After dedicating four years as Northwoods NiiJii Enterprise Community, Inc. director of development, Kathleen Kvern is starting a new chapter in her life.
Kvern was offered and accepted the position of senior director of advancement at the nonprofit organization ArtSpace of Minneapolis, Minn.
“Leaving NiiJii was a difficult decision for me to make,” Kvern wrote in an email. “Working in the communities NiiJii serves and with the wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know has been a high point for me. I’ve learned so much from so many and I feel honored to have been welcomed into the communities.”
As senior director of advancement at ArtSpace, Kvern will be pursuing her passion.
“Art is definitely my passion and my background,” she said. “In my mind, you can’t differentiate between arts and culture. I’ve always felt that arts and culture contribute to community development and well-being and also to economic development.”
Her experience and talents dovetailed seemlessly with NiiJii’s mission – to alleviate poverty now and for future generations in three tribal communities: the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, and the Sokaogon Chippewa of Mole Lake.
“The things that I saw and experienced and were part of, I feel like the luckiest person,” Kvern said. “NiiJii allowed me to use my own interest and talents to help their work. It fit very well with what they were already doing.”
Kvern is leaving a footprint of her work in the Northwoods with what she considers her biggest accomplishment at NiiJii – the Woodland Indian Art Center.
“The art center was a way to facilitate what they were already doing. It was like, ‘Here’s a shell that now you guys can animate and bring alive with what you’re already doing,’” Kvern said.
The transition to NiiJii
After spending most of her life in an urban environment, moving to rural northern Wisconsin took some adjusting, to say the least.
“I remember on my very first drive up here I was actually almost afraid of how deep the forests were,” Kvern said. “It was just so disorienting because in the city you look through a patch of trees and they’ve probably been planted as a barrier to the strip mall that’s just behind them.”
However, it wasn’t just the geographical surroundings with which she has had to become accustomed.
“I really didn’t know anything about a rural community and I knew even less about a Native American community,” Kvern said. “Also, [before my position with NiiJii], I was always working with extremely wealthy client bases. So the other thing that was very new for me was to be able to contribute in a way to communities that were needing to be empowered and empowering themselves out of poverty.”
After starting a high-end art and furniture business in Chicago, Ill., opening an art business in Manhattan, N.Y., for a client, and working at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Kvern was drawn to NiiJii partly because of its setting in a less densely populated area.
“I was extremely interested in the idea of community development and the challenge that might be available in working in a rural community,” she said. “It was really exciting and I felt that my entrepreneurial background might contribute to the work that I was going to do at NiiJii.”
Learning, respecting a new culture
The road to where Kvern is now with understanding Native American culture was a long one – and a humbling one.
“It was challenging to get a handle on the physical places, and then to understand who the people were that I would be working with,” she said. “I spent some time in China not knowing the language and you are just absolutely lost. That’s how it can feel when you go into another culture. You have to be so respectful and careful, and yet you also have to be willing to make mistakes and be OK with not knowing.”
Having spent little to no time with Native Americans before working at NiiJii meant that Kvern had to learn their culture from her faux pas.
“I would say that one particular story kind of encapsulates my experience with NiiJii,” she said, describing a situation with the late Nick Hockings – “an elder, an artist, the owner of Waswagoning ... an amazing man” – when she first began working with NiiJii.
“[Nick] came into my office and he asked me to come and see the Blue Winds Dance Troop, and I said, ‘Oh yeah, that sounds great.’ And, you know, I didn’t go. And I didn’t even know if I had any intention of going when I said that. It was just a knee-jerk reaction.
“The next week he came into my office and he sat down for about an hour and proceeded to tell me that if I was going to make it in the community I had better be very careful with what I said ... In his experience, a lot of people have come wanting to make a difference, but they spoke in a way that wasn’t true. What he was saying to me was that I had to be very mindful, and it was really hard for me to hear that.”
Reflecting on Hockings’ words and her own reactions to this and similar situations, Kvern recognized that she “had a lot to learn about working in a very tight-knit community.”
“It sounds silly, but in an urban environment people say things very quickly – they don’t think, they talk over each other,” she said. “I realized it was going to be extremely important for me to sit back and listen and to not have huge expectations about what I was going to do, but to watch what other people were doing.”
Kvern’s conversation with Hockings was a turning point for her life, her work at NiiJii, and her understanding of Native American culture.
After about a year, her relationship with Hockings strengthened. Kvern and Hockings, as well as his wife and daughter, traveled to Washington, D.C., because of the success of the Lac du Flambeau Indian Bowl grant that Kvern wrote.
“I can’t tell you how honored I was to be able to go to Washington, D.C., with Nick and his wife, Charlotte, and his daughter, Nicole, to be part of the process. It felt like it was a long way down the road from when Nick was sitting in my office,” Kvern said.
“So that whole story is a roundabout way to say that four years doesn’t even scratch the surface of getting to know a place or people. But for me, I felt that I was really welcomed in that community and it’s been a huge honor for me.”
Working with ArtSpace
Founded in 1979, ArtSpace is a nonprofit real estate developer for the arts, whose mission is to create, foster and preserve affordable space for artists and art organizations. To date, ArtSpace owns and operates 30 projects in 19 cities and 13 states.
Kvern’s personal ties with ArtSpace have come “full circle, in a way,” as she described.
“I actually reconnected with ArtSpace while Nick and I were in Washington, D.C. ArtSpace has been working in Minneapolis for almost 30 years, so I’ve known about them for a long time. Then when Nick and I were in Washington, they were one of the presenters and NiiJii hired ArtSpace to do a preliminary feasibility study for the Indian Bowl project.”
ArtSpace offers an opportunity for Kvern that doesn’t come along very often.
“Professionally I feel that this opportunity is very much aligned with my passion,” Kvern said. “It directly allows me to work at that intersection of the arts and community development at a national level.”
But no matter where this new career path takes her, the Northwoods will always hold a special meaning.
“I know I will be back here full-time at some point in my life,” Kvern said. “I’m really going to miss my colleagues at NiiJii. They’re so smart and so talented. And I’m going to miss working side-by-side with people from the communities that NiiJii served. That’s always the thing that you miss is the people.”
Sarah Hirsch may be reached at email@example.com