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Establishing highly effective and well-funded Native community financial development institutions forms one of the critical building blocks in creating healthy and sustainable tribal economies. 

That’s a message Patrice Kunesh has heard — and delivered — many times over her distinguished career in the public, private and philanthropic sectors. 

Of Standing Rock Lakota descent, Kunesh was the founding director of the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, where she helped develop some of the foundational research into Native CDFIs and their powerful roles as change agents within Native communities. Her efforts extend forward to today as the founder and director of Peȟíŋ Haha Consulting, a social enterprise focused on policy, advocacy and leadership for Native community building.

As well, President Biden in September appointed Kunesh to serve as the Native American voice on the Community Development Advisory Board, which advises on policy issues for the Department of the Treasury’s CDFI Fund.

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“I certainly hope that my tenure on the Community Development Advisory Board is going to have some positive outcomes, good energy and good outcomes that we can bring to Indian Country,” Kunesh said in a recent interview with Tribal Business News

Native CDFI executives see Kunesh as a key ally and advocate on the advisory board at what feels like a potential inflection point for their organizations. While Native CDFIs struggled early on to participate in some of the federal pandemic relief programs, they’ve been on the receiving end of significant investments in recent months, including nearly $55 million in CDFI Rapid Response Program funding. 

They also are paying close attention to Treasury’s plans to deploy a $1.75 billion fund for minority lending institutions, for which Native CDFIs will qualify, and the rollout of at least $500 million in State Small Business Credit Initiative to tribes, which Native CDFIs could partner on and manage.

In her interview with Tribal Business News, Kunesh demonstrated that she clearly understands the importance of the moment and paving a path to success for the Native CDFIs. 

To that end, she’s considering calling for the creation of a subcommittee to look into the administrative and bureaucratic barriers that Natives face in vying for New Markets Tax Credits, noting that only a fraction of a percent of all the credits have gone to Native-led community development entities (CDEs). 

She also cites Center for Indian Country Development research about the effectiveness of Native CDFIs in improving credit in their communities as one example in calling for increased allocations to Treasury’s Native American CDFI Assistance (NACA) Program, the main source of federal funding for Native CDFIs. 

Doing so could help “turn on the engines of economic development in Indian Country,” she said.

Here are some highlights from the conversation. 

 

Congratulations on your appointment to the Community Development Advisory Board. What do you hope to accomplish by having your voice at the table with that group? 

I’m really honored to be part of this entire board. I think it’s one of the most diverse board compositions in CDFI recent history, and representing Native American communities as I am specifically, I’m just very, very excited to lift up the voices of our Native CDFIs and CDEs and really take advantage of this most consequential opportunity. Not just in terms of funding and resources, but reducing inequality and really encouraging a prosperous economy across Indian Country. That’s the big lofty goal. 

I think more specifically or technically, it would be absolutely fantastic if we could encourage the establishment of more Native CDFIs. Right now, we have 69 and it’s down several from a few years ago. I think that speaks to some tremendous underfunding of Native CDFIs, not withstanding the really substantial need out there. I’d like to increase the number of Native CDFIs, increase funding to Native CDFIs and then really work on New Market Tax Credits. 

There’s a new native initiative around New Markets Tax Credits, which have not been used as much as they could be in Indian Country. They’re extremely important tools for promoting community revitalization and this is really at the core of what our Native CDFIs and CDEs do throughout Indian Country. With this initiative specifically focused on Native American communities, I’d really love to be at the forefront of increasing investments in reservations and Hawaiian homelands and Alaska Native villages. A lot of that it’s going to require deep dives, looking at the data, really looking at the needs and bringing that story, that narrative to the forefront. 

And (then there’s) this $1.75 billion available to minority lenders. We absolutely need to tap into that for our Native CDFIs.

 

Tribal Business News recently reported on the Native CDFI Network policy conference, where executives said they’re still awaiting guidance from Treasury about that $1.75 billion in funding for minority lending institutions. They see it as potentially game-changing, and they’ve been trying to get Treasury to consult with them on policies to deploy that money. Do you see a role for the Community Development Advisory Board to give Native CDFIs a voice in that process?

Absolutely. I believe this is a confluence of many remarkable opportunities, not just in terms of the amount of funding, but the possibility of really turning the tide for Native American community development entities to be engaged, to be at the table expressing not just their needs, but the impacts of their work. For example, in the housing front, there is a phenomenal need for new housing, for renovating existing housing. Some estimates find this need to be over 200,000 units of new housing across Indian Country. And housing is not just a safety and shelter perspective, it’s a health crisis as well. We saw that, of course, in the pandemic. Just think of what we could do with New Markets Tax Credits in Indian Country to build out these affordable housing units and help create safe, healthy communities that then, in turn, lead to flourishing communities with wellbeing.

