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Meet WHEDA's Strategic Market & Tribal Liaison: Erica Steele

In 2004, Governor Jim Doyle signed Executive Order #39 which affirmed a government-to-government relationship between the State of Wisconsin and the Tribal governments located within Wisconsin. In 2019, Governor Tony Evers signed Executive Order #18, which included an updated policy for state agencies. One requirement of the revisions was that all state agencies designate at least one person to serve as a liaison to Wisconsin’s eleven federally recognized Tribal Nations. WHEDA had already created the Tribal Liaison position in 2004, which had been held first by Senator Janet Bewley and then for 15 years by Deby Dehn.

In the fall of 2020, Erica Steele accepted the role of WHEDA’s newly created Strategic Market Liaison position. The goal of the position was to focus on expanding relations with underserved markets. However, Erica’s extensive background working with BIPOC (Black Indigenous and People of Color) communities also made her the perfect fit for the newly open Tribal Liaison position upon the retirement of Deby Dehn. Since these responsibilities complement each other so well, Erica’s role was expanded. This new role allows her to deepen WHEDA’s relationship with diverse communities on a state-wide level.

No two days look the same for Steele as she combines virtual and in-person work. Much of her time is focused on listening and learning from stakeholders; whether traveling throughout the state to engage and learn about community needs or attending conferences, webinars, and other educational opportunities to better understand policies or strategies that can empower communities. Steele emphasized that it’s crucial to learn the rich histories and cultures of different communities, best practices, and innovative models to find ways that WHEDA can be a partner to provide support in an equitable, impactful, and culturally competent way to communities, organizations, and their partners.

Steele, in conjunction with the Executive Office and the Community and Economic Development team, interacts and engages with indigenous communities in a variety of ways. Each year, WHEDA hosts an annual consultation with Wisconsin’s eleven federally recognized Tribal Nations. This formal meeting with leaders of each of the eleven Tribal Nations allows for the government-to-government opportunity to discuss sovereign nation needs and provide feedback on how WHEDA can better strengthen their partnership with each tribe and native communities throughout the state. In addition, WHEDA regularly facilitates additional informal opportunities to connect with the tribes including on-site visits to reservations and other cultural markers, hosting quarterly meetings with housing directors to brainstorm ways to collaborate, and incorporating Tribal participation into more areas, including the Annual WHEDA Conference.

Throughout my career, I have had a genuine interest in learning about the communities I work with. I dedicate the necessary time to expand my understanding about their needs, collaborate with them, and be a resource. I hope the tribes see me as someone who takes the time to build meaningful relationships, is an advocate, and is doing everything I can to support. I really enjoy this aspect of the role. I've had the honor and privilege to get to know some of the Tribal leaders and staff well because of this. We have important work to do together.
-Erica Steele, Strategic Market & Tribal Liaison

When asked about what she’s learned through her work with Wisconsin tribes, Steele shared that Tribal sovereignty is of the utmost importance and respect. Tribal members are not racial minorities, they are citizens of sovereign nations. Additionally, it’s crucial to understand that the tribes are not a monolith. Although there are eleven federally recognized Tribal Nations in the state, Wisconsin is home to twelve different tribes with twelve different histories, governments, and constitutions. No Tribal leader speaks for all the tribes in Wisconsin. There’s a long history of tribes being misunderstood, and there are many different perceptions and myths in existence regarding how people and organizations can and cannot work with tribes. Due to systemic racism, disenfranchisement, and other barriers, Tribal communities have endured centuries of harsh realities, but, "There’s warmth and willingness to bring in new people to collaborate and partner. It means a lot when people know you’re coming from a genuine place and are truly committed to the work. It’s a mutual respect,” says Steele.

There’s a tremendous amount of need within indigenous communities that require looking for support at both the state and federal level. Ultimately, they want to break through the systemic barriers and gain access to equal opportunities and treatments. They want to see a better future for their communities just as any other community does throughout the state. Steele says,

The learning curve is steep, but if you keep yourself continuously open to learn, you can only improve. It’s tough work and you must be in it for the long haul. There isn’t a lot of instant gratification in this type of role because it’s complex, and projects or initiatives can take years or even decades to come to fruition.

While she’s only just begun her work and there is a lot to do, Steele is working tirelessly to open doors that were previously closed. If WHEDA specifically can’t do something to help, the Authority can connect tribes to other partners for additional resources and services.

It's a puzzle that I'm trying to figure out: what's the need and how can we come to the table to partner and support. I want to be somebody who is vocal in elevating Tribal interests and advocates for what more we can do to support tribes – I want to find those opportunities to help communities thrive.
-Erica Steele, Strategic Market & Tribal Liaison

There’s a mutual interest between WHEDA and the Tribal Nations. Indigenous communities need safe, stable, secure housing both on and off tribal lands in addition to access to resources in their communities. WHEDA views itself as a partner and continues to find ways to put tribes and other underserved communities front and center. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution; however, successful solutions can be adapted and replicated throughout the state. One future project to keep an eye on is the Tribal Supportive Housing Institute launching in Spring 2023. WHEDA appreciates Steele’s perspective and looks forward to a renewed focus to ensure that there is always Tribal representation and consideration in the work we do moving forward.


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WHEDA Standard Usage:

'tribes' 'Tribal' 'Tribal Nations'
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