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Meeks to become S.D. director of rural development

LAS VEGAS – Elsie Meeks is poised to become the next USDA director of rural development for South Dakota.

Meeks, the president/CEO of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, was tapped by South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, for the appointment in President Barack Obama’s administration.

It was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“I actually was very shocked when he called me, and scared, and thought, I don’t know if I can do this, but it’s not something you say no to,” Meeks said. “I couldn’t say no. It means somebody has a lot of faith in you and to say no would be the wrong thing to do and I’d never get this opportunity again, if I said no. And the other thing is; I’m ready to work in my state more.”

An enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, Meeks brings more than 20 years experience working for Native community economic development to the appointment.

For the past nine years, she has led Oweesta, a certified Native Community Development Financial Institution intermediary, providing Native communities with loans, investments, technical assistance, training and community development information.

Earlier in her career, she spent 20 years in the development and management of the Lakota Funds, a small business and microenterprise development loan fund CDFI on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Meeks is chairperson of The Lakota Funds and a board member of Corporation for Enterprise Development, Northwest Area Foundation, Council on Foundations and the Oglala Sioux Tribe Partnership for Housing.

She is an international advisory council member of Native Nations Institute and on the board of governors for the Honoring Nations program of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and present chairperson for the Native Financial Education Coalition, for which Oweesta serves as lead organization.

She and her husband Jim live on their ranch near Kyle, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Meeks will be the first woman – the first Native woman – to fill the post of director of rural development.

“For South Dakota, rural development is just about the only funding that’s available. It’s a big deal not only for the nine tribes in South Dakota, but for all the rural communities.” she said.

Meeks said she’s not sure what her daily routine will look like, but anticipates traveling the state and meeting with tribal and community leaders will be a component of the job.

“It’s really a position that sets the tone for the kind of development that will get done and the direction it will go in. For instance, under the Clinton administration, the state director at that time was a really great guy who cared a lot about all the rural communities, but in particular the reservations, which are the poorest and need the most development and his direction to his staff was, ‘We will figure out how to make projects work on reservations.’”

Rural development provides a number of funding opportunities for the state.

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“And it’s the will of the leadership whether deals actually get done in those communities. The former director said they were going to work with the tribes. In the past eight years, very little has happened. The tribes have been very unhappy with (the office of) rural development,” Meeks said.

That’s about to change.

“My job will really be to open up doors to the tribes. My job is also working with the other communities as well, and I take that very seriously. I can’t be just an Indian country proponent, but certainly I will be an Indian country champion, too,” Meeks said.

The Rural Development agency has three regional offices in the state that administer a number of programs including house programs, direct loan guarantees, rural business grants, an entrepreneur grant program, an individual relending program and other economic development programs not related to agriculture, which is administered through USDA’s Farm Service.

And the Rural Development budget?

“It’s big and it’s going to be bigger in the next couple of years, because there’s a lot of money for rural communities in the stimulus package that will be coming,” Meeks said.

At Oweesta, Meeks’ work focused largely on bringing opportunities to individual tribal members to start businesses, but she has come to realize that it takes both individual and tribal business to play a role in helping diversify tribal economies.

Part of her job will be to bring the right opportunities to create an environment for tribal businesses to flourish – building the needed infrastructure, for example, and assisting in the development of wind energy, which Meeks anticipates will “be really big in South Dakota and rural development will play a big role in that.”

There will be challenges, however.

“I think there’s never been anybody in this position that really understands Indian country and tribes and reservations, and I do, and so I may be a tough task master in some ways, but I hope I’ll be able to help tribes to think about what they can do and what other things they should be looking at in realistic terms,” Meeks said.

“One of the difficulties tribal leaders face in making effective business decisions is their two-year term in office. They can’t help but make decisions based on the next election cycle. It’s just a fact of life. But they’re not going to get a successful business off the ground in two years; it’s just not enough time. They know they have to change their administrative terms; that’s going to be key. So, hopefully I can help tribes think that through.”

Meeks said it won’t be easy to leave Oweesta where she works with “wonderful people” and has built a national organization and dozens of personal relationships.

But she’s ready for Rural Development. The next step will be her confirmation by the Senate.

“I am excited about it. I just wish they’d move along; nobody knows the timeframe.”