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  • Writer's pictureErin Thomas

Quitting my full-time job with benefits was the best decision I have ever made for my career. For those of us that live in a rural place like the Navajo Nation, we are familiar with extensive commutes to get to work and to town. When I had a 'good' job, I was spending 3 hours in my car driving to work and back every day. It became clear to me that I had to make some changes to improve my quality of life.

My goal has always been to get an education and go home and help my people. Lots of Navajo people have that goal and when we make it home, there are no job opportunities or housing. In 2013, I got close enough to home working as a Rangeland Management Specialist in a bordertown field office for the USDA. In 2020, I accepted a promotion that took me to northeast New Mexico. I wasn't happy. During this time, a medicine man told my husband and I that, basically, we were out of balance because we were meant live within the four sacred mountains. As I sit here typing this from the rez, I can tell you that what he said was true. I am rooted here.

I finally quit my government job in December 2021 and when spring rolled around the following year, I was the happiest I had ever been. I know that because I distinctly remember taking a walk on a road at home and thinking that everything was so freaking beautiful and it was probably the first time in my life that I felt calm, clear headed and content. I was working for the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance and learning new skills everyday. I was really beginning to figure out what the vision for my life and career was going to be.

I was a part of a year-long Change Labs Business Incubator Cohort in 2021-2022. This program gave me the confidence to take a leap into entrepreneurship with White Shell Resource Consultants. If anyone even remotely is interested in starting their own business, I'm quick to recommend Change Labs. It was this experience that sparked my interest in economic development on the Navajo Nation. Change Labs is a partner in the Navajo Entrepreneurship Coalition and they have the All Roads Lead to Chaco Canyon conference annually. I attended this year and it was life changing to see my people approach economic development with such nuance, intelligence and creativity. I am so grateful for Change Labs for their support and that they are thinking about, visioning, innovating, and solving these big economic issues. Their work will have an impact for generations. The First Nations Development Institute has a Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Apprenticeship and I was lucky enough to be selected. This program has been such a blessing because we were given the financial resources we needed to incorporate 4 Canyons Land & Cattle Company as an LLC. The Apprenticeship offers the Business of Indian Agriculture Curriculum, technical assistance in NRCS conservation planning and assistance developing a business plan. We have a complete business plan for our cattle company and for that I'm grateful. Arizona State University's American Indian Policy Institute (AIPI) hosts the Indigenous Leadership Academy that I was a part of this year. Our cohort met for 10 weeks where we had discussions on issues that affect tribal nations and developed a personal leadership plan. There was an accomplished native speaker every week and the program was so well-organized and the readings and media were thoughtfully selected. The network of remarkable people that I was able to meet and listen to was the biggest benefit for me. I am so appreciative for the team at AIPI who had the vision and initiative to put a program like this together. The leap into full-time entrepreneurship did not happen until now. When I had the opportunity to take on the role of Deputy Director for the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance and I couldn't refuse. I learned so much about business management, accounting and leadership. In less than a month, I walk away from the experience with so much gratitude for the experience itself and the people I worked with and met. INCA expanded my skills and horizons and helped me build a great professional network. What made these experiences so special and so meaningful are the people. I love that I've had the opportunity to work and partner with so many Indigenous people in the past few years. My vision for the future is building people-centered organizations and using those organizations as the impetus for change in conservation and beyond. And I'll always be working on my personal leadership plan.


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