Changing the Outcome of Our Nation

November 03, 2010

Changing the Outcome of Our Nation
buffaloAt 28, Nick Tilsen, executive director at Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation in South Dakota, believes being a leader is more about the community and less about himself.

But it was his leadership role that resulted in Tilsen recently receiving the 40 Under 40 Award from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. The distinction "highlights 40 existing and emerging American Indian leaders under 40 years of age who have demonstrated exceptional achievements to their business, community, Native and/or personal areas of their life," according to the NCAIED description.

Tilsen said the distinction would help the Thunder Valley CDC organization receive recognition for what it is doing on the Pine Ridge reservation.

"Our organization is based on the empowerment of young people and young families. Our model is first building a foundation of culture and spirituality. I believe that if you have a sense of who you are based in our culture and spirituality, you can accomplish anything," he said. "And, in the same breath, we believe in creating economic and social opportunities for our people."

Some of the ways Thunder Valley hopes to accomplish these goals is by building and increasing assets for the people, Tilsen said. The organization is currently looking to create a planned green community on an 80-acre site on Pine Ridge using green technologies and energy systems.

"This is probably one of the first planned green communities in all of Indian Country and will include lots for home ownership and lots to incubate business and community facilities that are designed to serve young people and young families," he said. "Through building a foundation of culture and spirituality, it engages them to work with us to bring our own selves out of poverty, create jobs and become entrepreneurs and homeowners."

On one phone in his office and grabbing another, Nick Tilsen's typical day is non-stop.
He is pictured with his 40 Under 40 Award in the foreground.

Pushing forward

Tilsen said his biggest motivation is his own children -- 4-year-old daughter Shayla and five-month-old son Jozaya. He said that even though his children and the youth across the reservation have a lack of opportunity, there is great potential to "change the outcome of our nation."

"The youth is not only the future but also the present. Over 50 percent of the population is youth, and we actually have the ability now to make changes if we empower ourselves," Tilsen said. "I believe that we have the ability to have individual responsibility, community responsibility and tribal responsibility to be of service to each other and our entire nation."

Although Tilsen said he sees the world struggling in the next five years because its current problems can't be fixed in five years, he said he also sees a "huge movement trying to change the outcome of the world" by addressing climate change and social injustice.

"Even if the problems are the same, there is going to be that much more people trying to solve the problems -- more people with more hope than today, " he said. "Positivity can beat negativity and solutions can beat the problems. Believing in the fact that we can change the outcome and holding that in my heart every day in my work is what truly motivates me."

Fourth-generation activist

Tilsen's passion for social justice has been a constant in his life. Both sides of his family have fought for environmental, social and indigenous issues.

"I grew up protesting in the streets, watching my parents build a community radio station, and also fighting to protect the Black Hills -- it was part of the culture of my family," he said. "I was taught to be a good father to your children and be of service to justice and people."

He said he was taught that in order to create social change, you have to be able to access your own resources -- recalling a quote by late activist Kathy Donahue: "I don't believe that as long as the powerless people in this country are dependent on the money of the powerful for social change work, that we'll ever have real social change."

One of the most memorable times Tilsen recalls from his lifetime of activism was protesting in a 2003 anti-war rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with a group from the reservation and he was given the opportunity to speak.

"I had two minutes to speak. And it was a rush standing up on a huge stage speaking to a crowd of 90,000 people," he said. "It had a profound impact on me."

Advice for young people

Along with seeking guidance and support from elders in the community, looking to culture and spirituality are things Tilsen said he would advise youth struggling to find their place.

"And share that journey with your friends and your family," he continued. "Know that with the Creator, no matter how hard the struggles, you are never alone, no matter what. Whatever we put our minds to as young people, if we truly believe it in our hearts, we can accomplish anything."

If you are interested in donating to Thunder Valley's efforts or would like more information, call 605-455-2700, email and visit

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