UAII Unveils New Department Focused on a Brighter Economic Future

Thanking our Creator. It was a prayer that inaugurated one of the most innovative, groundbreaking events ever hosted in the Los Angeles American Indian community, as United American Indian Involvement (UAII) unveiled its new Workforce Development and Training Department.

The program, overseen by Director Rene Williams (Colville), is set to transform a community previously mired in a generational cycle of poverty into a thriving, secure, and stable one that will contribute significantly to the economy of Los Angeles County.

Phil Hale (Dine’) opens the event with an Honor Song. UAII Director of Development Joseph Quintana (Kewa Pueblo) looks on.

The opening prayer, given by Eddie Hummingbird (Cherokee) and followed with an honor song by Phil Hale (Dine’), set the tone for a year of upward mobility and financial empowerment in the American Indian community. The energy was electric.

Promoted heavily on social media with the hashtags #UAIIWorkReady and #Learn2Earn, the invitation-only event took place at UAII headquarters on Thursday, June 6th, in celebration of a $4.8 million dollar, 3-year grant that will provide American Indians/Alaskan Natives with an unprecedented opportunity to gain access to a competitive job market and prepare for long-term career growth.

The event featured two exciting highlights – a ribbon cutting ceremony with Los Angeles 1st District County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, who lauded the new UAII program and expressed her overwhelming support, and an award presentation honoring the work of Omerlene Thompson (Gila River), longtime UAII staff member who began on the streets of Skid Row 36 years ago and has helped provide support services for American Indians in Los Angeles ever since.

County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis (right) presents Omerlene Thompson (Gila River) with a Lifetime Achievement Award honoring 36 years of service with UAII.

When asked how the new Workforce Development and Training Program will affect the Native community in Los Angeles, Thompson could hardly contain her enthusiasm. “It’s needed,” she said.

“I know it’s needed, because a lot of our Natives say they really want to come to a place where it’s Native. We feel more comfortable when we’re not standing out compared to everybody else. To come somewhere where they know there are other Natives.”

Thompson continued, “I work with families, and I also head the senior program that we have here. Some of our seniors, we have them here today (in attendance) – they are a part of this (workforce training) too. We have another program called WIND, where we merge Youth and Elders together. It’s all part of this. Youth are learning from the Elders.”

UAII Director of Development Joseph Quintana (Kewa Pueblo) opened with a formal greeting in several native languages.

He spoke to the large audience of tribal Elders, political leaders, long-standing community partners, and good friends of UAII, describing the new program. “We provide services for folks from over 200 different tribes,” he explained.

Director of Development Joseph Quintana (Kewa Pueblo) prepares for the ribbon cutting as UAII unveils its new Workforce Development and Training Department.

“I’d like to say we all agree on everything, but sometimes we don’t, though there are a couple of things that we do agree upon: How we treat each other; How we relate to the community; How we relate to our families; The influence of giving to one another. Sometimes we’re almost humble to a fault. But it’s important to also be able to congratulate each other; to be able to highlight each other. Especially when we have opportunities to highlight success. Because it is an opportunity that we can show our future generations to say, you can do it too.”

Quintana continued, “It’s been over 20 years since we added a new department at UAII. We have 4 primary departments here, and now we’ve added a 5th. We do behavioral health. We do physical health. We have Youth education. Youth leadership. We also do substance abuse counseling and treatment. And now we’ve added workforce development and training, with a 6th underlying goal, which is culture.”

He added, “Our community members can go anywhere else in the county. They can receive wonderful services. But the thing that makes UAII unique – the thing that keeps bringing them in the door is the culture that we’ve established here and that it’s inviting to those 200 tribes. We’re thankful for having that opportunity to lead in that way.”

Quintana introduced Williams along with her newly formed team. He encouraged everyone in attendance to introduce themselves to the new team and to share their thoughts about the future of the program.

“I’d like to say we know everything, but I’m going to be the first person to tell you we don’t,” he said. “Getting your opinions – your insight – is invaluable to us as the program develops and grows. This is just the start; laying the bedrock and the foundation for where we want to go.”

