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Hailing from the Cherokee Nation and west Texas, Ronda Rutledge is the first Indigenous person to lead Ecotrust as executive director. With an extensive background in nonprofit management and other leadership roles, Rutledge hopes to further projects in the program in her new position.

For over 30 years, Ecotrust has worked to “inspire fresh thinking that creates economic opportunity, social equity, and environmental well-being,” according to its mission statement. The organization accomplishes this through numerous projects, including the Green Workforce Academy, which helps provide job training and stipends to Black and Indigenous workers looking to get into the green workforce, work in southeast Alaska with kelp farmers, helping small businesses get off the ground and a community development entity that introduces new market tax credits to help with community development projects. Rutledge already has plans to add to that list of accomplishments.

She says she was first interested in Ecotrust when she learned how the organization's founder had worked with Haisla First Nation leaders in British Columbia to protect the Kitlope from logging and development.

“This is an incredible organization and we've had tremendous growth and a lot of change and with that, a kind of a reemergence of all the powerful work that we're doing in the community,” Rutledge said. “It's critically important for the health of our planet.”

Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Carrie Johnson for Underscore News: I'm just so excited to talk to you. Both of us being from Texas, you being Cherokee, and me being Chickasaw.

Ronda Rutledge: Yeah, that's right! We're sister tribes.

Carrie Johnson: Can you share some of the most impactful things that Ecotrust does and how do you envision helping it expand in the future?

Ronda Rutledge: We do a lot, but it's all in the realm of economic prosperity and environmental stewardship.

Around environmental stewardship and social equity, we really try to do our environmental work in a way that is encapsulated in that model of working with folks who are sort of first and worst affected by climate change.

Those run the gamut from forest management work with tribes, fishery work, mariculture. Work that is bringing economic opportunity to a lot of our most disenfranchised community members. We provide the support and sometimes the training and sometimes the technical assistance. Our work runs the gamut, from southeast Alaska all the way to northern California and this entire bioregion, which is really an entire region of rainforest. Our version – the U.S. version – of a rainforest.

We recognize there's already inherent leadership that exists in these communities and we're not coming in to fix something or save the day. It's more like these are issues that lots of folks are experiencing. And do we have the support to help them take whatever their project is to the next level?

Carrie Johnson: You’re the first Native American to be executive director for Ecotrust. What does that mean to you? And what do you hope it means for the Indigenous community in this area?

Ronda Rutledge: I recognize my responsibility to Indigenous communities here. Not being from here, one of my very first things to learn about are going to be the Pacific Northwest tribes which have very different cultural norms than I'm used to with my own tribe. I can tell you a lot of stuff about the Cherokee Nation, and some of our sister nations, but not so much on the Pacific Northwest side, so I'm looking forward to digging deeper there and to building those relationships.

Carrie Johnson: What would you want to say to tribal youth who would love to be in a position like the one you’re in? To be involved in an organization like this?

Ronda Rutledge: I feel like it's first and foremost making sure you are really grounded in your own tribal history and in your own nation, really bringing that knowledge base to bear.

Part of what we are helping to do is foster relationships. There's political differences within various nations and if we can provide support for them to work more strongly together, that's a big win – not for us, but for the community in general.

So when kids from those reservations or those nations are really well grounded in their own cultural land, in their own culture in general, then I think they are able to really expand that knowledge to both the non-Native and other nations.

Carrie Johnson: I love that. Especially there being so many tribes to learn about that it can be like, wow, where do I even start? But I've definitely found strength in my own culture and heritage.

Ronda Rutledge: And with an open heart and mind to be able to learn from other people, it's like you're bringing your own knowledge to bear, but you're also really staying curious about what's happening with other people.

Carrie Johnson: I read that you use an emotional intelligence framework with employees. What does this framework mean to you? What does it look like?

Ronda Rutledge: It's based on some training I received after I left my last non-profit, the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, Texas. The information was really around that there's a leadership gap.

