“We will continue leaning in”: Nick Tilsen on COVID-19 Response

Nick Tilsen · May 6, 2020

“We will continue leaning in”: Nick Tilsen on COVID-19 Response

NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen recaps the past month of mobilization in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hau Mitakuyapi. Greetings, Relatives.


This past month has been one filled with extraordinary challenges and yet answered with even more extraordinary courage. As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe, hitting North America and devastating Indigenous communities, we here at NDN Collective recognized this as a call-to-action– an opportunity to show up for our people, our communities and our movement.

We mobilized quickly, creating a comprehensive, multi-phased COVID-19 response strategy that included grant-making, narrative and truth-telling, capacity-building and mobilizing communities into action. As Tribal and community  leaders throughout the nation began reaching out to us by the dozens, we asked our philanthropic partners to not pull back but instead, step up. In challenging times, we came together, galvanizing a movement to protect our communities while holding on to the vision for radical transformation, which is what we set out to do since the inception of this organization.

We must build up people of color and Indigenous-led philanthropic and movement infrastructure organizations in order to challenge the power structures in this country and invest into the self-determination of the people on the frontlines.

We made a bold decision to keep existing programming going here at NDN Collective, while building a new fund and strategy to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. In the past 30 days we have raised over $4 million and deployed over $2.5 million to nearly 100 partners impacting over 200 Indigenous communities. This was possible because of organizers, activists, Tribal leaders, partners, philanthropic collaborators, and straight-up changemakers who were willing to step up in this historic moment.

I have been saying for years: We must build up people of color and Indigenous-led philanthropic and movement infrastructure organizations in order to challenge the power structures in this country and invest into the self-determination of the people on the frontlines– those who are closest to the pain and closest to the problems. When we do so, we will see innovation, courage, and we will begin building a pathway of justice and equity that will eventually lead us all to liberation.

We will continue leaning in, binding together, moving resources and taking action.

The past 30 days have been evidence that organizations like NDN Collective, who have grown out of movements with lived experience in doing this work, can be catalytic. We can stimulate change not only in times of crisis, but on the daily, as we strive to co-create the new world we are fighting for. We are charting a path forward, and there’s nobody else I would rather be in relationship with to do this work than with partners like all of you.

We will continue leaning in, binding together, moving resources and taking action, for the movements we build today will be the same force that creates the change tomorrow and for generations to come. 

Nick Tilsen
by   Nick Tilsen

Nick Tilsen, President & CEO, is a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Nick has over 20 years of experience building place-based innovations that have the ability to inform systems change solutions around climate resiliency, sustainable housing and equitable community development. He founded NDN Collective to scale these place-based solutions while building needed philanthropic, social impact investment, capacity and advocacy infrastructure geared towards building the collective power of Indigenous Peoples. Tilsen has received numerous fellowships and awards from Ashoka, Rockefeller Foundation, Bush Foundation and the Social Impact Award from Claremont-Lincoln University. He has an honorary doctorate degree from Sinte Gleska University.

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