He continued, “This program will include long-term economic development, economic security, and improving the economic health for our community members. Over 90% of our clients are low income or fall below the federal poverty line. 95% of our folks come from a state or federally recognized tribe. These are just some statistics as far as the number of folks we can potentially impact. We want to work towards establishing small business access and financial literacy, home ownership, creditworthiness, asset management.”

Supervisor Hilda L. Solis (center), Program Director Rene’ Williams (Colville, center-left), and UAII staff member Omerlene Thompson (Gila River, center-right) lead in the inauguration of the new UAII Workforce Development and Training Department.

He added, “I know there’s this word called ‘transformation’ and that’s what we want for our community. We want something ‘better than’ and we want to leave our young people in a better position. We have an opportunity to do it but we need help. This is where partnerships come in, not only at the political level but also potential advocates, potential funders, and groups who are working in the same businesses as we are. We don’t have to go in and reinvent the wheel.”

Quintana went on to introduce the UAII Board of Directors in attendance, and he thanked the other friends of UAII who’d made the effort to attend.

“We’ve built partnerships with a number of groups including the LA County Workforce Development Board – we will be building an MOU with them in order to provide services all across LA County. The LA City/County American Indian Commission. I am a fellow commissioner, appointed by the mayor’s office, working hard with each and every one of you on the issues that impact our community!”

Quintana explained that last year, due to the efforts of many in attendance, Los Angeles formally recognized the replacement of Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples Day.

“Not just the Commission, but our entire community was involved in this,” he explained.

“Why is this important? So our young people don’t feel ‘less-than.’ So they don’t have to fall into the stereotype that they don’t matter, that their cultures don’t matter. Before 1492 there was science here. There was astronomy here. There was art. There were strong governments. Education. Now we have an opportunity to retell the narrative based on our own stories and our own knowledge. Some of our Commissioners are here today.”

Other community leaders in attendance included Linda Estrella of Walking Shield. “We don’t have a formal location in Orange County,” explained Quintana.

“Our partnership with Walking Shield is going to be important for our success down there. Simon Lopez (Vice President, Workforce and Career Development at Goodwill of Southern California) has been tremendous for us. They are doing incredible work getting people trained and into good jobs. Long Beach’s Pacific Gateway. We’re very happy to build this partnership with them – this gives us entrance and access to American Indians who are living in the Long Beach/Cerritos/Norwalk area. We want to acknowledge our partnership with TANF – we thank them so much for the work that they have done. Red Circle Project, and the American Indian Counseling Center. We are so thankful for this opportunity.”

When discussing the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Quintana could barely contain his enthusiasm. “You know, there is a lot of development happening downtown,” he said.

“All across LA County – what does that mean? It means there are open positions and there are people hiring! But do we have the skillsets and the work experience to be able to fill those jobs? At UAII, we now have an opportunity with this new program to provide our folks with the necessary resources they need to be successful. Not just for an entry-level job, but for long-term career development.”

Quintana finished by thanking the Grantsmanship Center, adding, “there has been darkness for American Indian people in our community. But it’s during the darkness of night that light shines its brightest, either from individuals who act like stars in the community who bring us together, or from a guiding light like UAII, that can shine its light on a path for a clearer future – for our organization, for our community members, and for the future of our people. And that’s really how we honor our ancestors. It’s what we can do for two, three, seven generations after us.”

When introducing Supervisor Solis, Quintana became emotional. He explained that Solis is “not only a tremendous representation of minority populations, but she is an inspiration to Angelinos, she is an inspiration to women of color, she is an inspiration to men of color, like myself. I think that no matter where she’s gone or where she’s progressed, she has always represented where she’s from. Just like us.”

Many well-known public servants sent congratulatory messages on behalf of themselves and their offices, including Congressman Adam Schiff, City Council President Herb Wesson, City Council Member Mitch O’Farrell, and Representative Jimmy Gomez, who, according to Quintana, “…was tremendously impactful not only on this particular grant, but for other grants that have been submitted and have been funded as well.”

Jerimy Billy (Navajo), Executive Director of UAII, expressed his pride over the tremendous accomplishments of the organization. “This is what makes us so special,” he explained to the large crowd.

