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Associations Now

Preserving the Voice for a Different Perspective

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, April 2009 Intelligence


Pamala Silas
Pamala Silas
People outside the association world are often amused by what they see as small organizations serving small, even unnecessary, niche groups. Those of us in the association profession, however, understand that small size doesn't preclude the need for representation.

Rather, the purpose of any association, serving any group, is the same: "bringing a voice to underrepresented communities," says Pamala Silas, CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). In the same way a national industry trade group makes its voice heard via government lobbying or public relations, a society of minority professionals strives to promote its members and their perspectives.

This is what AISES has been doing for 30 years, says Silas, herself a member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin and a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin. Not only does AISES help American Indians find their way into the science and engineering professions, it helps them represent their Native American perspective on science.

"Because they've been recruiting over the years from our community, [engineering companies] have leadership within them that really is a phenomenal bridge and exchange, because they provide leadership to our organization. We've had IBMers … that have been chairmen of our board. … The investment is beyond just the recruit, in the end. The investment has been in building our capacity to encourage a new generation."—Pamala Silas

"There is definitely a Western philosophy in science, and it's very objective. So, they talk about what you can see and measure, whereas in Native culture, we talk about the unseen as well, and we value that equally," says Silas. "We also see ourselves in relationship to things differently. We see ourselves as equals in relationship to everything, versus a Western model, which is hierarchical—human beings at the top of the food chain."

That diversity of thought is, fortunately, often actively sought by major science and engineering companies, Silas says, and AISES partners with many of them for recruiting and leadership. In February, Silas spent some time with Associations Now to discuss why diversity is important for innovation, the methods for promoting American Indians in the science and engineering community, and how the diversity "conversation" has changed in recent years.

Associations Now: I think it’s interesting that your association is specifically devoted to one group. A lot of the talk on diversity focuses on large groups trying to increase diversity within their own organizations. Why is it an important that your group has its own association to represent itself?

Pamala Silas: You can answer that two ways. First of all, we’re one of the most diverse organizations because there are over 400, close to 530 [American Indian] tribes. We have about 250 of those tribes represented in our membership, each with their own language, their own culture, their own religions. So it seems like it should be a homogenous group, but it’s not.

Secondly, I think the big difference for native people in the diversity issue is that tribes have a special trust relationship with the federal government. They’re sovereign nations. And so it isn’t just an ethnic or cultural category. There are very unique nuances to what that means nation to nation. The education systems that are run on reservations or that impact even urban Indian communities are so unique because of the trust relationship.

So I think we have to do extra effort to do outreach and to be successful in our mission.

A lot of associations, when they talk about diversity, are focusing internally, whereas yours is focusing on advancing American Indians within a larger industry: science and engineering. How do you work externally to promote American Indians in that industry?

Well, there’s a lot of education that needs to happen. I think that there are many companies that are genuinely interested in one thing right now. So the nature of diversity has changed, at least in the years that I’ve worked in it. It’s that innovation is dependent on diverse perspectives. Now there’s a true interest in getting a variety of perspectives at the table, and that is beyond just culture or race. It’s young and old, geographic, rural, urban.

I think that it’s the globalization that’s opened up the receptivity to diversity in a different way. I don’t know how to say this nicely, but I’m also not in agreement that some global companies call diversity the fact that they have a plant in China. That’s not the diversity. I’m definitely promoting domestic diversity.

There are huge talent pools that are untapped here in the United States and native people in particular have such a unique perspective from the way that they were raised in this special trust relationship… we find that when they get the Western training mixed with the traditional training, they’re phenomenal innovators. Companies are lining up to recruit them. So we have a very strong relationship with some of the largest companies—IBM, Lockheed Martin, 3M—who have been in relationship with this organization for almost its entire existence, 30 years.

What is the substance of those relationships? Is it formalized? Is it informal? How does that work?

We have a handful of about ten companies that we call “Full Circle of Support” partners.

They’re committed to join us from K-12 all the way through the path of success, because the mission says, “Substantial increase.” They’re joining us at the very beginning of that and following through undergraduate and graduate support, coming into the professional ranks. They’re also engaging in science, engineering, and technology projects that are important to the community—so, the full circle.