I do think there’s a direct tie to community wellbeing and mitigating poverty with these direct community investments. On the business side, the micro businesses, the entrepreneurial side of things, Indian Country is strong and steady there because of this non-traditional lending to Native American businesses (via Native CDFIs). We need a whole lot more of that. Especially as we emerge, we need to emerge from this pandemic crisis stronger and more resilient. That means we have to diversify Native economies. This is where Native small businesses really are so critical for that recovery long term.

 

Going back to New Markets Tax Credits: In my conversations with some Native CDFI directors, they see where some non-Native organizations are able to tap into those credits, but there hasn’t been much success for Native-led organizations. Some say that’s because the application is particularly onerous. Others have also suggested creating a set-aside similar to the NACA Program, only specifically for the New Markets Tax Credit. From a high level, what do you think would help the most?

I am familiar with the lack of allocation to Native New Markets Tax Credits. We’ve seen about $30 million out of the $20 billion in New Markets Tax Credits in the past four years, so that’s just absolutely not acceptable. This new Native initiative in a New Markets Tax Credit area where we’re going to delve into research and analysis and really dig deep into community needs assessments will be helpful. I think the technical assistance that’s required to do these very, very complicated applications is going to be part of a game changer. 

I think we absolutely need to address the elements of the application process. They’re intimidating, they’re complex. Maybe in many respects that’s absolutely needed in terms of the accountability, but in order to avail ourselves of these funds, Indian Country needs a threshold into that as well.

Otherwise, we are completely cut off from these kinds of very important investments and lenders and investors will not even take a second look at us. I am hopeful that this new initiative is going to look at that application process. My voice on the board perhaps will be able to mitigate some of those challenges. 

I’m exploring the idea of perhaps creating a subcommittee to look specifically at these administrative and bureaucratic barriers that Indian Country faces, as an allocation formula issue as well as a very technical application or access just to the stream of commerce of how everything works. We absolutely do need to encourage and support Native CDEs and CDFIs and participate in this New Markets Tax Credit program across the board.

 

You were the founding director of the Center for Indian Country Development at the Minneapolis Fed, which has done a fair amount of research on the effects of Native CDFIs as well as their capital constraints. Even the federal NACA allocations have been fairly stagnant in recent years. Given your familiarity with Native CDFIs, what do you see as the opportunity in strengthening these programs? 

I think it’s getting the CDFI Fund truly focused on reducing inequality, and that inequality goes to the allocation. We have a phenomenal opportunity here with this $1.75 billion to minority lending institutions for Native CDFIs to tap into, and we know there’s incredible unmet need. We know that there’s equally proven research that shows that when Native CDFIs operate in Native communities, they actually are improving outcomes. 

A former colleague of mine, Michou Kokodoko, has attempted to quantify that unmet need in the community. This was several years ago, but he found that unmet need was about $77 million, and that was for staffing and for improving technology. We need technical assistance and other kinds of internal business infrastructure for our Native CDFIs. 

Michou also did one of the first research projects that found specifically when the community has a Native CDFI present and active in making loans and engaged with the community, it actually increases that community’s credit scores overall, and this is very quantifiable. 

All of that leads me to believe that the value and use of Native CDFIs is extremely important to Indian Country. That’s why I would like to support anything that would increase the number of Native CDFIs, allocations to these Native CDFIs and their ability to serve their community needs.

 

I recently asked a couple of Native CDFI execs if they think tribal governments will use some of the historic federal funding they’ve received to create new Native CDFIs. Their general consensus was that a couple new Native CDFIs could form, but they don’t expect a big influx of them. Does it seem like there’s an educational opportunity for the board, the CDFI Fund or groups like Native CDFI Network to really engage with tribal governments about the power CDFIs have in making real change in Native communities? 

Yes. That’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. This is an unprecedented time in so many ways, but across the board, what we’ve found with Native American financial institutions as a whole is they really are lifting up Native communities. Perhaps tribal governments don’t hear that message clearly enough or directly enough. 

