief executive officer at Oweesta Corporation, created to provide opportunities for Native people to develop financial assets and create wealth, understand the American Indian Movement. "She was one of the strongest, driving forces of mentorship in my life,"Cornelius says. "She was an example of what's possible for Native women to do. Looking at what leadership could be, I didn't have to look too far. Leadership wasn't a glass ceiling because I saw my grandmother do it each and every day.”

During Women's History Month, a time to celebrate and study the vital role of women in American history, it is important to highlight innovators in the NeighborWorks network and partnering organizations who help strengthen communities and who, like Chrystel Cornelius, work to make those communities visible.

A way to build wealth

Cornelius was raised on the reservation in rural North Dakota, two and a half hours from major stores or banks. The reservation is one of the smallest and most condensed in the country, she says – 35,000 people on or adjacent to land that stretches only six miles by 12 miles. The area is also designated a USDA persistent poverty area, meaning at least 20% of the people have lived in poverty for 30 years or more. "We've been in that status since colonization began.”

Cornelius always knew she would dedicate her life to the service of Native communities. In college, she thought about law and engineering. But she began working as a tribal planner, the economic development arm for her tribe, writing grants, developing strategic plans and finding resources for everything from nursing homes to wind-energy development. It was a good fit, and she switched her degree to business management, working and attending school while also raising four children. 

A buffalo is the emblem for Oweesta. This one is silhouetted.Noting the need for fair loans and wealth building, Cornelius later left tribal planning to start Turtle Mountain CDFI, the first nonprofit on her reservation and a way to provide loans to Native people who were too often victims of predatory lending. "It was the first time my tribal community ever had financial literacy provided in a cultural context,"she says. She hadn't set out to be a Native woman CEO. "But through the course of developing programs and looking at the gaps in my own tribal community, my career led me to the path of leadership. The Creator put a lot of opportunities in my path. But essentially, leadership was born out of the necessity of wanting to provide my people the opportunities that the rest of mainstream America enjoys.”

Eight years after starting the CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution), Cornelius joined Oweesta as director of lending, contracts and quality and control. When the CEO left six months later, she applied for the position, which she's held for the past 10 years.

This year, Oweesta, one of NeighborWorks' longstanding partners, is 21 years old. Cornelius calls it "the mothership of Native CDFIs,"and when she joined the staff, her goal was to continue providing access to capital and community wealth building for Native people. The organization's success, she says, is tied to the local Native CDFIs throughout the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. It's also tied to the staff, whose praises she often sings.The staff together, pre-COVID.

When Oweesta started, there were only two certified CDFIs in the United States serving Native people: Oweesta and Lakota Funds, also a NeighborWorks partner. Now, there are 69 certified CDFIs, and Cornelius' organization is working with 25 emerging CDFIs.

"For the first time since colonization, we have culturally relevant financial institutions that afford financial responsibility, that … let people take control of their financial lives and their futures,"Cornelius says. In the U.S., there are 572 recognized tribes; each has its own diverse economy. The CDFIs are making a tremendous difference, especially in rural areas, where 80% of the tribes can be found. 

"When we started our CDFI, before that, there was no opportunity to fix your credit, to understand what that meant. There were no opportunities to get a loan to open a small business or get down payment assistance on a house."The tribal members themselves didn't believe they could attain those things. 

COVID-19 has hit tribal nations hard. To help offset the impact, Oweesta has set aside a $22 million capital pool to allow Native CDFIs to receive larger amounts of loan capital to help with housing and lending needs exacerbated by the pandemic. The organization will deploy loans between half a million and $1.2 million to organizations that meet underwriting criteria. Cornelius expects more than 20 Native CDFIs to access the funding, which will go directly into their communities.

Oweesta had started working on a plan to help Native CDFIs before COVID, but the pandemic made the necessity even greater. The COVID-19 Disaster and Recovery Fund is fully capitalized; Oweesta expects to disburse the first $10 million by the end of June. 

Chrystel Cornelius talks with a man in full headdress.Another project has been supporting Native CDFIs in becoming HUD-certified housing counseling agencies. Krystal Langholz, chief operating officer for Oweesta, says the effort will allow the CDFIs take advantage of funding set aside for housing counseling agencies, which will in turn help Native communities that have been underrepresented when it comes to housing needs. They've spent the last two years preparing 10 organizations – nine CDFIs and one nonprofit – for certification and are in the midst of applying for HUD approval. Training from NeighborWorks helped prepare counselors for the HUD exam, including an in-person training, held just before the pandemic shut everything down.

Empowering staff

Langholz says Cornelius is an authentic leader who values her team, making sure everyone feels empowered in their roles. "It's never about her,"Langholz says. "It's always about the communities we serve. We operate in a space where everybody's voice matters." Cornelius comes from the communities Oweesta serves, and never loses that frame of reference. "She sees our mission very clearly because she's always connecting it with her experience, working in her own community.”

COO Krystal Langholz at the microphone.
Employee turnover at Oweesta is low. Langholz says part of the reason is the family-friendly culture Cornelius created. "I brought my babies into the office and took them on the road with me when I traveled," she says, something that is appropriate and acceptable in indigenous communities. "There are pictures of me at a microphone with my daughter trying to grab it out of my hand."This is something that Chrystel is really intentional about – creating a space for the team to be mothers and fathers and care for extended family.

While her staff makes leadership easier, one of the biggest tests of leadership, Cornelius says, has been outside the organization, fighting against invisibility. Native Americans still experience racism, classicism and the ills faced by other minority groups. But they're less often mentioned in the halls of Congress or the streets outside. She often finds herself standing alone, "one representative for 1.7 million people to say Native people are still here."Her goal is to make that clear. As a woman, she says, she has to work 10 times harder and be 10 times smarter, "just to prove myself or my organization. But it's only when we make an effort to educate individuals that we end up being seen." Chrystel Cornelius takes a conference call while holding Langholz's new baby.

In Native-run organizations, it isn't rare to see a woman in charge. Of the Native CDFIs she works with, 90% have women as CEOs, Cornelius says. (For comparison, in small nonprofits, the number hovers around 50%, but as organizations grow, the number decreases.) Cornelius says she's found it easy to work with Native organizations, steeped in matriarchal tradition. It's when she gets outside of Native communities that she has to break through doors to be seen, and to make sure her community is seen. 

To Cornelius, leadership means making everyone around her the best they can possibly be. It's having the willingness to listen to all constituencies. "It's a great honor and responsibility,"she says. "I think really good leaders are willing to work in the dirt as well as give directives, and when you can find a balance between those two, that's what pulls a mission forward; that's what pulls organizations forward.”

Links: Historical links, Oweesta,

Tags: Community leadership, COVID-19, financial health, minority homeownership, nonprofit management and funding, Colorado, western region


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