The other thing they’re providing is, because they’ve been recruiting over the years from our community, they have leadership within them that really is a phenomenal bridge and exchange because they provide leadership to our organization. We’ve had IBMers—they call themselves IBMers—that have been chairmen of our board. They’ve taken executive loans from Lockheed Martin and have spent a year helping to build one aspect of our association. The investment is beyond just the recruit, in the end. The investment has been in building our capacity to encourage a new generation.

The American Indian perspective on science and engineering is a bit different from the Western perspective. Could explain that a little bit and what conceptions the larger industry has about it?

Well, this is a hard one to package in a short answer. There is definitely a Western philosophy in science, and it’s very objective. So, they talk about what you can see and measure, whereas in Native culture, we talk about the unseen as well, and we value that equally.

We also see ourselves in relationship to things differently. We see ourselves as equals in relationship to everything, versus a Western model, which is hierarchical—human beings at the top of the food chain.

So, when you’re doing your research and when you’re looking at solving a particular problem, those perspectives can create a difference in research.

You see that [diversity of thought] when talking about women being involved in research on breast cancer or ovarian cancer. Their perspective’s different. You see that in engineering when you have women involved in developing a vehicle. They have a skirt, and they can’t get up and down [to enter and exit], and they need something. They look at things [differently than men do]. So, you can imagine the same thing happening with Native people being at the table and saying, “Well, have you thought about it like this?”

Now, not every Native is raised in traditions. And not raised in rural communities. I don’t want to perpetuate that students are off in the boonies somewhere living in a teepee. Many of them are going to Stanford, Dartmouth, Cornell. They’re out there. So what they’re doing is actually a fusion, being multicultural.

Again, because of globalization, there is an appreciation for diverse perspectives, and companies realize that that leads to innovation.

Recruiting is one aspect—developing the talent, recruiting them and putting them to work—but then retention is another issue. So when you talk about work-life balance, what creates work-life balance? Again, I use the greatest example, which is that women and men are different and [would have different needs and perspectives on] child care services.

Same with Native people. There’s a work/life balance equation that might be a little bit different. Native people have a very strong value of the give-back, being meaningful to community, and so a number of our companies also are very good at creating Native affinity groups that then engage in building community within the company or supporting a local reservation community or something.

Is there anything that is specifically different or unique about promoting diversity of thought as compared to the more external qualities of diversity that are more commonly discussed?

Well, I think 20 years ago, even 30 when AISES was founded, having physical differences—like you’re from a different community—very superficial diversity criteria were applied and you checked it off of a list. I can tell you that conversation has changed greatly. Now, it definitely is about what your perspective is and what value or different perspective you bring to that, particularly research teams. A lot of companies do the teaming now, and having the variety of perspectives is critical.

We see that conversation has definitely changed. And I think a tough thing we have to overcome constantly is the stereotypes, such as that Natives live on reservations and don’t want to leave, they don’t believe in Western science, and that they’re not smart enough.

I do think we have some special challenges, being that if you look at the reservation school system, it’s supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. For every dollar they spend on mainstream schools, it’s abysmal. They typically don’t have the science facilities or the math courses, and if they do have them, they’re not taught by qualified people. So you talk about qualifying to get into an engineering program or getting into a science program. There’s all of this kind of supplemental or peripheral support you have to provide.

And then, you get into the college atmosphere, and there’s cultural clashes. There’s competition, which isn’t really something that’s valued in local [American Indian] communities, and your professor’s ignoring you or challenging you—it’s a culture clash.

So AISES’ success has been putting college chapters at the campus level so that there’s a place where they can actually have a critical mass to provide substantial support, culturally, spiritually, emotionally, even food. It’s important.

