“It’s very rare for Indians to have Indian names. When white settlers and the Catholic Church came, their mode of operation was centered on ‘beating the Indian out of you.’” It was in this space of cultural stripping that boarding schools arose, and where Jay’s mother existed in from kindergarten to 12th grade.
“My mother is Lakota—most people know it as Sioux—from the Standing Rock reservation in south central North Dakota, and a lot of poor Indian kids ended up going to boarding school,” Jay explains. “She was very hard and cold with us. My father was the total opposite. He was nurtured in the Lakota ways of family, culture, and spirituality, and instilled in me a sense of pride.”
Born on the Pine Ridge reservation in the southwestern part of South Dakota—his father’s reservation—Jay would split his childhood and adolescent years across a few different reservations. He would go on to graduate from a mostly white Catholic high school, which his mother made him attend, then do a stint at Haskell—a well-known Indian university in Kansas—before setting his eyes on the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. He was small town getting ready to be branded in big city ways.
“There wasn’t this huge population of Indian students at the U, and here I come—this Indian guy with long braids from small town South Dakota. People didn’t really know how to take me,” recalls Jay. It was here in this factory of student bodies that a young Jay would start to discover his voice through daily confessionals with his pen and notebook.
jay bad heart bull
“If you’re not at the table, then you might be on the menu. Many of my people weren’t even invited to the house, so we built our own house.”
Before taking the reins at Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI) in 2013, Jay would cut his teeth right there in the community in various capacities at the American Indian Magnet School, then at Division of Indian Work, and later on at Little Earth of United Tribes. “I had seen NACDI through my journey kind of emerging onto the scene as this intermediary organization intending to be this hub bringing all of our organizations and initiatives together,” says Jay.
“One of the core strengths and values of my people is always being connected and always being a community—whether that is a tribe, clan, or however people organize themselves traditionally. When my people moved into the cities, a lot of our community members started getting jobs and houses in the suburbs or somewhere else. That really dissipated our communal strength,” Jay tells me emphatically. Building on his predecessor’s vision, Jay became intentional about NACDI reaching out to community members.
“We spent almost two years asking people what they wanted. We chose to focus on assets rather than deficits. Focusing on deficits will get you programs, and our community has been programmed to death.”
NACDI would use the feedback it gathered from community listening sessions and roundtable discussions to develop the American Indian Blueprint—its dream big playbook with 11 key visions for community. “We didn’t stop there,” Jay professes. “We asked, ‘how do we get there?’ Give us the strategies. We then work with the community to implement projects to achieve those visions.”
What does innovation look like when it is community powered and driven? It looks like the first-ever Minneapolis American Indian Mayoral Candidate Forum in the Native community based on the terms of the community members. It looks like the only urban American Indian corridor in the country. It looks like making Minneapolis the first city in Minnesota to officially change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. It looks like an institute that trains Native emerging thought leaders in leadership development and organizing from an indigenous perspective.
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“Our community and the black community are at the bottom of the barrel in a state that’s at the bottom of the barrel in disparity; it’s clear that whatever we’ve been doing up until now hasn’t been working.”
If there was a national pageant for states’ quality of life, backstage in the greenroom, Minnesota would be the favored target of such pageantry antics like dousing bleach on a fresh pair of boots from Red Wing Shoes or draining out the cheese of a Jucy Lucy through a hole drilled at the bottom. It’s no surprise why. In the last few years, Minnesota—particularly Minneapolis—has swept up a number of lustrous satin sashes in smaller national competitions like the healthiest and most active residents, most literate, and #1 bike-friendly city in the United States. In line for the grandest quality-of-life award that a state can adorn — Best State to Live In — Minnesota’s pageant representative, Paul Bunyan, confronted his toughest challenge for the title during the Q&A portion of the event: As the face and advocate for affordable health care, what was the most pressing challenge you incurred, and how did you overcome it? In the end, Minnesota would be named 2015 Best State to Live In.
But there is a different set of “wins” for black, Native, and other communities of color that this best-lived place also holds: Some of the worst racial disparities in education, health, income, and unemployment in the nation. These are the wins that get silenced. They are also the wins that get inoculated by social service delivery programs. As I spoke with Jay, he made it clear he wasn’t interested in making NACDI a byproduct of an old nonprofit model. “God didn’t put me here to be a nonprofit executive director,” Jay professes. For Jay and many others working in their communities, it’s about doing your part as a community member. You take your cues, praise and beatings from the community because that’s where your energy and the meaning of your work come from—that’s where you come from.
Doing community work with the community from the onset is not even the dominant narrative for social innovation.
Yet, make no mistake. Reclaiming, loving, and positioning the culture, spirituality, and narratives that were—and still are—the identifiers for one’s systematic eradication as a core strength to lift up one’s community is innovation. And that is what Jay has done and is doing with NACDI.