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Indian country ahead of the times

Washington, D.C. seems to be taking an interest in grassroots Native economic development lately. Last week, Oweesta staff testified at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives and participated in a discussion hosted by the Obama administration at the White House. In both cases, Oweesta was able to serve as the voice for Native people and advocate for policies favorable to building assets in our villages and communities. I think the federal government may be realizing that our holistic and integrated approach to community development really works to create permanent change. Considering the current state of the economy, our model for economic development might be just what the rest of the nation needs.

On March 9, Tanya Fiddler, Oweesta’s vice president of programs and operations, provided testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services at a hearing entitled, “Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs): Their Unique Role and Challenges Serving Lower-Income, Underserved and Minority Communities.” Along with other select community development practitioners from across the nation, Tanya was able to offer a unique perspective on the role Native CDFIs have in transforming their local economies. She shared her first-hand experience of how Native CDFIs enable tribal members to build stronger, more self-sufficient communities and develop local economies – where there once was none – from a grassroots level.

Later in the week, on March 11, Tanya and Vickie Oldman-John, Oweesta’s director of financial education and asset building, attended a key listening session on financial capability hosted by the Obama administration at the White House. The administration is currently working to ensure that every American – including First Americans – have the financial knowledge, skills and access they need to take control of their financial futures. This session was designed to gather comments and feedback from the financial education field regarding challenges surrounding financial literacy and strategies for possible solutions. With nearly a decade of experience in establishing Native financial education programs across the nation, Oweesta was able to provide valuable input at this forum to help inform the administration’s policy moving forward.

CDFIs and the services they provide, such as financial education, play an important role in developing sustainable economies. CDFIs are different than traditional mainstream financial institutions because they not only provide access to funding, but they also provide training and education to help their clients create and manage their assets, ultimately providing lasting change in their communities.

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Imagine if all victims of predatory lenders – like the tax refund anticipation lenders that seem to be on every corner now – had completed a personal financial education course prior to signing their tax refund papers. Those tribal members would have each saved hundreds of dollars in unnecessary fees. With more knowledge about their refund anticipation loan terms, they may have been able to avoid unscrupulous fees and taken more money home to support their families.

It is for an “integrated” approach to asset building – combining financial education with saving and borrowing – that Indian country might be ahead of the times when it comes to economic and community development. While Native CDFIs provide opportunity in the form of access to funding, it is the other support services they offer (such as personal financial education, small business training, or homebuyer education) that ensure the opportunity has a lasting and positive effect. Personal financial knowledge not only ensures the economic well-being of individuals but it also provides a stable foundation for overall community growth. This stable foundation is what our country really needs right now.

Even as the rest of the country is mired in an economic crisis, Oweesta continues to see clients of Native CDFIs transforming their lives by making informed decisions that ensure their financial well-being. They enroll in personal financial education classes, complete small business training courses, and use this knowledge along with appropriate funding to build a successful business that not only provides for their family but for the families of their employees. Or they may have a dream of becoming a homeowner, so they take advantage of homeowner preparedness classes then take out a mortgage loan. Other community members see this and take advantage of the same products and services, contributing to the strength of the local economy.

For once, mainstream America may be looking to Native communities for help and guidance. The integrated asset building approach utilized by many Native communities throughout the country is becoming known as a solution for permanent and sustainable economic change.

Tracey Fischer, a licensed attorney and member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, is the president and chief executive officer of First Nations Oweesta Corporation based in Rapid City, S.D. Oweesta assists with the establishment of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and financial education and asset building programs in Native communities throughout the United States. Additionally, Oweesta works with Native communities to strengthen entrepreneurship environments. Tracey obtained her law degree from Yale Law School. She also has a B.S. in business administration and accounting.