Let me rephrase that. There's a lot of leaders. There's not a leadership gap, but there are leaders who were sort of just promoted into those positions without really having the skill set to manage people. And at the end of the day, business gets done because they are made up of people, and people are complicated.

If you don't know how to work well with other people, your business is going to flounder, right? So, part of the framework is around how to have conversations with each other when you don't always see eye-to-eye, how to own the stuff that's yours to own, and that includes being able to say you're sorry or apologize and building trust.

Carrie Johnson: You’ve done some really important work for Native people in Texas and California. Can you share a little about that and about how you’re hoping to impact the Indigenous communities in Oregon?

Ronda Rutledge: So, I have an ancestor five generations ago who was one of the treaty signers at the Treaty of New Echota, which you may be familiar with. It's the treaty that essentially led to the Trail of Tears. That treaty was signed, unbeknownst to the chief, who was trying to negotiate for Cherokee people to stay on our lands in the Carolinas, Tennessee, Georgia – that whole area was Cherokee territory.

So relocation happened. We all know what a terrible thing that was, and when the chief reunited with the tribe in Oklahoma, which is now the nation's capital, he essentially put a hit out on everyone who signed that treaty. And so five generations ago, my ancestor scooped up the family and moved to Texas.

So my family has been in Texas for five generations as a result of that. But we used to go to Cherokee National Holiday. It's every Labor Day weekend in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Last year, we had 28 family members who went. But that was really the extent of my familiarity with my tribe. We didn't grow up on a reservation. I didn't grow up speaking Cherokee. I can rattle off five words maybe in Cherokee at most, one of which is on my arm.

And so when I got my degree in Texas in clinical psychology, I followed my boyfriend and now husband out to California. And as y'all may know, the San Francisco Bay Area is a huge relocation site for when Native people were moved off reservations into urban cores. So it was an opportunity for me to really get involved in the Indian community in a way that I hadn't had a chance to before.

So, I started at the American Indian Child Resource Center. It was my first executive director job. Amazing experience, absolutely incredible. Working with over 200 tribes represented in the Bay Area. We did Indian education, really teaching what they weren't teaching in public schools about the history of our country. We did teen pregnancy prevention work called 21 Generations. And we had a foster family agency, making sure that when Native children were removed from their home they were placed appropriately, under ICWA: The Indian Child Welfare Act.

So that was really incredible work. That's where my husband and I got pregnant. We had our twins, and I feel like I could have stayed at that organization forever, but we decided to move back to Texas to be closer to family.

So we moved back and – not a huge Native population in central Texas. A lot of the Mexican population of course, we had a lot of out-migration of Mexican families and so diverse in a lot of ways but not a lot of Native folks.

I grew up with people mostly thinking I was Mexican. And even for me, my best friend in kindergarten was named Lisa Rivera and I wanted to change my name to Ronda Rivera because I thought we should be twins. There just wasn't a lot of support for being Indian in Texas, in central Texas in particular. So I really am so thankful for that time in the Bay Area because I feel like it helped me get more grounded in my own tribal history and community culture.

Carrie Johnson: What are you hoping to offer the Indigenous community here in Oregon?

Ronda Rutledge: Ooh, I'm hoping to learn. I'm just really hoping to learn. My people aren't salmon people, that's not a thing in Oklahoma, so it's really cool to be part of what I feel like is salmon nation here. And meet with all these folks who are so connected to the land base and the river ways and the livelihoods that happen from the river and from the forest.

That's really powerful, as you know, that's really what our cultures are all about. That's why there's so much trauma in Native communities. I'm not telling you guys anything you don't already know, but that's the deal: when you're taken off of your land, you're never the same. You're never the same.

Carrie Johnson: Thank you for sharing that.

Lead photo: Ronda Rutledge at Ecotrust on Aug. 3, 2023. (Photo by Carrie Johnson / Underscore News)

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2023 Indigenous Journalism FellowCarrie Johnson is Chickasaw and Pawnee from southern Oklahoma. A senior at Austin College, she is double majoring in English and Media Studies. She has been a fellow for...