June 24, 2020
In this podcast episode, we focus on navigating change and another tribal leadership journey. The conversation focuses on how COVID-19 has impacted daily lives and tribal communities.
Join us for Jason Schlender's conversation with Dennis Olson, Jr. as he takes us through a journey filled with inspiration and admiration for his parents and many mentors that guided his journey. His story showcases a strong display of leadership, his desire for servant leadership, and the need for resources to bolster education with tribes and the state of Minnesota.
- Jason Schlender, former Extension leadership and civic engagement educator
- Dennis Olson, Jr., commissioner of higher education
- Learn more about the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa response to the COVID-19 Pandemic from the following websites:
- Read more about servant leadership
- Learn more about leadership and civic engagement through resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Read this episode's conversation below.
Note: Our Indigenized Connections On Air episodes are audio-based interviews. Written transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before referencing content in print.
Jason Schlender: Welcome to Indigenous Connections On Air podcast, brought to you by the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality in the area of leadership and civic engagement, and also by the Minnesota Indigenous Leadership Network, which explores the issues that impact tribal communities and leadership throughout Minnesota. I'm your host, Jason Schlender, and I'm the American Indian leadership and civic engagement educator.
My guest today is from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Previous to his current appointment, he was the commissioner of education for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He was also the director of the Office of Indian Education for the Minnesota Department of Education; and was also the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council. He currently serves on Governor Walz’s cabinet as commissioner of higher education. He holds a B.A. from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in American Indian studies, sociology and communications. He also holds two master's degrees in liberal studies and education from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He and his wife, Shauna live in Hugo, Minnesota with their two children. In his spare time, he enjoys golfing, hunting, fishing, and being outdoors, and spending time with his kids and family.
Today's topic is “navigating change.” And so please welcome Dennis Olsen Jr. to the podcast.
Dennis Olson: Boozhoo!
Jason Schlender: Our theme for our podcast is leadership in a crisis. Obviously tribes and the state have been impacted in this country has been impacted by COVID-19. So if you could maybe just kind of elaborate on your own leadership journey and how you got to the position and place you're at now today?
Dennis Olson: Yeah, I appreciate it. Thanks for thanks for having me and giving me the opportunity to talk with you today. You know, whenever I'm asked about my leadership journey, I quickly reflect back on the experience of my parents and experience of those that came before me. And maybe that's just a part of my nature as an Ojibwe man, but I just always have to reflect back on the sacrifices that were made that allowed me to be where I am today.
And so, you know, when I am asked to share my leadership journey, I immediately think about the path that my parents provided and paid for me. And, you know, really looking back, even back to childhood. And I think about the times I got to go to work with my dad and the times I got to tag along with my mom at work. My dad worked almost his entire career for the Fond du Lac Band, working at the reservation. He started working there in the 1970s before there was any infrastructure there whatsoever, and he was the executive director for Fond du Lac Band in the early and mid-80s. And that's really kind of the start of economic development on the reservations. Prior to that, it was a reliance on a lot of federal grants, but I watched him throughout his entire career, and he retired as the construction projects manager.
Going home now and driving around the rez, it's just amazing to see all of the infrastructure that my dad's fingerprints are on. He was, he was a part of building the Ojibwe school and an integral part of building the community center and the tribal center and all the community centers in the various communities around Fond du Lac. And of course, instrumental in the development of the gaming operations, Black Bear Casino, and then the renovation that followed along with the new hotel tower and his baby of course, was bringing the golf course to the community. And he had a big passion for golf and had mentored a lot of young Fond du Lac’ers and brought them into the game of golf. And now when I golf with friends and family, I can see that he touched a lot of folks. And then thinking about my mom too, she spent almost her entire career at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and she retired as assistant director of the American Indian Learning Resource Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
And she was, she was always a tireless advocate for native students and understanding their specific struggles because she lived it herself and just being able to be around that environment and have strong mentors and strong parents that really instilled in me the importance of hard work, but more importantly, the importance of serving your community. I think that really shines true for me today. And I had some opportunities that were presented to me that ultimately led to my journey as commissioner of higher education today. And when I started at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities as an undergrad student, I was presented an opportunity to work part-time with native youth, looking at their transition from high school to life after high school, whether that was college or a job or career opportunities or military opportunities. Being able to work alongside native youth with all of our communities in Minnesota has really been my jumping-off point.
I was able to stay at the University of Minnesota in various capacities, even through graduate school at UMD, managing and coordinating federally funded grants to again, work with native high school students and work with youth with disabilities. And that led me to an opportunity to work at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. With my extensive grant knowledge, I figured I would be a good candidate as their grants director for the band. And so I went to Mille Lacs and interviewed for their grants director job and got a call back thinking I was either going to be asked for a second interview or to share some more information. And they actually asked me to come up and interview again the very next day. And so I traveled back to Mille Lacs and did an interview and realized later that I was actually being interviewed as their commissioner of education for the band.
