New SVP looks to help Native American students and tribes 'reach their true potential'

New SVP looks to help Native American students and tribes 'reach their true potential'

By Kyle MittanUniversity Communications
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Levi Esquerra joined the university on Sept. 8 as its first senior vice president of Native American advancement and tribal engagement.
Levi Esquerra joined the university on Sept. 8 as its first senior vice president of Native American advancement and tribal engagement.

In his nearly 30-year career in tribal relations and business development, Nathan Levi Esquerra has strived to help Native American tribes and their members reach their goals.

He hopes to help the University's Native American community do the same.

Esquerra, 52, is the University's first senior vice president for Native American advancement and tribal engagement. Esquerra, who joined the University on Sept. 8, reports to President Robert C. Robbins.

Working closely with Liesl Folks, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost, and Karen Francis-Begay, assistant vice provost for Native American initiatives, Esquerra oversees Universitywide efforts to improve the success of Native American students, identify and promote tribal interests, and build programs and research capacity in ways that honor and respect tribal sovereignty and the needs of native nations and tribal communities in Arizona and beyond.

"I define success as reaching your true potential. Whatever that potential is, I want to be an advocate and help tribal nations and tribal students reach it," said Esquerra, who goes by his middle name, Levi. "But I'll be the first to say I don't know what that is. I think it's for us each to determine because we know ourselves better than anyone else."

Esquerra is a member and former chairman of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe in Havasu Lake, California, just across Lake Havasu and the Colorado River from Lake Havasu City, Arizona. He was most recently the director of the Center for American Indian Economic Development at the W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University.

Esquerra and his wife, Pam, have three daughters: Tiewa, 26, Mikayla, 24, and Jocelyn, 16. When he's not working, he's playing fantasy football, listening to his daughters play the piano, vacationing in Parker, or teaching Jocelyn how to drive.

'A passion for seeing dirt move'

Esquerra earned degrees in communication and sociology from Brigham Young University. He learned early that a career as a journalist wasn't a fit, but his sociology studies, he said, inspired him to find work that helped improve the lives of others.

Esquerra, who grew up about 40 miles south of Lake Havasu City in Parker, Arizona, began working for the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe in 1993 as a tribal planner and grant writer. The job, he said, taught him how to "start from the ground up," and in some ways, he helped the tribe do the same.

The tribe – which had only three employees at the time, the chairman, vice chairman and secretary/treasurer – hired Esquerra along with an accountant. The first grant he wrote garnered the tribe enough money to replace an office full of typewriters with computers.

"When I first got there, there was one building," the tribal government office, he said.

During his four years with the tribe, Esquerra was elected to the tribal council and later elected by his fellow council members as the tribe's chairman. As chairman, he helped the tribe secure more than $10 million in contracts and grants and established a development center to increase the tribe's revenue.

And before long, the tribal government building wasn't the only one on the reservation. Esquerra oversaw the addition of a health clinic and gymnasium, and he led an effort to replace the reservation's water lines and wells.

"I just had a passion for seeing dirt move," Esquerra said.

Serving as chairman taught Esquerra how to lead with accountability and transparency, he said. He set clear goals for the council and made them public and he regularly conducted internal audits. Accountability and transparency, he said, remain central to his leadership philosophy.

In 1998, Esquerra was given a full scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis, where he earned a Master of Social Work with a focus on social and economic development. While there, he served as interim director of the American Indian Center of Mid-America, where he helped reestablish ties with local tribes and corporate community sponsors, and increased funding for the center by 50%. He also worked as a research associate for the city of St. Louis' Community Development Agency.

Two decades of tribal relations work in Arizona

By August of 1999, Esquerra had moved closer to home, becoming a business development representative for what was then the state of Arizona's Commission of Indian Affairs in Phoenix. The commission later became the Office on Tribal Relations and is now housed in the governor's office.

In that role, Esquerra served as the primary contact between the state and the 22 tribal governments in Arizona to improve the tribes' social and economic development.

When Esquerra became director of NAU's Center for American Indian Economic Development, he found himself "doing a little bit of everything," he said, within the larger mission of serving tribal communities across the state in their efforts to become more self-sufficient.

One project that stands out from Esquerra's time leading the center was helping to create a financial literacy game for children on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The project was the result of a request from the community's leaders.

"It goes to show you that when you take time out to listen to someone, you see opportunities arise and you can say, 'OK, what are the solutions that can be made?'" Esquerra said, adding that developing the game took about a year of collaboration between his center and the tribal community.

His other accomplishments during his 19 years at the center include helping it earn more than $2.5 million in grants and establishing a $2.8 million endowment fund.

'Tremendous opportunity' to serve tribal students, communities

His new role at the University, Esquerra said, allows him to take the work he's done for decades even further.

"I look at the resources that are available here and I am in awe of the opportunities," he said, pointing to Native American Student Affairs, the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, the Native Peoples Technical Assistance Office and the American Indian Studies graduate interdisciplinary program in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

"If we can collaborate and build relationships with tribes, I think there's tremendous opportunity to help build success and help them reach their true potential," he added.

One long-term goal, Esquerra said, is to increase the number of Native American faculty members at the University to better reflect the diversity of the student body.

"You want to have a place where you feel like you belong," Esquerra said. "As you increase Native American faculty, it gives students an opportunity to feel that connection and to feel like they belong."

He also hopes to establish a new cultural center dedicated to Native American students, which would include recognizing the tribes represented at the University. He said he would also like to build a library of oral histories, to be housed at the center, with tribal leaders and elders to preserve tribes' cultures and histories.

An immediate priority, Esquerra said, is addressing the digital divide that Native American students are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As most classes have moved largely or entirely online, many students struggle without reliable internet access, he said.

Also for the short term, Esquerra said he hopes to start organizing monthly presentations to the University's senior leadership team by Arizona tribal leaders. He also hopes to help set up regular meetings between tribal leaders and Robbins, and lunch meetings between tribal leaders and Native American students. Even with the limitations presented by the pandemic, having those meetings in a virtual format, Esquerra said, could go a long way.

"One of the things I'm really thrilled about is there's a commitment for us to actually engage the tribes and to really learn firsthand what their goals are and how can we help them achieve them," Esquerra said.


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