Knowing Your Capabilities, Making a Declaration, and Being Believable

Tony LookingElk spoke at Minnesota Campus Compact’s Assets and Wellness event on March 8th. Below are excerpts from his powerful remarks.

There are three things I think are essential in doing asset-based work, especially when working with marginalized communities:  capabilities, making a declaration, and being believable.

What are our institutions capable of?  It’s amazingly important to know your capabilities when you engage communities.  People are going to wonder about that if they don’t have a relationship with you.  As an organization, the Bremer Foundation can’t have shy people.  You get 90 minutes to get to know an organization, who they serve, what they’re trying to achieve, and at the end of the day what is their impact. You have to have a conversation that gets at all of those points, so when we hire staff, we look at people’s ability to build relationships quickly, have those conversations, and communicate that information to the trustees.

A declaration is a formal explicit statement, not a big thing but an important thing.  In 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech and basically said before the decade is out we will land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth.  If you can imagine 1961, the audacity of that statement, it was an amazing statement, and literally when people heard it at the time, you couldn’t help but look upward and wonder if it was possible.  Who’s heard of Wernher von Braun?  He was a rocket scientist and six weeks before the pres gave that speech, Russia sman on the moonuccessfully had the first man orbit around planet earth.  Wernher von Braun was supposed to fig out what we as a country could do, so he wrote the White House a month before the speech and said we have the resources to beat Russia, to lead the world in space travel.  That gave the president the ability to make such a bold statement.  Who’s ever heard of Ralph Abernathy?  In 1963 Martin Luther King gave his I Have a Dream speech, which is oddly enough as visionary if he gave it today as it was in 1963.  Again he was transporting people to a place they couldn’t imagine themselves.  Why would he stir up so much hope, with the realities of what life was like in 1963?  Part of it was Ralph Abernathy, a minister and a leader in the civil rights movement.  I would characterize him as having the backroom skills, how to organize, plan, teach people to do the work of the movement, and King knew that and it gave him the confidence to set a very high bar for himself and our country.  So why would an ordinary citizen make a big statement that is visionary and make it public so everyone can hear it?

I’d say I got four proposals in the last year that said we’re going to end poverty.  It’s one thing to set a high bar, and another to know you can do it.  Especially with marginalized communities, it’s important to know your declaration and your capabilities.  Which brings us to believability.  It happens in two ways, the stories you tell and the life you lead.  I’m a fan of stories.  When you think of who you are, what you’ve learned from your family and community, give me a value or a principle you live by, share with us a story that demonstrates that value or principle.  Stories tend, especially when you engage marginalized communities, tend to be the way they communicate, so part of the ability to engage with stories is also the ability to hear them.

About a month ago I had to take my mom to the hospital, and I answered questions and listened, they took her vitals, asked her what she was experiencing, and looked at her medical history, which together enabled them to make what was essentially a hypothesis about her condition.  How do you diagnose a problem?  When you think about what you do, what is the information you took in, whether you did or someone before you, what is the assumption about information taken it to inform your program?  Are you able to take in diverse information and to make good decisions with diverse information?  The diagnosis is amazingly important and being clear about the information you’re taking in relates to your believability, shapes your declaration, and relates to your understanding of your readiness.

When you pursue making a difference, you’re actually asking for behavior to change, and part of it is being real clear about what behavior has to change to get to that outcome.  The road goes two ways—to people in communities and your own institutional behavior.  Being able to articulate that and understand it feeds into the idea that the conditions are ripe for these behaviors to change.  Lay out the reality of what we need to be willing to do to make that happen.

Tony LookingElk is son to Helen and Phillip LookingElk and is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewas and his father is Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Tony’s professional experience include government (county and federal level), non-profit and community based organizations addressing disparities in wealth, health and well-being. His philanthropic experience includes working with the Northwest Area Foundation where he served as a Community Liaison and currently with the Otto Bremer Foundation serving as a Program Officer. While Tony has a variety of formal education experiences, he credits his informal education through elders, community, family and culture that have provided him the skills, abilities and knowledge to serve communities well.


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