When Bemidji leaders announced they would be moving occupants of the 60-year-old downtown federal offices to the city’s northwest side, they assumed the current landmark had but one fate: Demolition. Tuleah Palmer envisioned something else: a vibrant, redeveloped four-story building with transitional housing and commercial space for an American Indian artists’ marketplace and interpretive center. It’s just one example of Palmer’s visionary leadership as executive director of the Bemidji-based Northwest Indian Community Development Center. In November, her nonprofit won a $500,000 Bush Prize for community innovation. Palmer talks about good timing, next steps and what’s even better than hope.
Q: The timing of your Bush Prize seems perfect. You were driven to create permanent supportive housing and now you have money and maybe even the building in which to make it a reality.
A: The timing was interesting. It was easy to figure out how to use that [Bush] money. Homelessness is a crisis in Bemidji. We still have to go through a purchasing process for the federal building, with an application due Jan. 5; we’ll know if we got it in March. But whether or not we get the federal building, we will move forward with housing. It is the root cause of many disparities.
Q: When might the building be ready and who will most likely occupy the space?
A: I would say the end of 2020 or the summer of 2021. One of the greatest needs is housing for women coming home from incarceration. We surveyed 40 women we serve and all 40 said they can’t find housing. If you can’t find housing, you can’t move forward for yourself or your children. If we get the federal building, we’ll have three floors of redeveloped apartments that are transitional and supportive.
Q: What other challenges keep you up at night?
A: Beltrami County has the highest out-of-home [foster care] placement rate in the United States. Our juvenile incarceration rates are the most disproportionate as well. While we are dealing with the disappearance of our Native women and children, disproportionate suicide rates and addiction, we are also dealing with a system that isn’t ours and doesn’t understand us and doesn’t have to.
Q: That is perhaps why you are adamant that, to break these devastating cycles, we must change the current negatively focused narrative.
A: When you think about these crises, the story starts to get one-dimensional. It’s the dominant-society narrative, which assumes that there is something wrong with our community. But the issue is not our community. The issue is access. We have a responsibility to make sure that access exists. I met a man, a really good man, who wanted to go into treatment. He was put on a waiting list for 90 days and died while waiting for help. If somebody is asking for help and there isn’t help, it’s unfair to blame them. And that happens all the time.
Q: The Northwest Indian Community Development Center is a powerful example of the good that comes from building on a community’s strengths. Tell us more.
A: We’ve become a community hub focused on strengths and protective factors. The center offers many services, including GED preparation, job certifications and housing referrals. But the most important story of our work is that, in 2011, we were serving just 200 people. So we had a gathering of the traditional knowledge-keepers in our region from different nations. The decision was made to go forward doing everything culturally led. We shifted to using the protective factors, values and norms implicit in the traditional Anishinaabe worldview.
Q: Such as?
A: We brought in tobacco and traditional medicines. We brought in community drums. We started doing community-led beadwork and teachings. And people just started coming to the center like a migration. We now serve over 2,400 people per year, targeting a 60-mile radius that includes citizens of Red Lake Nation, White Earth Nation and the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. It’s such a powerful story of everyone’s desire for a better life. One woman, an elder, walked around our building during the remodel phase and said, “This is ours?” And she wept. That keeps me really driven.
Q: You’re big on community involvement. Members gave input on your center and will give input on the new housing development. Why do you prefer that model, which can be time-consuming when you’re trying to get things done?
A: Our residents understand their own problems. Hierarchy does not work in our community. The strongest fleet of canoes is placed in the water together, flowing in the same direction.
Q: You are described as a leader who offers an abundance of hope. But your take on hope is interesting.
A: I’ve thought a lot about hope. Hope is a really tricky concept. Optimism, pessimism, is the glass half full or half empty? We’re more about asking different questions: “Who made the glass? Is this our vessel?” The idea that hope is all we need is a lie. We need to look at the system, the disparities.
Q: Yet, you couldn’t do this work if you didn’t have some belief that things are changing, yes?
A: I know that things aren’t going to change overnight, but they are changing. People want better and that can’t be ignored. And the non-Native community is starting to see that this isn’t acceptable anymore.