The COVID-19 pandemic caused excessive destruction of life and livelihood for many Americans, particularly in marginalized communities. The 9.7 million American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people from more than 574 Native Nations were severely harmed by the direct health implications and the indirect economic shock to an already fragile economic position. Before the pandemic, Native American communities were already struggling economically. Unsurprisingly, the combined loss of life and necessary business shutdowns added stress to the already beleaguered Navajo Nation and broader Native American community across the country.
More must be done to ensure Native Americans have more opportunities to succeed. That is why Administrator Guzman and the Biden-Harris Administration have engaged in meaningful consultation with Tribal leaders – and have taken action. Through the American Rescue Plan, the Biden-Harris Administration made the largest-ever investment in Indian Country to help Tribal Nations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and to support Tribal economic recovery.
This investment includes the SBA's Community Navigator Pilot Program, which aims to engage states, local governments, SBA resource partners, and other organizations in targeted outreach for small businesses in underserved communities. The program funds nonprofits, state and local governments, universities, and tribal entities to partner with SBA at the center of a hub and spoke network. These hubs then support spoke organizations -- trusted, culturally knowledgeable local groups and individuals -- who will connect to specific sectors of the entrepreneurial community to assist in economic recovery, including financial assistance and access to capital, contracting and procurement, marketing, operations, business development, and exporting.
The Community Navigator Pilot includes two Native American hubs (the Oweesta Corporation and the Arctic Slope Community Foundation) and 30 additional Native-led and focused spokes across 18 states.
As the largest Native American community development financial institutions (Native CDFI) intermediary, Oweesta has set ambitious yet attainable goals for the next two years of the pilot program. The team at Oweesta expects to provide counseling to nearly 10,000 Native American businesses, help provide 1,600 business loans, help create or retain 10,000 jobs in Native American communities and help provide $137 million in low-cost loans to Native American small businesses through their 25 spokes. This is an incredible return on investment on a $5 million investment for the taxpayer – one can only imagine the long-term impact if this investment were expanded not only to even more Native American communities but also if the pilot were expanded beyond the current 2-year timeframe.
Figure 1. Community Navigator Pilot Spokes of the Oweesta Corp.
The Arctic Slope Community Foundation (ASCF) is another example of the great work the Community Navigator Pilot Program will complete and how the program is reaching Native American communities in places where other federal programs might not have a presence. Historically, many federal programs, including SBA programs, have had difficulty reaching extremely rural communities like those that the ASCF will serve. ASCF is working deep into the most rural parts of Alaska and the country – places that are sometimes isolated from the rest of the world during winter months, where rivers are frozen, and villages that are only accessible via plane or dogsled. Last month when we held a video call with ASCF, it was a bone-chilling negative 40 degrees, and ASCF was returning from a project providing business coaching to an isolated Alaska Native village. Thanks to the Community Navigator Pilot Program, we are able to reach and support these rural Native American communities that otherwise would have been left behind in non-targeted responses.
The unprecedented level of engagement with Native American-led community organizations is part of a broader push as the SBA works to increase engagement and utilization of SBA programs by Native American entrepreneurs. In January of this year, SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman unveiled an updated Tribal Consultation Policy that proactively requires the agency to provide opportunities for Tribal leaders to comment on SBA programs at least once a year. This will allow for input to improve SBA program utilization. Additionally, last month, Administrator Guzman became the first sitting head of the SBA to visit the Navajo Nation when she met with Tribal leaders, the business community, and microbusinesses alike. She was able to meet directly with Navajo small businesses and hear their concerns while also meeting with Tribal leaders to discuss potential solutions to policy problems that impede economic growth on Tribal lands.
Thanks to this increased engagement with Tribal communities and Native American small businesses, we are poised to work constructively to help rebuild Native American communities and economies devastated by the pandemic as well as help mend some of the historic inequalities that the pandemic exposed. The SBA Community Navigators' connection 30 new Native American-led and serving organizations is an unprecedented level of partnership between the SBA and Indian Country. Furthermore, the Community Navigators are efficient and targeted investments in underinvested communities, often where it might be cost-inefficient to setup new federal offices. We look forward to making the most of this incredible partnership and growing small businesses across Indian Country.
Figure 2. Administrator Guzman signing the SBA's Tribal Consultation Policy Jan. 2022
Figure 3. SBA Administrator at Marco Arviso's jewelry shop in Window Rock, AZ
Figure 4. SBA Administrator Guzman shops at Ah-Shi Beauty, a Navajo woman-owned cosmetics and coffee company in Window Rock, AZ