When they think of economic development, they may think of a tribal business or a tribal enterprise or something that is focused specifically at the tribal level. Whereas diversifying their portfolios and supporting community-based institutions like a bank or a Native CDFI would actually give them more bang for the buck. Because it’s not just a tribal business for the sake of tribal business, but it’s economic development on a broader scale and a deeper scale if you can support individuals in the community. 

So many Native businesses and tribally owned businesses are in the entertainment and recreation industry — casinos and related amenities. We saw this with the pandemic: Every single casino had to close, and that was hundreds of thousands of workers and lost benefits. Diversification at this moment is so incredibly important for long-term resilience. To do that, we’ve got these community development entities ready, waiting, and just so eager to help deliver those improvements. 

I think that Native CDFIs, Native community development entities should be part of tribal economic development portfolios. There’s just a tremendous return on investment, not just in housing and micro businesses or entrepreneurial assistance, but overall financial wellbeing.

 

That’s a much different ROI to consider when you’re talking about effecting lasting change in the community. 

It’s a different approach, you’re absolutely right. When you give an individual downpayment assistance or closing costs, you are investing in the long-term stability of a community. When you make that micro-loan to a self-employed arts and crafts person or somebody who’s developing a car repair shop or something of that nature, you’re actually investing in the long-term ability of that community as well. This is obviously a numbers deal because it’s all about finance, but you also have to look at the social impact. I truly believe that Native CDFIs are much more equitable systems in understanding who needs the funding, how that funding should be delivered and then providing the services to support overall success. You don’t see that with traditional lenders. You just don’t see that kind of intense and direct and personal focus.

The other thing that’s really important is in terms of messaging. … From a philanthropic perspective, Native CDFIs are great investments. I’ve been on a few boards where we’ve been able to make mission-related or program-related investments in Native CDFIs because we know that there’s a return on investment in a much more profound way, that deep social community impact. Indian Country needs to realize that these are equally important investment opportunities for themselves.

 

Switching gears, talk about your other role as major gifts officer at Native American Rights Fund. 

I started my law career at NARF many years ago when I received a public interest fellowship, and they asked me to come back and help them with organizational support. This is an exciting time and exciting area to highlight NARF’s mission and message. Voting rights is probably one of the most critical issues that we have right now, and the work that NARF is doing on sacred sites like Bears Ears — these are stories that lift up my heart. I’m just really thrilled to be back at NARF supporting this overall mission. After 50 years, NARF is still one of the main leaders in Native rights. It’s a fantastic organization.

 

Within philanthropy, there’s been this question of whether the current attention and focus on giving to Native American nonprofits is a momentary occurrence or part of a substantive shift. Based on your experience, do you see this as a moment or a movement? 

Oh, I love to think of it as a movement because, as we keep saying, Native communities are so underserved, the needs are so tremendous. The deficits that we have to make up are over 250 years of settler colonialism. It’s going to take a while, both internally in the tribes, of course, but also with the phenomenal wealth throughout the United States. 

The philanthropic community certainly has a place in supporting this need, and it’s been a terrific year overall. I think we’ve seen substantial increases in philanthropic giving in Native causes, but it’s just another drop in the bucket. I hope it’s not that people are looking at the crises of the pandemic and climate change and politics, and being encouraged to give a little bit more, as you say, in the moment. 

 

Can you expand on some of the long-term deficits that you see? 

Boarding school issues, for example, are intergenerational. My family has two generations of boarding school attendees, and many of these issues are just not going to go away for a while. For preservation of culture, of language: We need deep, deep and long-term investments. The philanthropic world has, I like to say, a co-responsibility. 

We’ve seen … that generosity … in education, for example, and some of the community areas. Some of the supports that we’ve been able to see in Native CDFIs, for example, are coming from strong philanthropy support, but we need more and we need long-term investments. 

And in early childhood development: I work on a board that supports and invests in Native American early childhood development. People will say, ‘Well, it’s like child care.’ Well, it’s so much more — that nurturing and brain development is so critical from birth to three. In Native communities, if we really embrace our children and give them the best beginnings possible, then we’re creating a healthy foundation for that generation. That’s what I’d like to see: Focus on philanthropy and on maybe new, different ways of thinking and approaching community development.

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About The Author
Joe Boomgaard
Managing Editor
Joe Boomgaard is the founding managing editor of Tribal Business News and is based in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he also serves as editor of MiBiz, a regional business publication. Boomgaard has reported on non-gaming economic development in Indian Country for the last 15 years and will oversee the newsroom for Tribal Business News. He will also contribute reporting on tribal economic development activities, Alaska Native corporations and federal contracting.
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