Wokini Initiative gets 2019 Bush Prize of $500K

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Editor's note: This article has been edited to include comments from SDSU President Barry Dunn.

SAINT PAUL – The Bush Foundation awarded the 2019 Bush Prize for Community Innovation to five organizations with a track record of successful problem solving in their communities.

Among the honorees is the Wokini Initiative at South Dakota State University, which is being awarded $500,000.

The Bush Prize celebrates organizations that are extraordinary not only in what they do but in how they do it. This year’s winners demonstrate a pattern of working inclusively, in partnership with others, to make the region better for all, the foundation said in a press release.

The Bush Prize, now in its seventh year, is awarded annually in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography.

Wokini Initiative

SDSU is on a mission to transform its campus into a welcoming environment for American Indian students. It is the first university in the country to dedicate a portion of its land grant funds to elevate American Indian student success, a decision that explicitly acknowledges that SDSU and the state have benefited from lands taken from the Lakota and Dakota people by the U.S. government.

SDSU’s new Wokini (“new beginning” in Lakota) Initiative seeks to eliminate the significant barriers that American Indian students face in achieving a college degree. 

The program combines transformational change in campus culture with holistic support for Native students, including dedicated scholarships, extensive outreach, academic mentoring and emergency funds. 

To ensure that the community is prepared to welcome American Indian students, SDSU has developed a state-of-the-art training for staff and faculty to build understanding of Native cultures. In spring 2020, the initiative will move into a new American Indian student center, located symbolically in the heart of the campus. 

An advisory board of tribal leaders and educators throughout South Dakota helps guide the Wokini Initiative and provides a tribal perspective to move the initiative forward. The University’s decision to dedicate land grant funds to American Indian students has inspired numerous other universities throughout the country to consider a similar commitment.

“We are extremely excited and honored to receive the Bush Prize for Community Innovation,” SDSU President Barry Dunn said. “The Bush Foundation’s investment in the Wokini Initiative will provide significant opportunities to our students, faculty and staff. Being recognized by a prominent organization like the Bush Foundation indicates the progress we are making with the Wokini Initiative. Many individuals at SDSU, throughout the state of South Dakota and now the nation are committed to providing the benefits of higher education to our Native students and impacting positive change to communities throughout the region and the United States needing it the most.”

The other 2019 Bush Prize winners are:

• Minnesota – Hmong American Partnership, Saint Paul ($500,000); Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, Minneapolis ($500,000); Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, Backus ($408,000)

• North Dakota – Valley City-Barnes County Development Corporation, Valley City ($358,000)

“The 2019 Bush Prize winners exhibit remarkable creativity and tenacity in addressing issues that are most important to their communities,” said Bush Foundation President Jennifer Ford Reedy. “Their problem-solving builds strength not only in their local community but also in the entire region.”

Bush Prize winners receive a package that includes promotional support and materials and an unrestricted grant equal to 25 percent of the organization’s prior fiscal year budget, up to $500,000. The Foundation received 81 applications for the 2019 Bush Prize. Three panels of community members chose the winners from their respective states.

“This year’s winners are defined by their courage,” said Mandy Ellerton, community innovation director. “They shake loose solutions to seemingly intractable problems by opening themselves up to surprising partnerships, sharing ownership and bringing together people who don’t always agree. This method of working takes guts, and our region is better because of their courage.”

Learn more about the Bush Prize for Community Innovation, including winners from previous years, at BushFoundation.org/BushPrize.


About the Bush Foundation

The Bush Foundation invests in great ideas and the people who power them in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the 23 Native nations that share the same geography. Established in 1953 by 3M Executive Archibald Bush and his wife Edyth, the Foundation supports organizations and people to think bigger and think differently about what is possible in their communities. The Foundation works to inspire and support creative problem solving – within and across sectors – to make the region better for everyone.