Economic Development and Native Communities: An Interview with Martin Jennings

This blog is part of a series of conversations with rural leaders that FSG is publishing in conjunction with the release of our report Rural America: Philanthropy’s Misunderstood Opportunity for Impact. In this conversation, FSG interviews Martin Jennings, leader of the Northwest Indian Community Development Center, a native-controlled nonprofit organization that promotes wellness and equity for American Indian families in northwest and north-central Minnesota.

Thank you again, Martin, for talking with us. We’d love to start with who you are. You are currently working for a community development organization in your Native community, you just completed over a decade as a program officer at the Northwest Area Foundation, and before that you worked in more traditional economic development. Can you tell us about the arc of your career, and how you’ve seen the field shift?

When I decided to go to college, I knew I needed to go to be able to support myself, and that education was a pathway to do that, but I didn’t have anyone in my family guiding me. When I took a career assessment it indicated my love of being outdoors, and I remember it pointed me toward forestry. The school counselor I had at the time really questioned that profession, thinking there wasn’t high demand or good pay, and said, “Why don’t you go after business, which is a good all-around thing?” So, I abandoned forestry and went toward business. I didn’t know anything about business other than being a worker and earning and saving money all through high school and college, but when I got out of college this country’s capitalistic value system was cemented in me—that the bottom line was king, and that success was how much you could get out of systems or relationships.

When I got out of college in the early 80s, I started working as a credit officer for an umbrella governance organization for six of the Ojibwe Bands in Minnesota of which my Band was a member. I inherited this portfolio of poorly economically conceived projects and struggling businesses that tribes had been directed into pursuing by the system actors at the time, largely the federal agencies including the Economic Development Administration, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and to a lesser extent, the Small Business Administration. Until the early 90s, these agencies pretty much made all the decisions for the tribes and the economic approaches directed at addressing the concentrated poverty and social and educational disparities experienced by tribes. Back then, tribes didn’t have much access to private capital, so the only capital they had access to was public funding in grants and guaranteed loans.

How did your education influence your early career in economic development?

Coming in with a traditional economic development background, I started to focus on the region’s assets and I very quickly realized that the tribes themselves didn’t really have enough financial assets to support traditional economic development, and that what was needed was more of a regional development strategy.

At the same time, I started exploring a lot of partnering opportunities outside the tribes, and what I ran into, from our communities’ point of view, was a feeling of perpetuation of extractive exploitation and racial oppression that created a barrier to identifying and entering mutually beneficial partnerships. Whenever a joint venture opportunity arose there was a sense within the tribe that the outside partner would win and we would lose. And there was a lot of truth in this feeling; out of the hundreds of deals I looked at over the years there were probably only a handful that were pretty good deals for the tribe, where individuals and companies weren’t looking to exploit us.

I did that type of economic development for 10 years until the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed. I had been involved at the forefront of helping several of the Minnesota tribes negotiate compacts with the state to develop high stakes gambling. I remember skepticism from the traditional economic stakeholders I mentioned earlier—that this would be another economic failure. Instead, the experience with gaming clearly proved that with some type of niche advantage, tribes could be successful at economic development. For the tribes I was working with, it also created for the first time a discretionary revenue stream that allowed them to support existing programming that had been grossly underfunded by the federal government. It enabled tribes to do much needed infrastructure investments or further economic diversification.

I worked for nine years doing economic planning, gaming and ancillary business expansion planning, and community development with a tribe that was very successful with gaming because of their proximity to the Twin Cities. It was liberating because they had the resources to do things properly and the tribe was a major economic driver in their region, employing a large labor force and driving new construction and consumption. After seven or eight years of proving viability, we actually had banks soliciting us for their business, which was kind of weird because we never had banks approach us before. Where we had relationships, they were mostly extractive, and unfortunately this financially exploitive thinking continued as banks now saw the tribes as a new opportunity to make money. I began to see that most traditional economic development models are extractive and not set up to invest in communities that have been historically left behind and intentionally excluded from economic opportunities.

Then you made the switch to philanthropy?

When I made this career shift, I was still looking for a way to help the community and advance change, but from a different angle. I joined the board of the Blandin Foundation, which led me to a job as a program officer with the Northwest Area Foundation. There I did a lot with their Native portfolio and supported Native Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) focused on creating localized strategies for tribes to help them build their own private economies apart from the dominant economic system.

How has your view of economic development shifted over time?

