RAPID CITY –– At least half of this city’s Indigenous, or Native American, population lives in poverty, according to statistics from City-Data.com, which is one of the highest rates in the nation.
In real numbers, that translates to between 7,500 and 10,000 Indigenous citizens, based on in-community estimates and recent collegiate research figures that place Rapid City’s Indigenous population anywhere from 15,000-20,000, which translates to an approximate range of 20-30 percent of the city’s total population of near 70,000.Utilizing a set of annual income thresholds that vary by family size and composition, the federal government in the form of the U.S. Census Bureau defines poverty as follows, as set forth on the bureau’s website: “If a family’s total income is less than the family’s (categorically corresponding income) threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty. The official poverty thresholds do not vary geographically, but they are updated for inflation using Consumer Price Index (For All Urban Consumers, or CPIU). The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or non-cash benefits (such as public housing, Medicaid and food stamps).” Federal poverty thresholds for 2015 range from $12,331 yearly for a single individual, with no children, under 65 years of age to $45,822 yearly for a family of nine or more individuals. For lone elders 65 years of age or older, the poverty threshold necessarily dips to $11,367 yearly.
For those Indigenous Rapid Citians living the reality of these rather arbitrary figures, navigating and accessing the services available to ease the burden of disadvantage – or surviving poverty – is nothing short of a full-time hourly job, with no compensation for overtime, that is both physically taxing and psychologically draining due to the decentralization and disconnectedness of the brick-and-mortar locales of the agencies that provide necessary, entitled services as well as the specialized skills of innovation, creativity and resourcefulness required.
An evolving, ambitious community initiative – which is the first of its kind in scope and breadth, at least in recent history – Rapid City Collective Impact, aims to streamline and centralize the rather sprawling social, human and community services that are everyday components of the lives of those Rapid City residents who are at a disadvantage, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
Reducing, or even eliminating, duplication of services and increasing collaboration between the area not-for-profit agencies that provide much-needed support for individuals and families living with the challenge of poverty are paramount objectives of the Rapid City Collective Impact initiative, or RCCI, as it is also known.
“Everyone working together to build a better city,” as taken from the header of its website, would seem to be the driving mantra of the collaborative undertaking.
Officially implemented last fall with the selection of an original fellowship cadre of 50 up-and-coming leaders from all walks of life within the Rapid City community; the seeds for RCCI lie with Regional Health President and CEO Brent Phillips, who has held his position since January of last year.
Not long after Phillips began his tenure with Regional Health, in early May 2015, a White nurse who had just completed her probationary period at Rapid City Regional Hospital, Ryane Oliva, posted a 13-second video of herself on Facebook making explicitly derogatory, inflammatory remarks toward Indigenous in general as well as Blacks.
The hospital, being the largest in the region, provides care for thousands of tribal peoples on an annual basis.
The response to Oliva’s profane, unwarranted and seemingly hate-filled rant from both Regional Health and the area’s Indigenous community was swift and decisive: Within hours of the video spreading like wildfire across social media sites, Oliva had been dismissed from Rapid City Regional Hospital and a protest rally targeting her had been organized by local Indigenous citizens, with hundreds signed up to join the protest in just a couple of hours, according to Phillips.
In a statement issued by Phillips following the incident, he said, “Regional Health has a zero tolerance policy regarding this type of behavior by its caregivers inside or outside the workplace. We will not stand for any type of racism or bigotry on the part of our caregivers or physicians. We take this type of behavior very seriously and the employee has been terminated, as it clearly violates the Regional Health Code of Conduct.”
Phillips continued: “I believe the actions by this individual are an exception to the thoughts and behaviors of Regional Health caregivers. Our caregivers are upset by it. Let me be clear, Regional Health’s purpose is to help all of our patients and communities live well. We are focused on providing quality, compassionate care to all of our patients.”
Further, in the aftermath of Oliva’s behavior and subsequent firing, the Regional Health leader encouraged community members to carry on with the scheduled rally against Oliva, stating at the time that Regional Health employees would join the community “in a show of solidarity” and adding that “Together, we will show we are stronger when we stand together and there is no place for racism or bigotry anywhere in our great state.”
Also in the aftermath of the incident, Phillips had an unexpected, moving conversation with an Indigenous woman from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that sparked his resolve to address the issues of discrimination and impoverishment in an effective, meaningful way.
At the Rapid City Collective Impact Emerging Leaders Celebration held April 19 at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Phillips spoke on his encounter with the Indigenous woman at the May 2015 rally held at Rapid City Regional Hospital.
The woman, who was “holding a little baby about 6 or 8 months old,” he told the audience, informed Phillips that her sister had been a patient at Rapid City Regional Hospital for about a month and that she was visiting her, which she did every day.
When he asked the woman if she traveled from Pine Ridge on a daily basis, she let him know that she did not and that she had been staying at a hotel in Rapid City until she ran out of money. At that point, the woman started sleeping in her car.
“I thought ‘Wow. We don’t have opportunities to house family members like you see in other cities, like a Ronald Mc- Donald House or other types of venues,’” Phillips said.
And during the celebration, Phillips referred to the protest directed at Oliva as a “unity rally,” adding that it was the “beginning of a healing within my organization and within the community, and it launched a great conversation throughout our community.”
“What could have been a real tragic event turned into a really big, fantastic event,” he said.
