Earlier this month, Raina Thiele, Dena’ina Athabascan and Yup’ik, left a top-level job at the White House to start her own consulting firm. Just 33, she served as associate director of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement where she was instrumental in helping to craft some of President Obama’s major initiatives in Indian country. Thiele plans to launch her consulting firm, Thiele Strategies, in August. But she took some time out of her demanding schedule to talk with ICTMN about her work in D.C.
Could you tell us how you came to be working for the Obama administration?
I grew up in rural Alaska; my family is from Pedro Bay Native Village. After graduating from high school in 2001, I attended Yale College. Then I took a trip to Ecuador for seven months to teach English and learn Spanish.While I was in Ecuador I’d accepted an offer to attend the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Masters in Public Policy Program. From that experience, I had an offer to work at the White House Office of Management and Budget, essentially the nerve center of federal government. It’s where the president’s budget is created based on requests from the agencies.
I got to work with White House tribal staff, which is how I got connected with the folks who work in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement and ultimately that’s how I was offered my current position.
What does the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement do?
We go out and we gather public input and public voices around certain policy issues from the constituent groups that we work with. We take those opinions and those voices into the White House at the highest policy levels. That’s one portion of what my office does.
The second portion is organizing outside folks who are interested in the president’s policies to ensure that they are up to speed on what’s happening within government and that they understand how they can support the policies that they’re most interested in. I was responsible for working with tribal governments and tribal leaders.
What are some of the accomplishments of the office that you’re most proud of?
There are a few things. The first is the Generation Indigenous initiative, the president’s Native American youth initiative. I got to play a key role in creating that initiative, which the president asked us directly to do after he made his first visit to Indian country to the Standing Rock Reservation in 2014.
That was an incredible experience, being part of a presidential initiative from the very beginning, from the concept stage when he set out the parameters for the initiative at a very high level. But then it was my responsibility, and the responsibility of one or two others in the White House, to really flesh that out and make it into something tangible.
When we talk about Generation Indigenous we’re also talking about a couple of other really important initiatives, like the Tribal Youth Gathering. We hosted the first one about a year ago in Washington, D.C. in partnership with UNITY. Over 1,000 youth from all across the country came to D.C. and to meet with very, very high level cabinet officials and the First Lady.
And the other piece under the Generation Indigenous initiative that I’m very proud of is the cabinet-level Native Youth Listening Tour in which the president directed all of the cabinet members to go out to Indian country and essentially repeat what he had done in Standing Rock, to sit down with Native American youth and hear from them directly.
And we started the National Native Youth Network, which is a very large network of Native youth being run by the Aspen Institute Center for Native American Youth. It has been very successful in helping to elevate the voices of Native American youth who are doing wonderful things in their community or across the nation.
One of the other things I’m very proud of is the fact that the president took four trips to Indian country, all of which I got to have a huge role in planning and which I also got to go on.
Is there any anecdote that epitomizes your time at the White House?
One of those was the Tribal Youth Gathering and First Lady Michelle Obama delivering the keynote address for that event. Her words were just so emblematic of her understanding of the issues that face Native youth. You could tell that the young people understood her passion for their issues and for their communities and her willingness to be an advocate for Native youth.
And the other was definitely being able to accompany the president on his trip to my home state of Alaska. I remember there was one particular moment – he was the first president in history to ever cross the Arctic Circle. I was on the plane when they made that announcement over the loudspeaker that we were accompanying the president across the Arctic Circle, a pretty incredible moment. And then being able to accompany him throughout rural Alaska to show him Alaska Native cultures was also a pretty incredible experience.
What are some of the things that still need to be done?
The president always says we’ve accomplished a lot, but there’s still more that we need to do. The same is true for tribal affairs at the White House. A couple of things that I hope to continue to do is further development of Generation Indigenous initiative, especially when it comes to engaging more urban youth. I also wish that I could have continued my work around the Arctic portfolio at the White House.
What is next for you?
I’m opening up my own consulting firm, called Thiele Strategies. It will focus on government-to-government advocacy, federal budgeting and regulation, federal policy, renewable energy, climate change, environment, strategic alliances, public relations and high-level advisory services.
Is there anything else you want readers to know?
The one thing I would like to stress is how honored I am to have been given the opportunity to serve President Obama and his administration. He is a president who truly cares about tribes and truly cares about tribal youth. It has been an incredible experience to see the overwhelming support the administration has given to our issues throughout the White House and throughout the agencies as well. It has permeated the entire government. He’s made it a priority and the First Lady’s made it a priority. It was an honor to work with them.