I kind of felt at that moment that I was being asked to serve in a different way and was happy to serve the Mille Lacs band for nearly four years in that capacity, overseeing Nay Ay Shing Schools and the higher education division boys and girls clubs, early childhood offerings. And through those relationships built with the Mille Lacs band, I met the former commissioner of education for the State of Minnesota, Dr. Brenda Cassellius. She at the time was really in the process of rebuilding the Indian Education Office at the state level. She invited me to interview for that position, which I did. And again, I was asked to serve as the director of Indian education, and from there, just continued being asked to serve. While in that position, tribal leaders around the state asked me to apply for a leadership position as the executive director of the Indian Affairs Council.
Of course you know, when tribal leaders ask you to step into a position, it's really hard to say no, because you know they see a need that that has to be filled. And of course, I jumped at that opportunity. It was a difficult choice though because I really loved what I was doing in Indian education. And then I had to have that same conversation on the other side of the coin with tribal leaders, when I was asked by Governor Walz to serve in his administration as the commissioner of the Office of Higher Education. And thankfully all the tribal leaders in the states here really understood that we would have more opportunities as native people, if we had one of our own serving in the Governor's Cabinet and leading a state agency. So here I am today, and I guess I know that's maybe a little bit longer story than you may have anticipated me sharing, but it's a reflection of not only where I am today, how I got here, but of course, honoring those that really paved the way for me to be here today.
Jason Schlender: No, it's, I think it's valuable to share your experience because for our listeners out there and for our young people, especially in tribal communities, it's about being able to navigate sometimes what we say, navigating two worlds, right? There's our professional lives within how we serve within our reservation, tribal communities on the reservation, but then also working in a state or a federal level. I think your experiences is valuable and you've been, you know, fortunate that you had your parents there to kind of pave the way. And that's a common thing for a lot of us too, is that our parents play a crucial part in our lives as far as just being what we aspire to be. And they also show us what's what else is out there. With your experience that you've had, obviously, you know, we're experienced some challenging times right now. What do you, what do you think is important for leaders to keep in mind right now is they experienced this COVID-19?
Dennis Olson: One of the things I value the most about working for Governor Tim Walz here in Minnesota is that he really stresses servant leadership and being a servant leader first. And that sentiment can't be more true than navigating a crisis such as COVID-19 today. You know, I think it's critical that leaders remember why they were selected to be in leadership positions, and particularly for leadership positions in state government with the one I hold. It's to remember that you're there representing, you know, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people across the state. And you know, the decisions that you make impact tens of thousands of people at once. You really have to approach each decision that you're making critically, but always through that servant leader lens that, you know, we are there to serve other people. Never should we be making decisions that serve our own interests or that make things easier for us and make our jobs easier?
You know, we shouldn't necessarily be doing what's politically expedient or what can ultimately free up our time. We need to do things that are right, and that's hard during times of crisis because it really, it really stresses the ways that we have to be flexible. And you know, that we have to on one hand, understand that things are changing rapidly and that may have to respond quickly to issues. But that we also need to within that time take a little bit of time to still be critical, still be analytical about the decisions that we're making. But ultimately, it's the flexibility and the need to pivot to what's most important.
And at this time you really realize and find out what is truly important. Some of those “normal activities,” those daily activities that we thought were critical and crucial, you really find out under the pressure of a situation like this that maybe they weren't so important, and what's really important is about keeping people healthy, keeping people safe, keeping people really … alive. And then within that too, as a leader, you also have to maintain, particularly if you were leading a large staff or if you're making decisions that impact a lot of folks, you also have to maintain some sort of sense of normalcy to our state agencies.
Although most of us are working from home, if not all of us are working from home, and under different circumstances. We have to present that air of confidence and that we can, although things are different, be as “new normal” as possible, I guess. Finally, I think, leaders at this time really need to really need to approach situations with a greater sense of grace and understanding, you know, folks are going through a lot right now. I mean, I think that's obvious … a lot of folks are stressed.
The normal work pressures and expectations that we have for folks that work with us or, folks that we're working on behalf of, we just need to really build in an extra level and layer of understanding and be extra empathetic during this time, you know? And so I really take time when I'm talking to members of my senior leadership team or staff or customers or constituents, I really just take an extra second or two to thank them, to wish them well, to ask if they're safe and healthy. And I think that goes a long way and you really help set a set a tone, a calm tone and be able to maintain that sense of normalcy through all this, even though things are wildly different for everyone.
Jason Schlender: Yeah. I mean, I think when I think of this crisis that we're in, I think you know, it's a situation that brings out the best and the worst of people. When you're speaking of the best in your leaders really shine through, you know, with their decision making and how inclusive or exclusive they are and also, thinking of how it brings out the worst in people. And so there is some of the poor leadership has really showcased sometimes on a federal level. Yeah. I definitely appreciate your viewpoint in that. So when we think about [it], you know, I wish we had a little bit more time to kind of sit here for a while talking about all these different leadership styles or just philosophy in general. But when we think of like a post quarantine changes, what do you see happening within the Minnesota education?