Subsequently, businessmen and leading philanthropists Dan Senftner and Ray Hillenbrand met with Phillips to discuss next steps in determining real solutions to meet head-on the stark unrest between Rapid City’s predominant cultures, White and Indigenous, as well as the grinding, intergenerational poverty that many of the city’s citizens exist in.
The Regional Health President and CEO shared with Senftner and Hillenbrand the story of the Indigenous woman from the Pine Ridge Reservation with the 6-to-8- month-old infant who went to see her sister in the hospital daily and living in her automobile.
Out of that meeting, a plan to bring together nonprofit organizations and civic and business leaders emerged, says Phillips, to “remove barriers and hassles that we all face and those that we serve face and find ways to improve the quality of life and the joy of living in Rapid City.”
That somewhat segued plan gave impetus to the Rapid City Collective Impact multi-year, multi-phasic community initiative and the elicitation of support from private funders, including Jim Scull, and the John T. Vucurevich Foundation, which established the Emerging Leaders Fellowship as part of RCCI.
Two separate groups comprised of leaders from the local business, civic and not-for-profit sectors, including Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender, were created as well to provide guidance and technical support.
In addition, Albert Linderman, who serves as the CEO for Sagis Corp. out of Minnesota, was brought on board as the director of RCCI. The Sagis Corp. provides collaborative support for individuals, organizations and communities implementing or undergoing significant transformation, or change, with lasting adaptation and improved outcomes in mind.
Linderman has over time developed a Sensemaking Discovery process to aid Sagis in partnering with clients to achieve lasting change. On Sagis’ website, its Sensemaking Discovery process is described as “both a research approach and a communicating strategy for proceeding both humbly and with discipline in dialogue about people’s experiences. Remarkable insights are surfaced and articulated with this approach.”
Moreover, as explicated on Sagis’ website, “When surfaced, well articulated knowledge and mental models allow people from different sectors to collaborate more efficiently and effectively, leading to high quality community collaborations, organization and board strategic planning, and any initiative where getting a group of people working together effectively and consciously is essential.”
In explaining harnessing the power of a collective approach, Linderman told Native Sun News that “RCCI recognizes that, historically, funders and nonprofits generally overlook the potential for collective impact because they are used to focusing on independent action as the primary vehicle for social change. The nonprofit sector operates most commonly with isolated impact that approaches finding a solution embodied within a single organization, combined with the hope that the most effective organizations will grow or replicate to extend their impact more widely.
“Funders historically search for more effective interventions as if there were a cure for community health that only needs to be discovered, in the way that medical cures are discovered in laboratories,” he continued. “As a result of this process, nearly 1.4 million nonprofits try to invent independent solutions to major social problems, often working at odds with each other and exponentially increasing the perceived resources required to make meaningful progress.”
Since the beginning of the year, RCCI’s near-50 Emerging Leaders fellows have been conducting focus-group and one-on-one sessions with community members who receive support from the city’s social, human and community resources agencies to ascertain which agencies are most visible and utilized, and which ones are not, where there are service gaps – or where these agencies are falling short in the provision of services – and how the geographic locations of these agencies impact accessibility. The sessions with the community members are completed through the sense-making process in order to add meaning and clarity – even purpose – to lived experiences, or the phenomenology of life.
As part of the effort, fellows also regularly participate in learning groups designed to engage the community as a whole at the grassroots level as an added component of RCCI.
Discovering the root causes of poverty as well as how poverty is defined across a spectrum, from generational to material to situational to psychological, emotional and relational, even abject, are core elements of the collective initiative.
Several of RCCI’s fellows are tribal members.
“I was compelled to join RCCI because I saw great potential in the initiative,” Alecia Apa, an Emerging Leaders fellow, told NSN. “I am a lifelong resident of Rapid City and love the community. I see so many social problems that need to be addressed to make this place the best it can be. I love the community and the people who live here and very much want to be a part of something bigger than myself. I am called to participate in making this world a better place,” she said.
Apa is a behavior support specialist at Black Hills Works.
Jennifer Williams, another Emerging Leaders fellow, stated to NSN: “Rapid City is my community, and I am dedicated to bettering the quality of life for our community members. I believe we are all in this world together and our diversity is the path through which we will obtain success. Through RCCI, I hope to increase my individual connections with people in our community. I hope to gain the tools to help convince people to leave their silos of comfort in favor of real community connection. I hope to gain the knowledge and vocabulary to inspire people to see the value in being celebrators instead of critics. It’s easy to criticize, pass judgment and condemn. Through RCCI, I hope we, as a community, find it easier to understand others.”
Williams serves as the attorney for South Dakota Supreme Court Justice Lori S. Wilbur.
The work of the initiative, which is the groundwork for lasting change in Rapid City, will continue through the summer of 2017.
“In the process of the initiative, the funders intend eventually to impact poverty, employment, education, housing, health care, food insecurity and substance abuse, while facilitating a collaborative model that will become intrinsic to what it means to live in the city,” said Linderman. “Accomplishing this will fulfill the initiative’s stated vision of ‘Improving Life and Living in Rapid City.’”
To find out more about Rapid City Collective Impact, visit the initiative’s website at www.rccimpact.com.
(Contact Jesse Abernathy at JesseFilcaske@gmail.com)
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