Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by CEO Michael D. Smith at the June 2023 AmeriCorps Native Nations Convening
Delivered on June 29, 2023, in Las Vegas, Nevada
Thank you for inviting me. I’m grateful to be here today as a visitor in the traditional homelands of the Southern Paiute People. And I’m grateful to all of you for dedicating this time to come together, build community, learn from one another, and share best practices with each other and with AmeriCorps staff. I know that our team has been on site to answer questions this week. And I also know that we have as much to learn from you, as you do from us.
I want to bring greetings and gratitude on behalf of the Biden-Harris administration and all of AmeriCorps. I’m proud to serve in an administration that has elevated Indigenous leadership, driven unprecedented funding into Indian Country, prioritized tribal consultation to strengthen our Nation-to-Nation relationships, and promoted co-stewardship opportunities for our public lands.
President Biden’s leadership sets the standard for AmeriCorps—and all federal agencies—to not only uphold our federal trust responsibility, but to imagine what more is possible with true collaboration.
And that is what I hope you leave here with today: an expanded view of what is possible with AmeriCorps across Indian Country and in partnership with Indigenous-led organizations.
I sometimes talk about AmeriCorps as the “Swiss Army Knife” of the federal government. We can do a lot! Often with very few resources.
Our network of 200,000 AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Senior volunteers serve in nearly 40,000 locations across the US. That means we’re well-positioned to respond to urgent situations, like natural disasters that can destroy homes and interrupt critical services.
We are also a tool to address everyday challenges and opportunities.
And we’re not some nameless faceless federal entity. AmeriCorps members are from the community and for the community – addressing challenges great and small while also transforming the lives of those who serve.
I continue to be inspired by the work that you are doing to strengthen communities, build a resilient climate, and create opportunity for members of your tribes, families, and communities.
Today your programs are:
Training people in natural resource management so they can restore trails, mitigate runoff, remove invasive species, protect your lands, and keep all of us safer from wildfires and other disasters;
Developing pathways to college for students in your tribal colleges – and to good jobs for people at all stages of life, including elders;
Helping families and individuals make healthy choices for their future and fight the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 and opioid epidemics;
Supporting tribal youth and young adults to build leadership and career skills that will spark a lifetime of service—and create pathways for more Indigenous leadership in our schools, cities, states, and other systems…
My hope is that AmeriCorps can be your tool—not only to solve challenges in your communities—but also to support the preservation and revitalization of traditional language, culture, traditions, and sense of belonging.
I think about my trip to Zuni Pueblo last year, where I had the opportunity to visit with elders serving as Foster Grandparent and Senior Companion volunteers. I even had the privilege of visiting the homes of people receiving companion care—who told me how Senior Companions acted as a lifeline to their communities. It was an honor to receive their hospitality and hear them speak their language. It was also beautiful to see inter-generational families in service and action. And to witness so many retired Foster Grandparents and Senior Companions, who are now being served by the next generation.
I also think about Cherokee Nation’s Head Start program doing the vitally important work supporting the social-emotional and academic readiness of our youngest learners.
I think about Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation and their mission of empowering Lakota youth and families through healing and strengthening of cultural identity. I hear you are doing great work recruiting AmeriCorps members from the Pine Ridge community.
And I am looking forward to learning more about other projects and programs in our listening session today.
I keep coming back to a quote from Secretary Haaland: “This country was built on principles and systems that were meant to either assimilate or exterminate people like me – to either make me blend into the background of America or get rid of me altogether. But, against all odds, I am still here.”
Those systems that sought to exterminate Indigenous peoples and cultures from our country show up today in the form of barriers—barriers that make it harder to access critical services like quality, affordable healthcare, or reliable internet.
And sometime, those systems look like archaic government grant portals and challenging federal requirements to access and manage federal grants.
We have a lot of work to do to ensure that AmeriCorps is an effective tool for all entities, including Native Nations and tribal groups. As an agency and the largest grant-maker for service and volunteering, we have a responsibility to reduce and remove those barriers—to help you access federal resources and technical support to leverage the power of national service. That’s why we’re bringing back important forums for conversations like this one.
We’re spending more time building relationships in Indian Country—to make sure you can access the technical knowledge needed to compete for federal grants.
I think about Families Working Together, who I believe is here today. Can you raise your hands? Last year they were awarded a planning grant and worked directly with an AmeriCorps portfolio manager. This relationship supported building out the program and all the levers needed to become compliant with federal funding. And this year they were awarded more than $480K which supports 46 AmeriCorps members.
We’re doing our own internal work too—to build cultural competency across our agency and ensure we’re entering communities with cultural humility. So far about 150 staff have completed training with Tribal Tech.
Just a few days ago, we just announced $7M in grant funding for 18 grantees in Indian Country.
This isn’t enough. We want to move more money to tribes and native-led organizations.
My sincere hope is that, between everything our staff is learning from you this week and everything we talk about today—and those of you who have joined us as prospective partners for the future—our funds can be put to greater use in decreasing invisibility and increasing visibility of tribes, Native Americans, and Indigenous people across this country.
So to go back to my original point: I want to think about what more we can do. I am excited to be with you today to hear more about your ideas and hopes for the future with AmeriCorps.
Thank you again for sharing your time and wisdom with my team and me this week, and for being partners with us in this national service journey.