Patricia Riggs: Educating and Engaging the Community: What Works?

Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute

Ysleta del Sur Pueblo Economic Development Director Patricia Riggs shares the citizen education and engagement strategies her nation employed in strengthening its governance system.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Riggs, Patricia. "Educating and Engaging the Community: What Works?" Remaking Indigenous Governance Systems seminar. Archibald Bush Foundation and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Prior Lake, Minnesota. May 3, 2011. Presentation.

"I'm glad to be here. I've been asked a few times by NNI to do a few presentations on our progress and the different work that we've done at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, and I can tell you that when we started this work a few years ago it was just about trying to change our community and make Ysleta del Sur Pueblo a better place to live. We never imagined that we'd actually be serving as a model and we're very proud to be here. First of all, I just want to say that we did not do constitutional reform. You heard from Regis Pecos yesterday about the government of Pueblos. And our tribe is a Pueblo and we do have a traditional form of government. However, I've also heard other people talk about how a constitution is really how a community chooses to govern itself. So we do have a body of law with different institutions, as well as different policy and ordinances. And so that -- in addition to our traditional and our administrative council -- is the basis for our governance.

So what we did is we set out to do different changes and adopt different policies and foundational work for Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. And one of the things that we learned straight off is that we needed to basically, is -- what we coined a new word -- and it's called 'Tigua-fy.' Besides Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, we're also known as the Tigua. So we set off to Tigua-fy everything that we did. So we even came up with an acronym we set out to Tigua-fy everything and the way that our project got started is our casino was closed. And it's a real long story and I know we don't have enough time to go through all of that, but basically what happened is Ysleta del Sur Pueblo was federally restored in 1987. So at the time of restoration, our tribe was pretty much living in poverty. We had an unemployment rate of 50 percent. Our poverty rates were extremely high and education, almost, I'd say more than 75 percent of the tribe had less than a high school education. And at the time of restoration 68 acres of land was conveyed into trust. Well, in the 1990s the State of Texas opened, started bingo and the lottery. So we decided that we would go ahead and open up a casino. What happened is, in our restoration act for us, as well as other tribes in Texas -- the Alabama Coushattas as well -- there was some language in our act that stated the tribe shall not have gaming that is illegal in Texas. So we operated a casino for a few years. Unemployment went down to five percent, education was on the rise, we started building a lot of housing and infrastructure and we increased our land base from 68 acres to 75,000 acres. Well, the State of Texas, they sued us and they wanted to close us down. Texas basically isn't very friendly to Indian tribes. There used to be say 150 tribes in Texas and right now there's three. And so Texas sued us and the district court sided with them, citing that our tribe did not, IGRA [the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] did not apply to our tribe. So in 2002 the casino closed and by 2008 unemployment had risen to 18 percent. And except for our smoke shop basically all our businesses were failing.

So we decided that we needed to conduct a Pueblo economic revitalization program. So we basically set out to transform strategy, policy and the economy. This was not an easy process. I was working somewhere else at the time and the tribe called me and said, 'We want you to come back and we want you to do economic development.' And I'd never done that, so I was like, "˜Okay. So what do you want me to do?' And they basically told me that they wanted me to start a business that would bring in the same revenue as the casino. That was my job. I was like, "˜That's not going to happen, right?' So I started looking at different models and of course I ran into NNI and Harvard Project and I started looking at the different models. And so I started talking about the nation-building process and I don't think anybody really understood it or really thought that I had any kind of experience or credibility in that area. So what I started with was really the mindset, a very, very negative mindset, and I was hearing things at different meetings like 'Tiguas don't want to learn,' 'no use,' 'clients non-compliant with program policies,' 'nobody wants to participate,' 'tribal members don't want to give out their personal information,' and it just went on and on. I actually had a conversation with a former director that actually said to me that they hadn't been able to hire tribal members because they have criminal records and are drug users. And of course this was a non-tribal director so I just responded, "˜Well, I guess you should hide your purse then because it could get stolen in this room and it might be me.' So needless to say she's not there anymore. And just everybody was saying this. It was coming from directors --whether they were tribal, non-tribal -- employees, leaders, generally community members. So we learned early on that community education and engagement was critical.