I’ve spent almost four decades now thinking about how to create economic activity and living wage jobs, increasingly focused on how to shift from a purely capitalistic, individualized, and goal-oriented model to one of sustainability, renewability, and equity. That’s a pretty big departure, but the current model just isn’t sustainable, and I think we’re seeing signs of that across the world and across the country whether it’s resource depletion, global warming, supply line failures, or pandemics. To me that’s all related to how we are extracting resources and what we are doing to the world, and so to me development is about: how do you change that? When you look ahead to our seven generations, what kind of life and opportunities are we going to leave for them?

Can you say more about that legacy of resource extraction and how it has influenced your thinking on economic development?

Since Columbus came here, the taking of land and exploitation of the resource base has been huge. Around the mid-1800s, there was a movement to take timber resources, which tribes in my region had in abundance. Once timber barons and mill owners from outside of the area used up all the timber resources, they closed and left us in a position of rural poverty. With low investment from the private and public sectors, many people were forced to the cities for opportunity. In the Native community, we face all of the challenges faced by rural communities generally, but added to that is a layer of racial oppression, colonization, and perpetuated trauma.

Who’s doing it well? What are examples of success?

There are some tribes that have been pretty successful at adopting typical Western approaches, but the money only gets you so far. I like to think about outcomes in terms of community wellness and individual wellness. That is a state where people have choices and freedom from anxiety and constant negative behaviors or environments. Where people have the things they need to have a good life, including security, education, culture, social networks, employment, and housing, you know all the things that would help you create a good lifestyle. To have access to those things and not have to sacrifice for them.

I like to think about outcomes in terms of community wellness and individual wellness…a state where people have choices and freedom from anxiety and constant negative behaviors or environments…where people have the things they need to have a good life.”


When I look at traditional economic development, and even philanthropy, the best intentions sometimes don’t really lead to the outcomes that the communities really believe in. From a Western perspective, poverty is most closely linked with economic viability, and in a Native community, poverty is more an absence of language, culture, and family. You have to have some level of economic stability, but if to have that economic stability you have to give up your identity, your beliefs, and your values, then you are really out of balance with yourself. That’s where historical trauma and colonization come in that put so much pressure on Native communities and other oppressed communities of color to acculturate and abandon who you are to fit into this new economic image that’s been cast upon you.

That’s really a powerful, more holistic way of thinking about “success.” Can you share more about how you’ve seen this play out in practice?

For example, in something seemingly good, like financial literacy where people learn banking skills, that’s really about getting them into the financial markets, getting banked, and getting credit cards, where people are then extracted from. In entrepreneurship, you know you want people to get into business and be their own boss, well that’s in support of the broader economy. Or education, the messaging is: go get an education so you can get a higher paying job and be an economic contributor. All of these kinds of things lead back to supporting a broader economy, but we need to revisit at what expense and look at success through the lens of community wellness and equity. I’ve found that in the current capitalistic model, the people who are benefitting from it are OK with it and the people who aren’t are not ok with it, but unfortunately the people that benefit have all the wealth and power to maintain these systems.

Where are you working now?

The organization I’m leading now, the Northwest Indian Community Development Center, started as the Northwest Indian Occupational Industrial Center (OIC). This OIC model came from Philadelphia in the 60s as a response to the racialized disparities the African American community was experiencing there. It started out as a vocational employment and life skills training program to take this large population that faced staggering economic disparities and to provide them with some tools and trainings and connect them with businesses. When efforts started for our organization in the late 80s, it came from a community conversation around the same thing. We are a hub of the three largest reservations in Minnesota, but the only places we saw Natives participating economically was as consumers, and not even as valued consumers. So, we adopted this model that came from the African American community, from a faith-based movement led by Reverend Leon H. Sullivan with investment from the Ford Foundation in the 1960s, which led to the scaling of the model throughout the country.

That’s an interesting connection to philanthropy. Can you say more?

There was this connection between a community that had been oppressed and a foundation that played some role in drawing attention to the disparities they faced, and how that helped open doors for additional investment. That’s something that foundations can still do: be that signal for new thought, narratives, engagement, and take some of that early risk to take that relational development that needs to occur before people in community can even start doing some of the work. It’s interesting that this is the role philanthropy often sees itself playing, and it’s still critical, but they have to be less fearful of risk and more open to suspending some of their own world views particularly when they are working with community to define approaches and outcomes.

Many foundations will have to divorce themselves from outcomes that lead to the perpetuation of capitalism. If all your outcomes align to an unjust system, and that kind of control and power accumulation, then all of your success will continue to benefit just a few.”