Dennis Olson: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, one of the things that keep me up at night is that during times of crisis, and we're clearly seeing that right now, our equity gaps are unfortunately shining brighter than they ever have. They're really showing their faces right now. You know, I think constantly about our pressures for students that are learning through alternate methods, whether we have young ones or middle school or high schoolers, learning now at home through distance methods, through alternative delivery of their studies, as well those in higher education who have been expected to do the same. And some that are juggling both responsibilities, having to be responsible now for delivering the teachings to their little ones, as well as be responsible for their own studies.
That's an incredible amount of pressure, but it's even more troubling for students with disabilities or are first generation college students or students who are adult students. Like I said, balancing work and family and school. We know we have a lot of students we had before that were food insecure or housing insecure. And then in Greater Minnesota, we've heard countless stories already just about issues of equity and access. You know, all of these program offerings are now essentially being delivered online and do we even have appropriate internet connectivity and infrastructure available for our students? You know, these changes are real and we've been struggling to address them under normal circumstances. And now it's clearly evident that we have some major issues in education that need to be addressed if we're to have not only an equal playing field, but an equitable playing field.
You know, the transition quickly here is, has been difficult and for higher ed students for some of them, it's not necessarily what they signed up for. And, you know, it's creating a lot of difficulties. I really thank and praise our higher education institutions for being as nimble as absolutely possible to develop quickly, offerings to still maintain sort of continuity in their coursework. Faculty and staff on campuses have been incredible. But you know, we do know that that students still have a lot of needs that are unmet and those needs aren't going away. And so, really kind of post the situation, I know that higher education and maybe education in general will look different. We may be having and making some difficult decisions about prioritizing what really is important and what isn't necessarily as important anymore.
Again, I had mentioned just the basic needs, making sure that folks are healthy and safe and happy. I think if we expect the same out of education, there may be some dated practices that we don't have to go back to, because they've been tested and were proven during this time to not be as important as some of the other things that we know to be large needs for our students. And so, there there's a lot of unknowns right now, but my guess is that post this situation, once we are on the back end of the curve, we're certainly going to be having a lot of discussions about what the true needs are and in delivering equitable education.
Jay Schlender: So I would just like to pose a question to you. What do you see tribes connecting through economic development post COVID-19?
Dennis Olson: That's a great question. You know, I think there's a lot of discussions within our tribal nations and within our tribal governments about the absolute need to diversify their own tribal economies. You know, we've had an amazing gift of being able to provide programs and services and benefits to the tribal members through gaming enterprises. But there's an absolute need now today to diversify. And we're seeing that shine through simply through this crisis, where most of our tribal nations have had to either partially closed or completely close and shut down their gaming operations. And, you know, it's impacting other aspects of economic development for tribes too. But, you know, what's potentially more concerning is that the story doesn't get told enough or doesn't get told well enough that the economic engine of tribes doesn't just impact tribal members themselves or the tribe itself but has a much larger--whether it be local, regional, or even statewide, sometimes nationwide impact.
We have tribal nations here in the state that have economic interests in numerous business entities across the nation. And all of those businesses are being impacted right now. But coming out of this, I think the story really will be the further need to diversify. And I think where my position intersects with that, where higher education intersects with that, is education can always be that opportunity and that pathway for something greater. And I think that's one of the reasons why tribes place such a strong importance and emphasis on making sure that their members and their employees and other partners have the opportunity to access education. We know where we're building a bench, we're building a bullpen. And for folks who are out of work right now, we hope that through this, they'll have opportunities to upskill and re-skill and retool and come back better able to serve-- serve the tribe, serve the tribal nation. But we also know that there are those coming up behind too, that will also need opportunities to get back to work to provide to their families. And so as much as tribes can think through not only the ways that they can diversify, but also continue to provide educational opportunities and training opportunities to their members and to their staff people certainly is an economic development strategy. Yeah. Well, that's our template.
Jason Schlender: Well that’s our time today. Miigwech for all your work, all your, everything you do for the state, and for the tribes, we appreciate it.
Dennis Olson: Miigwech, miigwech! Hey, you too. And just remember, you know, we're all in this together. We'll, I'll get through this together.
Jason Schlender: Miigwech to Dennis Olsen, Jr. for joining today's podcast. To learn more about the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s response to COVID-19 pandemic, please visit www.FDLREZ.com and also Black Bear Casino, owned and operated by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa at www.blackbearcasinoresort.com.
If you're interested in looking up the topic of servant leadership as discussed with our guests today, go to www.greenleaf.org. To learn more about leadership and civic engagement, go to extension.umn.edu/community-development/leadership-and-civic-engagement where you will find more resources on growing leaders and strengthening leadership.
Make sure to follow the Minnesota indigenous leadership network on Facebook, www.facebook.com/umn.indigenous.leadership.network to stay up to date on research and resources for tribal communities and tribal leadership. We hope that you will join us again for another episode of Indigenized Connections On Air.
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