For many nonprofits, leadership development means developing a pipeline of internal leaders ready to step into more senior roles. But for Tatewin (pronounced Tah-Tey-Wee) Means, the executive director of Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, developing internal leaders is the first step to building leaders across her entire community. These are the leaders she says it will take to realize Thunder Valley CDC’s goal, which Means has described very simply: “If I am to describe Thunder Valley in one word, it’s ‘liberation.’”

“For [the Lakota people], liberation, sovereignty, self-determination—that starts with the individual,” Means sats, “and we hope to start those ripple effects with each of our staff members, so that they can be empowered to be that change in their families.”

Thunder Valley CDC serves approximately 33,000 residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, located on over 2.2 million acres that you’d find within the borders of South Dakota on a map of the United States. Eight initiatives and programs comprise the nonprofit’s work, including efforts devoted to education, youth leadership, food sovereignty, the Lakota language, housing and home ownership, workforce development, and social enterprise. Each area is just one part of its “holistic approach to liberation.”

Liberation is central for Thunder Valley CDC because of the Lakota’s history. In the early-1800s, the US government began to enact laws and policies that would push Native Americans westward, eventually confining them to reservations. Both systematic and strategic, these efforts stripped the Lakota and other Native American tribes of their lands, their economy, their health, and their cultures. Assimilation efforts, including the conversion to Christianity, further delegitimized their traditions and spiritual beliefs. “Our way of life was severely impacted by colonization,” Means says. “So [through our work], we are really taking aim at all of the damaging and negative impacts that colonization has had on our community.”

Today, Thunder Valley CDC’s place-based approach to sustainability on the Pine Ridge reservation intends to restore the Lakota way of life by deeply rooting its work to end poverty in its spirituality and culture. Founded in 2007, the grassroots Indigenous-led and operated organization was born of one of the Lakota’s seven sacred ceremonies and has been guided by the idea that change happens through hope, not fear.

In July 2018, Means joined Thunder Valley CDC as executive director after having served in roles as attorney general for the Oglala Sioux Tribe and then as deputy states attorney—the chief law enforcement officer of the territory. Working in systems that “were designed to be oppressive,” Means says, inspired her to advocate in a different way.

“I wanted to be a part of a movement that was by the people, and that was for the people, and that was based in who we are as Indigenous people,” she says. “You hear it all the time: people from our community say we have the solutions for our own communities. And so it’s just a matter of trusting ourselves to implement those solutions.”

Read the full article about building leaders at The Bridgespan Group.