In 2006, we set off to Tigua-fy nation building, and that's the year that the economic development department was established. We formed different advisory committees and task forces and started looking at best practices. So in 2007, council passed a landmark resolution which had a few bullet points and talking points about how we were going to get this started. And what they did at that point is they committed. They committed dollars; they committed time and resources to actually taking this on. So we had also by then looked at different successful models and pretty much...what happened basically is that the tribe basically had hit rock bottom. We had no clue what we were going to do next and our funds were depleting. We actually went through a financial snapshot and where we assessed where our finances were, where they had been during the time of the casino, and at the rate that we were spending at, where we would be in a few years. And what we found is that in seven years basically we'd be bankrupt unless we started to change things. And this really is what set everything into motion.

Together with tribal council and the community, we started looking at what we were going to do to increase our sovereignty as well as changing our attitude and committing. So of course success breeds success and we started learning from different tribes just as you're doing here. We looked at different tribes such as the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, the Chickasaw Nation, and the Tulalip Tribes. And then for the first time, the community -- together with different directors and tribal council -- set out to create a vision and a mission. And it went through all kinds of different processes. We worked with different groups and this is what we ended up working with. Pretty much our vision is to become a self-sufficient Pueblo and power to thrive in a modern world while preserving our cultural foundation. And surviving [in] a modern world was very important to us because the City of El Paso has pretty much grown around our reservation and we're sitting in the middle of an urban location. So we have to learn to adapt in order to deal with that. And then our mission of course is to promote self-sufficiency, improve the quality of life and promote the cultural identity of the Pueblo.

Basically it was a grassroots initiative, so all kinds of different community presentations started taking place and we had different platforms that we worked with. We knew early on that it was about institution building and that we had to assess and do strategic planning. Some of the things that came out of this like, for example, I noted earlier that we started different advisory councils and task forces. Well, this actually empowered different groups to do their work. We had the tribal elders, they decided that they were going to form their own committee with their own bylaws and charters and that they were going to have a lot of input in what happened to their programs and with their budgets. And then for the first time a tribal youth council was also established. We did different things as far as strategic planning is concerned and so we started adding different focuses, and I'll explain more a little about how the process actually took place.

I can tell you this. If you invite them, they will not come. I can't tell you how many times, the first couple times I sat and I invited everybody and "˜Come, we're going to do this nation building,' and that's what the room looked like. And it was very disheartening and thinking nobody cared. What I realized early on was that was just a wrong process. If you just go about sending a flyer, it's not going to work. We realized that we had to appeal to everybody. So we started being very specific about who we were working with for different projects. And so for different projects we targeted parents, youth, leadership, elders, directors, different programs and traditional and spiritual people, as well as the tribal enterprises. Pretty much as far as outreach with the community, don't expect anyone to come to you. You really have to go out and go to them.

And what I mean by go to them is like you get on the tribal council agenda, you talk about your platform and the things that you want to work with and do and then you also present at community meetings. Back at Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, we have quarterly community meetings that at least, there's not a specific date for them but basically earlier you heard Regis talk about reaching consensus through their Council of Principales. Well, for us, we reach consensus during a community meeting. So that was one of the places that we delivered our message as well as we would go out to the elder center and work with them. We held retreats for tribal council and directors. As I said, we had different committees and task forces and then we created things like Junior Nation Builders and we went to the day care. So we were able to present to parents there as well. And one of the things we started joking about, "˜Let them eat steak.' So we found that barbecues and steak works really well also. And then along the way we also incorporated culture in everything that we did. So basically what the lesson here was rather than just have these big broad-based meetings, we needed to target specific groups.

There was a lot of education that happened. For example, we had executive nation building in 2007 and that's when it really got started. And I won't go through all of them but we...there was very specific areas as far as education that we had to look at. It ended up all the way down to where we did things like how do you collect data? Because we had to know whether we were actually doing the right things: what the baseline, what was unemployment, what was poverty? So that years down the road we could figure out if we had actually made an impact. We also, you have that book the Rebuilding Native Nations -- we also worked with that. I'll tell you about that a little bit more in a little bit.

