Trees, Water & People’s leadership has brought new energy and vision to our programs across Indian country. Staying true to our mission, we are focusing our energies on renewables, education, and community empowerment.
Since 2002, Trees, Water & People (TWP) has worked on Tribal Lands in the United States to develop economically viable, culturally appropriate, renewable energy solutions with Native American communities. There are 573 federally recognized Indian Nations in the United States, located within 34 different states. Land is crucial to tribal communities, both spiritually and culturally, as many tribes still rely on the land for fishing, hunting, and gathering. Today, Indian land comprises more than 50 million acres, or 2% of the United States - the majority of it in arid regions of the country, making Tribal Nations among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change in North America.
Our work started in the Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where we co-founded the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center in 2007. Since then, we’ve hosted dozens of renewable energy workshops and helped local leader Henry Red Cloud launch a Native-owned renewable energy company, Lakota Solar Enterprises. We have also worked to reforest burn areas across Pine Ridge with a native Ponderosa Pine, bringing new life, future windbreaks, erosion control, and beatification to Lakota lands.
Through our reforestation program, solar energy workshops, and education programs, tribal and non-tribal members from all over the country receive hands-on training in renewable energy applications from Native American instructors and guest teachers. Our Tribal Renewable Energy Program brings capital, knowledge, and technology to Native American families and community groups across the American West.
As we work with local partners to revitalize Native communities and their economies, we recognize the importance of specifically engaging youth to deeply root our programs in the cultural contexts of each local tribe. We work with teachers and youth in tribal communities via our solar education program using the Solar Suitcase - a miniaturized, fully-functional, solar energy kit with a holistic, educational curriculum that combines STEM education with the psycho-social well-being of participants. By partnering with We Share Solar, the creators of the Solar Suitcase, TWP is helping develop solar education curricula that address the whole person: mind, body, and spirit.
Social emotional (SE) skills are multifaceted and vital for human development, and are a key aspect of the solar education programs delivered by TWP. They include interpersonal skills like communicating with others, building relationships, and working well together. They also include intrapersonal skills such as self-control, self-awareness, self-motivation, responsibility, and creativity. These skills can be fostered through modeling and via formal and informal instruction at home or in school.
While most of our training work in the past targeted adult learners and tradespeople, a 2015 grant from the U.S. EPA gave us the opportunity to provide Solar Suitcase workshops to a new audience - middle and high-school students. These classes help demystify solar technology for Native youth, the most underrepresented population in STEM professions, by helping them build their confidence to enter tech-based career paths. The Solar Suitcase can be fully assembled, disassembled, modified, expanded, and deployed by the users themselves. This tool can empower Native youth to invest time, energy, and labor into their community by addressing the energy poverty that exists on reservations. We are now working with Tribal schools in South Dakota, New Mexico, Minnesota, and California to integrate this curriculum into Native students' science courses and after school programs.
Most importantly, we have learned through our evaluations of this program that STEM education for Native Youth must first take into account the social-emotional factors that impact their behavior. If our solar curricula and programming do not recognize the unique cultural challenges of the Native context, our impact will be limited. The real transformative impact is not just in implementing technologies, but also in connecting our educated youth to a broader network of stakeholders through a strength-based, community-led approach. Solar energy education through this approach has immediate, positive, social-emotional, and measurable energy-independence outcomes for our partner communities.