For example, many foundations will have to divorce themselves from outcomes that lead to the perpetuation of capitalism. If all your outcomes align to an unjust system, and that kind of control and power accumulation, then all of your success will continue to benefit just a few. When you ask a tribe what success look like, some of those tribes might define that as economics, where more traditional tribes might focus on whether their language and culture is intact and what is happening with their families. Even some of the more successful tribes still have community members that are still living in traumatization, facing the effects of multigenerational colonization, so that success isn’t quite all it could be. From a western perspective, yes, a number of tribes have resources and their members receive per capita payments and they have access to all these opportunities, but when you dig underneath that and change the definition of success, you have a different answer. Each tribal community has to figure that out for themselves. Some tribes that are more acculturated have successful, diversified international businesses, you have tribes that have begun buying their land back and are major economic engines in their regions, and you have tribes that are still struggling, and most of their resources go into meeting basic needs. It’s all across the board, so philanthropy would have to work in those communities to understand what their vision is and what they are working towards, and connect them with culturally-grounded thought partners that can help them understand the complexity of these systems that we work within.

What would a different system look and feel like? Many foundations might not know where to start with helping create a different economic system.

For me, you have to think more about localized strategies that benefit a region. We have to stop doing this crazy stuff where we are extracting our natural resources, it goes overseas where they process it because they have cheap labor, and then they bring it back here and mark it up. We have to return to community sustainable models. If you think about something like farming practices, 100 years ago we had all these small family farms and they did a lot of bartering, but they created financial means for a whole community. When corporate farms started and land prices escalated, pretty soon the land doesn’t support a bunch of families; it supports some corporate entity somewhere and their investors. All of this economic opportunity that was there generating life and stability has been disrupted and displaced. Prior to the introduction of western development policies, these places were self-sustaining communities.

We have to think about how to localize things and have people make sure what they are consuming comes from the local area, stays in the local area, and benefits the local area.”


We have to think about how to localize things and have people make sure what they are consuming comes from the local area, stays in the local area, and benefits the local area. And we have to identify where a community has a potential for power and influence over some kind of resource. It could be a physical resource, a financial resource, or human resources; they need to figure out what is their resource base to build something off of. And then you need to change consumption and attitudes to get back to a more simple and healthy way of life.

You are offering a holistic, local, community-focused way of thinking about economic development. Is philanthropy ready for that?

That’s really the challenge. Philanthropy is an extension of the accumulation of wealth and power, so that is very much at play. Philanthropy has the resources, so they make the decisions on how the resources should be used, and through their good intentions they are imposing their own world views, and those aren’t necessarily views that are sustainable or the views of the community they are trying to benefit.

For philanthropy to really embrace a more holistic way of thinking about economic development, they would have to get over the fear of supporting spiritual work. Until you help someone who has been traumatized to understand, heal, and move away from that trauma, they are going to carry those traumas and experiences in their world view their whole life. In my own personal experience, you can’t address the symptoms or manifestations of trauma, like addiction, without addressing the trauma itself. One of the programs we run is housing for homeless people. How do you help someone who has been chronically homeless for years and suddenly expect them to find a job, make money, and pay rent, when that’s not how they know and understand the world? There are some deeper underlying thoughts and feelings and anxieties that need to be addressed for this person first. When we look at the mental health crisis that our community and this country is facing, it is a direct result of this stuff [trauma], and we just brush that aside and don’t acknowledge it. We have to get below the surface level of the water and really understand what’s driving these things.

What’s your call to action for philanthropy looking to support economic development in rural areas?

From my experience working in economic development, I think philanthropy needs to take a two-pronged approach. First, they need to try to influence the current systems and advance practice that moves away from oppressive or extractive approaches that are creating all of these disparities, while second, trying to build a different system to help communities have their own localized economies which they control and benefit from. In rural areas, this would take a regionalized approach that unites all communities and provides equal access and ownership to economic opportunities and a quality of life.

As an example, community wealth-building philosophy is a good starting point. Some foundations support endowment campaigns or capital campaigns that give these communities some level of assets and financial stability, creating a platform for them to build from. Providing long-term, flexible funding to do the internal and external change is also critical.

The problems we are trying to address are complex and tied into multiple extractive and trauma-perpetuating systems. Changing them is going to take long-term investment, education, and time. Many foundations have funded systems change work. This is positive, but again this needs to be long-term sustained funding as these systems are resistant to change, and if left to the status quo, will continue to perpetuate themselves.

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