“If they (our community) need health care, we have it. Psychological or substance abuse or mental health treatment, we have that here. Youth programs – if I were involved in summer camps like my boys are right now, who knows what kind of impact that would have had in my life. Being able to apply workforce training and development into an organization like ours, I think it is such a tremendous opportunity, whether you are low income, no income, medium income, or just looking to improve.”

Supervisor Hilda L. Solis (center) with UAII Executive Director Jerimy Billy (Navajo, right) and award-winning UAII staff member Omerlene Thompson (Gila River).

Billy described the humble beginnings of the new program. “Rene’ (Williams) has been a tremendous blessing because we told her what the expectations were. Gene (Martinez) and I sat down with her… she was just so confident. Having no staff – having a big budget but nothing really to utilize it with, and no place to work out of, and then it just came up. All of the timing, it just seemed to work. And that’s how our agency works. That’s how our community works. That’s how all of our relationships and partners work. Now we are going to have community partners, and with the city and county being involved, you can just see an explosion of services that we’ll be able to provide for future generations. And the tribes. We always invite the tribes. Why? Because a lot of tribal members live off the reservation and where do they go? We do have urban centers like ours throughout the nation, and we’re a hub. We’re not saying we’re a replacement. We’re not asking to be a replacement for what the tribes do. But we do have a place where tribal members can go.”

One highlight of the event was a moving, very personal speech presented by Supervisor Solis.

“When I served as Secretary of Labor under President Obama,” she explained, “I had a chance to visit many Native American nations and communities, and see firsthand the multi-faceted needs that they faced – everything from inadequate housing to limited educational opportunities and lack of workforce training opportunities.”

1st District County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis

Solis praised the new UAII Workforce Development and Training Department. “For 45 years UAII has provided shelter, health care, food, mental health treatment, elder care, and youth leadership development,” she said.

“Expansion of UAII’s programs, through grants like the one awarded by the Department of Labor, are exactly what LA County’s Native American population needs to thrive. Workforce programs should focus on stabilizing individuals and families and preparing them for jobs and careers in industries that are projected to grow, such as health care, renewable energy, construction, information technology, among others. These efforts require a deep level of collaboration among multiple stakeholders – educational partners, nonprofit sector, government and the business community. Job and career training must be compounded with stable housing solutions to ensure individuals and families are set up for success.”

Andrea Monique Diaz (Seminole), Outreach Program Assistant for Torres Martinez Tribal TANF, was in attendance. “I’m a career guidance specialist for Torres Martinez, but as of today, I’m just talking as a regular person,” she said.

“I’m so excited to be here. It is a long time coming, I believe because there is a need. I work in the career development department and so I see a lot of the struggles Native families and individuals face. How do they attain employment? And if they’ve never attained employment, what are the barriers? Some of the big ones I’ve seen – it’s not that they can’t find a job. They can find a job. But there is a difference between a job and a career. Finding a full-time career – nowadays with the change of times, and especially with the merge of technology. You can find may part-time jobs. But how many part-time jobs does a family need in order to sustain a living? A stable, sustainable living to provide for their families?”

She continued. “School is not for everyone. That’s one thing I’ve also realized working with many families – sometimes they don’t like school, and that’s okay. But let’s find a trade. And that’s really about what is being presented today – let’s talk about trades; let’s talk about certificate programs; because that would benefit a lot of families.”

When asked about what she believes is the biggest barrier to entering the workforce, she was clear: “Fear of not knowing. Taking a risk. We’re trying to break the cycle of poverty. How do we address the cycle? How do we encourage our families to take that risk? Step out of that box? Go to school or maybe start their own business? Saying it is easy. Doing it is another. Having a dream without goals will always be a dream. But if they’re able and they have the funding – which this new grant will provide – helping single parents, improving the wellbeing of Native families, that’s how you begin to break the cycle of poverty.”

Thalia M. Quintana (Yaqui), UCLA (anticipated PhD 2021) shared similar concerns about the importance of family support as a first step towards self-sufficiency.

“I think workforce development has to have a well-rounded and holistic approach, in terms of having not only the skills, but also providing the resources so that community members can thrive,” she said.

