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Pine Ridge Reservation, a rectangular block of land nestled in southwestern South Dakota, is home to approximately 15,000 members of the Oglala Lakota tribe. With a median household income of around $26,000—compared to $52,000 in the rest of South Dakota—Pine Ridge is one of the poorest areas in the US. Plagued by an 80 percent unemployment rate, around 40 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line, compared to 13 percent of South Dakota.
This data may paint a sad picture of Pine Ridge, yet these resilient communities are filled with optimistic plans, building inspiring initiatives to empower tribal members and improve life on the reservation. Oceti Sakowin Fellow Chance Renville leads one of these initiatives. We connected with him to learn more about his Thunder Valley Energy project.
Tell us about your project—what makes it unique?
At Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (CDC), we’re revitalizing the Pine Ridge community through workforce development, food sustainability programs, and affordable home construction. Though the path to homeownership on Pine Ridge is challenging, owning a home is an important step in building wealth and financial independence. Thunder Valley CDC helps make this possible for our people, our families.
Our community-centric model makes us unique. We include community members, from children to elders, in the design process to understand what they really want. For example, Pine Ridge experiences extreme temperatures in the summer and winter, and our community seeks to control energy costs. Accordingly, our homes are very well insulated, reducing energy use and costs for our new homeowners. Our homes have incorporated passive and active solar energy.
What are some barriers to homeownership for families on the reservation?
Building a home on the reservation can be a long and discouraging process—especially if you’re trying to build it on your own land. It can take up to three years, and during this long wait, there are many obstacles that can get in the way. Your financial situation can change. You might need to take out a loan for an unexpected event, which then lowers your credit score. Even finding local contractors can be an issue. We don’t have a lot of contractors on the reservation, so we often have to find subcontractors in nearby cities, which can drive up the cost of homes by 20 percent.
What inspired you to start the work you do?
On Pine Ridge, a lot of our families struggle to make ends meet. Especially in cold months, the cost of heating a home can be astronomical. Building well-insulated, solar-powered homes can bring down energy costs. Plus, by building affordable, culturally appropriate homes, we’re providing our community with the opportunity for homeownership. We started out by building seven new homes, and we’re currently in the process of building 14 more. These homes are really impactful for our families, and that’s a driving force behind our work.
Furthermore, we’re working toward a sustainable net-zero community and solar energy plays a huge part in that. My background is in construction, but after I started working with Thunder Valley CDC, I trained specifically on solar installations. Now I work as Thunder Valley’s energy program manager, and we’re transforming the reservation with solar technology.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
One thing I always keep in mind when I’m doing this work—or anything—is: our ancestors didn’t endure genocide for us to sit idly and do nothing. We need to take action for our people.
What are you most looking forward to at Solve at Standing Rock?
I’m so excited to reconnect with everyone—Fellows, Solve, and other potential partners from Solve at MIT. I’m eager to learn about the other Fellows’ progress, and it’ll be nice to give an update on Thunder Valley CDC. I’m excited that it’s in Standing Rock as well; that’s pretty special for me.
Chance Renville visits MIT MakerLodge before Solve at MIT, May 14. (Photo: Adam Schultz / MIT Solve)