And then they become professionals, and we help them to make a case for explaining their differences in respectful ways, so that they’re not isolated—20 years ago, you could reach the success, but you had to lose something. Now, we see people going all the way through the process and speaking their language, wearing their hair long, if that’s what they do, negotiating with their employers for the things that they need to be in work/life balance. They’re bringing their whole self to that job. And that’s not just because their confidence has changed—which I’m proud as someone who’s entering their 50’s to say that our generation helped blaze that path—but it’s also the companies’ receptivity. And I’m sure part of that is that as more diversity gets into ranks of decision making, it creates a better atmosphere—and I also believe the phenomena the world is becoming a smaller place—and you will run into diversity.

I can see two separate possible methods for pursuing your overall cause. One would be promoting science and engineering within the American Indian community. The other would be promoting American Indians within the science and engineering community. Do you focus on one of those more than the other? Is one more important, or is it a mix of the two? How do you go about the work you do in that regard?

I’ve seen it described as we’re a bridge, blending Western science with traditional Native knowledge. So we see it as a place where you can go back and forth. It requires brokering that relationship from both sides.

The methods are different. When we’re motivating young people to pursue science and engineering, we have to create relevance to why it means something to their community. And that’s not as hard as you think. We talk environmental health… there’s a problem; we need to solve it. So engineering, actually, is really compatible with Native culture. But [we have to answer] what are the career possibilities in it and how to build up that knowledge.

On the opposite end, when you’re working in the corporate world, it’s just saying, “When you’re doing your diversity programs, don’t forget there’s a pretty strong Native community.” It’s about overcoming the invisibility. But like I said, I think you’d be surprised how many companies are so supportive and interested once they know.

You previously spent time as a director of the American Indian Economic Development Association. Was working for American Indian groups a long-term goal, or is it something you kind of fell into?

Half of my career has been spent in Indian organizations and half in non. I did 8 years in the corporate sector for a company that was bought by Motorola, and then I did 8 years in a mainstream multicultural tenant rights group, so I see my path as definitely tied to supporting Native self-sufficiency and Native empowerment programs.

I could do that from either being on staff or being in the leadership role as a community leader. They’re tied, but I don’t need to be an employee of a Native organization to be a leader. And you’ll see in my career, I probably did more [American Indian] leadership working for non-Indian organizations because I was able to focus on my job and be a board member or a volunteer.

Every association faces the challenge of convincing nonmembers of the value of joining their association. From an outside perspective, it might be easy to think that your case is easier to make because you have a cultural group that would be sympathetic to what you’re pursuing. Is that the case? What’s unique about promoting your cause to 530-some American Indian tribes?

Well, first of all, there’s not a lot of Native Americans—it’s less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. So I would say that a lot of companies, or organizations, think it’s not worth pursuing because it’s so small. We have to convince them otherwise.

But the other thing is that you [as a company] may have Natives in your ranks, and you’re just not aware of it because they’re not the stereotypical Native. Believe me, there are blond-haired, blue-eyed, Gucci-suited Indians out there, and you just may not be aware.

There are members of our community who are members of the Society of Women Engineers, members of the American Chemical Society, members of AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]. Native people are in those organizations. I know it because they’re in ours too. So they probably are there.

Relationship, relationship, relationship—Native people are very interested in that. They value it. And so if the quality or the depth of the relationship isn’t there, you’re probably not going to recruit them or retain them.

The most successful organizations that have recruited Native people have made it a point to commit long-term and to create a relationship with the community at large. The American Chemical Society is a good example. Their president, Tom Lane, has made a personal commitment. He came to our conference, spent the entire time. He’s on Facebook with our members. There’s nothing on the table—we’re not talking about a program together or a money deal—he just truly interested and has personally taken it upon himself to do a better job serving Native chemical engineers. And that’s the kind of commitment that needs to be there. He’s willing to develop a relationship. I do believe it’ll bear fruit.

For AISES what’s unique about your value proposition to the American Indian community itself? Is it easy to make that case to potential members?

As I’ve been involved in ASAE, I didn’t realize—this is typical of communities of color in that we don’t always realize we’re part of some movement—I did not know I was an “association executive.” I just knew I was the head of a nonprofit whose goal was education. So I’m really glad to have discovered my peers.