Thalia M. Quintana (Yaqui)

“As a mom, I think a lot of people struggle with child care – the cost of child care while they are in school or getting new skills for the workplace. I think that’s probably the most challenging part. It has to be a holistic approach in terms of getting people not only the skills and the education for the jobs that are out there, but also putting them in positions where they can actually thrive for their entire families.”

She continued, “I think it’s extremely important to have women being able to create their own franchises or brands or anything of that nature. It’s important just to support families overall, whether it’s single mothers, mothers who have an entire family to look after, fathers who are single fathers – whatever the case may be. I think it’s important to think about the holistic aspect because a lot of times it’s not because you don’t want to get an education or you don’t want to get new skills. It’s because you don’t have the time.”

UAII Mentor and Elder Keith Veile (Blackfeet Nation) of the American Indian Counseling Center was in attendance to show support for his wife, award-honoree Omerlene Thompson, and to celebrate the inauguration of the new Workforce Development and Training Department.

“This program has been waiting since the days of Skid Row in 1974,” he said.

“And that’s how things evolve. They don’t evolve overnight. It takes time, it takes commitment with the community. It takes a lot of prayer to the Creator and that the community sticks together. I’m glad I’m in recovery – maybe this is why I got sober, to see the whole picture.”

He continued, “I think a Mentor Program is so important – like the UAII clubhouse. I teach archery. There need to be mentors in the community, where we give back to the community. In a tribal setting, the community relies on the experience and knowledge and wisdom of the Elders. We come back and we sit down, and this is where storytelling develops. We’re talking about our own experiences, and then the Youth will come to you – ‘tell me another story.’ All these different things are parables that are used to make them understand.” He continued, “I can get a job – it’s me against whatever obstacle there is. ‘Where did you learn that skill, young man?’ ‘Well, at archery I was against myself.’ That’s what was taught to me in a traditional archery program, which we do here. Camping – all of these things come up. This is 2019 – you can google anything. But you can’t google an Elder.”

Supervisor Hilda L. Solis (right) with UAII Elder Keith Veile (Blackfeet Nation).

Keith’s supervisor at the American Indian Counseling Center, Air Force Veteran Dr. Melanie Kaine (Santa Clara Pueblo Apache), was also in attendance.

“I’m here today to see if there is a way the Department of Mental Health can be involved with the new UAII program in terms of hiring or creating a pipeline for new employees into our department.”

When asked what she believes is the biggest barrier to entering the workforce, she explained, “I was in the air force and I went in at a very young age, at 17. The discipline that I learned; the preparation, and the responsibility, and the commitment to team, and the mission – these are things that I learned at a very young age. I’m not saying that’s for everyone, but I think that those are basic qualities that an individual needs in order to commit to the workforce. No matter what you do, or where you work, you need to show up. You need to be on time. You need to do your job. And if there is something that’s interfering with that, then I feel like as a mental health professional we can step in and say, ‘Okay, what makes it difficult for you to get out of bed?’ ‘Are you depressed? Or is there something else going on? And how can we assist?’ Because everything works together. All of our departments and agencies have to work together to make our community successful. We work with getting people linked up into education, or work, or even just encouraging the pursuit of creativity. We have several clients who are artists.”

When asked which fields she believes will be the most promising for American Indians in the future, she said, “I think technology – coding. My friend is Native American and he’s a coder. He says he hasn’t seen any other Natives working in coding. He’s about to complete his AA. There are certificate classes online. Also the helping professions. There’s always a need for nurses or doctors, or mental health clinicians, social workers, psychologists, community workers. Working with people – there will always be a need. And you do have to have a special ability to be able to work with people, so it’s not for everyone. If someone is artistic, being in Los Angeles, there is graphic design or social media to display their art. But I also think if you are an artist and you have a mission or a vision, you can obtain a grant and use your art to do your mission – social service – and you can combine both areas.”

Dr. Melanie Kaine (Santa Clara Pueblo Apache)

Jason Erik Reed (Cherokee), Regional Director of Torres Martinez Tribal TANF, Los Angeles County/Monterey Park/Palmdale/Long Beach, explained that every Native family experiences different barriers to entering the workforce.”

