WASHINGTON – Mellor Willie, the new director of the National American Indian Housing Council, is accustomed to the culture of Washington, yet he works hard to keep himself firmly planted in his cultural roots. As he focuses on meeting the myriad of housing challenges that face tribes, those roots will become especially important, he says.
The Navajo Nation member has lived in the nation’s capitol for a number of years, having previously served as a fundraiser for the National Congress of American Indians. He’s also worked for his home tribe and contributes time to various Indian organizations and projects.
Willie says the experiences have helped him form lasting relationships that will help him get more done on behalf of Indian country. As he began settling into his job, Indian Country Today caught up with him for an interview.
Indian Country Today: Tell our readers a little about your background.
Mellor Willie: I actually come from a background of working in Washington, D.C., so I know a lot of the people involved in Native issues and what other Native organizations are doing. I come to my new position with that important institutional knowledge of the Capitol Hill area. At the same time, I have a lot of experience working at the tribal level. That perspective is important, as is the traditional knowledge of what the local people at the reservation-level are experiencing every day. I think a lot of the advocates on behalf of Indian country need to have that kind of experience.
ICT: Is today’s climate in Washington positive for Indian housing matters?
Willie: I think the environment in D.C. right now for Indian affairs is generally very good. With the new Congress and new administration, there is so much going on. There are also many more people around who are committed to our causes.
ICT: What excites you about your new position?
Willie: I’m very excited about the possibilities that exist in the area of Indian housing. So much work has already been done. … but there is much left to do. My background in press, fundraising and advocacy are going to help me build on that excitement and move forward the mission of the organization. It’s also very exciting to start working with the staff and board members here, as they are so dedicated to the organization. They’ve done so many amazing things.
ICT: What’s on your agenda in terms of priorities?
Willie: As you might be aware, the Indian housing arena has suffered many funding challenges in the past. Over the past year, the organization was successful in getting the reauthorization of the Native American Housing and Self Determination Act. With its passage, we can now turn our attention to strengthening the organization and its financial stability. We’re now in the process of creating a strategic plan in four key areas, including enhancing training, increasing our membership, creating more satisfaction, and increasing financial stability.
ICT: With NAHASDA’s passage, is it easier to sit still?
Willie: No, you can never sit still. There’s always something to do. There are appropriations that have to be looked at. There are government relationships to keep up, and not just with Congress. We have a lot of work to do communicating with the executive branch as well. It’s a never-ending battle of work here in D.C.
ICT: How’s your relationship with the Department of Housing and Urban Development?
Willie: Our staff has a really good relationship with them. We have people on staff who’ve worked for a long time at and with HUD on Native American programs.
ICT: You mentioned wanting to increase the housing council’s membership. What is your message to tribal leaders for why they should belong?
Willie: The organization provides a number of services to tribal housing authorities. We want to help them understand how important it is to have representation on their issues here in D.C. We have many years of commitment within Indian country and much knowledge in this arena. They can definitely be confident in our staff’s ability to get things done for them.
ICT: Has the organization communicated with the Obama administration on housing issues?
Willie: Before I got here, there were a few meetings with administration members. It’s a goal of the organization to reach out further.
ICT: Do you have a read on how strongly the administration supports the efforts of the housing council?
Willie: I’m confident in the administration’s outreach to Indian organizations and the fact that they are willing to include Native faces in the administration and to invite Indian organizations to consult with them. This is a good time to advance our policy agenda.
ICT: What do you foresee to be your biggest challenge, beyond getting up to speed on various housing issues?
Willie: I think we face a challenge that faces any national Indian organization. Namely, Indian country is so large and so diverse. There are so many different issues out there for every single tribe. It’s a challenge to craft a national agenda that will meet the needs of every tribe and bring them all together. I’m just so thankful for the committed resources we have here at the housing council.