But I think the value proposition [for AISES] is that we believe this talent pool will make a difference in the future of Indian country. We refer to Indian country wherever Indians are gathered and in community, so it could be in an urban Indian center like Chicago. It could be in San Francisco. It could be on a reservation. Indian country is more broad. We know that this talent pool is going to be critical to the future of our sovereignty, the future of those communities. So we want them to go work for the Centers for Disease Control or for the Lockheed Martins or for the 3Ms, because in addition to their perspective making a difference in those industries, they’re ultimately going to impact leadership in these communities, and that’s the value proposition.

But not everybody buys that. There’s some Native people who are just very interested in their personal career development, and they may or may not come into the AISES fold.

I think what makes AISES unique from other societies is that we do promote and almost oblige you to be part of a community. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, AISES, go AIM [American Indian Movement].” We’re not radical, but we have a council of elders, which folks find very amazing. We have a group of elders, and when we convene our national conference, or any of our national events, they get up there and begin with a prayer, and they remind everybody of their obligations as human beings and to each other and that while you’re here studying and getting your credentials or whatever, you have an obligation because you are connected to all things—really to be a good human being, to be good sisters, to be good aunties, to be good human beings and take the decisions and the talent you have and do good with it. And that sets the pace for our organization. And not everybody’s into that, even Native people. Not everybody’s into that.

You also spent time as executive director of the Metropolitan Tenants Organization in Chicago. How does working for an association based on an ethic group, like AISES is, compare to one that isn’t?

I think they’re based on the same thing. They’re mission-driven.

If you look at the mission, one is to substantially increase. The other one was to protect low-income renters and give them a voice in decisions.

So I think therein lies the commonality. And you’ll see that throughout my whole career—other than my stint in the corporate sector, which I had to get out of my system—every job I’ve had since then is really about bringing a voice to underrepresented communities. And I will say that the mission at MTO required a lot more confrontational tactics. In fact, AISES, it was funny, when I interviewed, they asked, “How are you going to manage your activism?” I said, “Well, I’m an entrepreneur. And I will do whatever it takes to move a mission.” At MTO, I had to do sit-ins and confrontational politics and get 65 people to come down with me to the city hall. It’s not necessarily that I sought that. That’s just what it took to get to the negotiation table. At AISES, I have to put on this intellectual thing. I’ve had to learn all the lingo around the learning sciences and epistemology, and I had to learn where are the avenues for change? So it’s the same thing. It’s just a different tactic.

Was there anything else on your mind on the topic of diversity or anything else that we touched on that want to go back to?

Well, I just appreciate that the association community is taking this issue seriously, and I see more and more opportunities for people to plug in. We need to get beyond the choir.

The folks who are signing up for the webinars, and the folks who are coming to your diversity summit, in many instances, those are the people who are already singing. We need to figure out a way to get to those that—and I hate to say that they are the majority, still—don’t even have it on their radar screen.

And I’m not sure how to do that. But part of my commitment to being a part of ASAE and the DELP [Diversity Executive Leadership Program] program is, obviously, I’m raising my hand to say that I’ve definitely benefited from the resources here. And I’m willing to do my share. I don’t want to be completely seen as “Pam, carrying the flag of diversity.” … I want to be where there aren’t diversity choir people. Put me into the circle where there is nobody because I do think I can stand toe to toe with any other association professional. And so it’s my colleagues I want to convince and influence, not the choir.

Do you think that’s similar to the diversity cause anywhere?

Yes. I’d like for people to realize the brilliance of our [American Indian] talent and that we’re not a charity case. That’s why I make sure that we tell people our community is coming from the same ranks that they’re recruiting. We have students from tribal college all the way through the Ivy League. We have hundreds applying for our scholarships that have minimum GPA’s. Google’s recruiting from there, 3M. These are the big boys. So we are competitive, not just a charity case. I want to show that.

Pamala Silas is CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and a member of ASAE & The Center's 2008-2009 class of Diversity Executive Leadership Program scholars. Email:

—Contributed by Joe Rominiecki, managing editor, newsletters, ASAE & The Center for Association Leadership. Email:

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