“Some come in with education, some come in with a comprehensive work resume and work history, and others are starting from ground zero,” he explained.

“The biggest problem is a combination… we promote two parent households because oftentimes in the Native American community we have broken homes. So we have broken homes, there is lack of education – we’re always focusing on education, skill development. There is a high drop-out rate amongst Native Americans, and actually the highest in the U.S. We have the lowest percentage of college graduates. Substance abuse is an issue that also plagues the Native American community. There are various barriers, so sometimes the success is just getting family stabilized. Getting them clean and sober, and providing them with the proper support that they need. If you’re not clean and healthy – if you’re not sober – you can’t address the other issues. So substance abuse is a big barrier – one of the main barriers. And lack of education and work skills. It works when you have the proper team in place.”

He continued, “UAII is the oldest American Indian organization in Los Angeles – a lot of our services mirror what UAII does. I am hoping to collaborate more.”

Celestina Castillo (Tohono O’odham/Chicana/Mexican-American), UAII Board Member and Director of the Center for Community Based Learning at Occidental College, was extremely enthusiastic about the new program.

“I think this is going to change the reach and the impact that UAII makes,” she said.

“There are going to be lives and families who will feel the effects of these changes. The ability to afford things, to stay in LA if they want to – with all the increases in the cost of living in Los Angeles – this could have a big impact. It also will help a lot of people who are in the middle right now, who need a little bit more – to get that degree, or that certification, or that training that is needed in order to move up a level economically.”

When asked what skills and strengths are most important for American Indians entering into long-term careers, she said, “I think the training, the education, the access to information, and the knowledge, resources, and networks are really important. When you’re in a program like this that gives you access to those things and to be around people that are all trying to improve their way of living, it pulls you up. That’s a big part of what this can do.”

Eugene Martinez (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), UAII Chief Operating Officer, agreed that networks are important.

“I started participating at UAII as a youth member in 1991,” he said.

“The previous executive director, David Rambeau (Paiute Shoshone), had a tremendous influence. He’s the individual that gave me the first opportunity out of undergrad school to work here professionally. And, he opened the door for me to be an intern when I was in high school. Mentorship is hugely important.”

UAII Chief Operating Officer Eugene Martinez (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma)

Martinez began working at UAII in 2003 after graduating from the University of California at Riverside with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. He received a Master of Business Administration in 2009 from the University of Redlands.

Prior to serving in his current role as Chief Operating Officer, he served as a research analyst, program coordinator, and director for the Los Angeles American Indian Health Project at UAII.

Rene’ Williams, Director of the new Workforce Development and Training Department, summed up the entire event with a focus on the most important key to the program’s success – every individual who walks through the door of UAII looking for workforce training and assistance.

“I think the most important thing is that the person really knows what they want to do,” she said.

“To establish their own career goals. Because it really comes down to the individual. They need to know what they want to do. They need to know what goals they have. But if they don’t, we’re here to assist them to develop goals and identify what those goals are – to put together a clear plan so that they can accomplish some of those goals.”

UAII was originally established as a 501(c)3 by founders Marian Zucco and Baba Cooper in 1974 to provide a place of shelter and food to American Indians living on the streets of Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles. The City/County of Los Angeles, including metro areas of Long Beach and Orange County, currently accounts for the largest urban population of AI/ANs in the United States with 188,853 as stated in the U.S. Census in 2015. A recent report by the California Consortium of Urban Indian Health (CCUIH) states that approximately 90% of AI/AN living in the state of California now reside in urban centers. Of UAII memberships, over 95% are American Indian, of which 90% fall below the federal poverty level. 80% only receive a H.S. diploma, G.E.D. or less, and represent a 2% higher unemployment rate than all other races.

UAII is working to change that.

Supervisor Hilda L. Solis(center) with new Program Director Rene’ Williams (Colville, left), and UAII Director of Development Joseph Quintana (Kewa Pueblo).

“I think this is just the beginning of what we’re going to be able to accomplish – what we’re going to do to move our people to economic security,” said Williams.

“I can’t wait for our entrepreneurship programs to kick off. We have a great team – a great staff. I’m looking forward to it. I can’t wait until next year to see what we can do. I think we’ll do some great things.”