One of the things that we learned also early on is we need to assess and be honest and realistic. So part of the group that was working and leading the charge for change, we had college degrees and we thought like, "˜Oh, well, we know theoretical models and we're going to go show everybody.' So we had these statements like 'limited capacity building to build environment conducive to community and economic development, viability of tribal economic and business endeavors is weak.' That reminds me of, what is that movie with "˜to endeavor and persevere.' Anybody know where that statement comes from? Josey Wales, right. So I saw that movie after we had this statement I was like, 'Ah, we're kind of being cheesy here, right.' So what we realized is that we were being a little too technical for YDSP. And when it really hit me is I went to Native Nations Institute and they highlighted the tribe and they had problem statements for different tribes. And we didn't quite put it that way but what they had on their slide was "˜ineffective government.' And I can tell you, ouch, that really hurt. It was like, that's exactly what our problem is and that's what we've got to admit and move forward from there.

The other thing is we realized right away that partnerships work. Sometimes, unfortunately your tribal members don't realize that you do have credentials and you have experience and you have something to add to the tribe, but you have to actually bring people in and it really does help. So these are the different people that actually came in. I know there's somebody from Hualapai here and Judge Flies-Away is there. Also Peter Morris from NCAI, Lance Morgan's in there from Ho Chunk. We had Chickasaw come in and different tribes present to our tribe.

The other thing is a lot of intergenerational outreach happened. We needed to be informative and creative and also have fun. We actually established different games. We established different programs like we had a youth nation-building program where we taught history, governance and we also taught about the tribal economy and what was happening and had them help with the visioning process. On your top left, that was a game which we called the Tigua Road to Life and it was kind of a Monolopy/Life game but it was in the Tigua Ysleta del Sur Pueblo setting and they had to either...they had to make injections...they had to make the decisions that they either made injections or linkages to the tribal community and then also decisions in leadership. We still play that game. The kids love it. And then I found out really easily that adults love games. As you can see, they're having a great time there. So the other thing is we let everybody participate. Whatever group it was, whatever level of government they were in, they became part of the process. And we had quite a few different sessions.

We also established different educational series. One can find these on our website. It's and all one word. We also created our own strategic planning guide where different agencies followed the model. And then we also did different reports on nation building, had reports on what nation building is and put it in perspective with Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. So along the way we actually started making it in the news. And the other things is you need to identify who's going to help you with this process. We identified key opinion leaders through different boards, committees, elders and supporters. And also we also worked with Nation Nations Institute and we helped to pilot the long distance-learning curriculum. We had 48 members graduate from this course.

And in the end though, we did all this community engagement, but you have to have things to show. Tigua nation building ended up with a different code development. We did a tax code, we did an incorporation code, secured transaction code. We built different institutions such as the Tigua Inc. Development Corporation. Right now we're working on the non-profit. And we also did a lot of capacity building with the different departments. And we're also working at this time on an entrepreneurship program and resource development grants management. This process had a ripple effect on the tribe. There was one -- as I started off -- a changed mindset and raised accountability for different departments as well as the tribal government. When we changed the tax code, for example, we went from $58,000 in taxes and ended up the very next year, we had a $1 million in taxes. And part of the reason for this is the tribe had decided that it was going to wholesale adopt the State of Texas code and of course that wasn't feasible or we really couldn't enforce it. But by changing the code to a small manageable code, we were able to raise revenue through there. We did needs-based fundraising tied to our strategic plans. We went from $350,000 a year in raising funds to $3 million a year. And then we also diversified our economy through Tigua Inc. and we do federal contracting now and we are developing a commercial district.

Just a word: keep it fresh, keep the momentum up, do different things. Like for example, now we have an AmeriCorps Program where our youth in college are actually doing the nation building for us, and work with different partners as well. Make sure that you recognize individuals at all levels and incorporate culture in everything that you do. And also keep the bottom line in mind. This whole process is about actually adding value, both quantitative and qualitative value. So in the end you've got to deliver. So this our...we're building this right now, the Tigua Business Center, which is going to house economic development, the Tigua Development Corporation, as well as some tribal member businesses, and then we're also building a Tigua Technology Center that's also going to be an incubator for the tribe. It's not really the buildings; it's the things that are taking place in the buildings. Those are in a nutshell the things that we've done over the last few years. Thank you."

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