Leadership 2021: At New Relationship Trust, Jessie Williams takes a holistic approach to supporting Indigenous communities

New Relationship Trust focuses on five main areas of capacity-building: education, governance, language, youth and elders, and economic development.

Nonprofit NRT focuses on five main areas of capacity-building: education, governance, language, youth and elders, and economic development

Like many of us, Jessie Williams has had to adjust to a new way of working during the pandemic. She’d never attended an online meeting before COVID hit, and the experience opened her eyes to new possibilities. “I found once I leaned into it and welcomed it, I was able to figure out how to create an environment that still felt personable, even if it was online,” says the recently appointed director of business development and communications for New Relationship Trust (NRT). “It just took a minute to adjust.”

The first of its kind in Canada, NRT is a nonprofit that provides funding and support to Indigenous communities across B.C. With those people spread far and wide, travelling to them isn’t always feasible. For NRT, the rise of virtual meetings during the pandemic has fostered better communication. “Online is better than just being on the phone,” Williams says. “You get to see people, which I think helps with connection.”

NRT focuses on five main areas of capacity-building: education, governance, language, youth and elders, and economic development. Its latest project is the British Columbia Indigenous Clean Energy Initiative, which backs communities working in that field. NRT works with government and non-Indigenous partners, alongside Indigenous leaders, to deliver its programs. “We’re a non-political organization,” Williams says. “We have connections with B.C. First Nations and a trustable relationship with different communities across the province.”

Most of NRT’s 10-member team are Indigenous themselves, and it takes a holistic approach. “It’s a Western way to segment—to have different industries, different segments, different age groups,” says Williams, who is a member of the Squamish Nation. “A real strong Indigenous perspective is: everything’s connected, everything is whole. And I feel like this specific organization has the ability to respond in a holistic way, understanding all those things are interconnected. It’s just beautiful.”

Looking forward

New Relationship Trust was created in 2006, when the First Nations Leadership Council asked the provincial government to fund an organization that could respond to Indigenous needs. Although COVID didn’t affect its ability to provide services, NRT has had fewer applications than pre-pandemic for grants and other support. Williams believes that’s because communities have shifted human resources to emergency concerns. “We’re working on addressing that by doing more engagement,” she says, noting that NRT has hired a director of programs and services.

Williams is the first to fill her position, which was created this past spring. Before joining NRT, she was SFU‘s director of Indigenous relations for the faculty of arts and social sciences, where she worked in a similar capacity. “I created strategy there also, focusing on reconciliation and all the different aspects of how the faculty responded to that,” she says. “TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] calls to action and UNDRIP [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples] and all those amazing documents that help guide us if we nurture them.”

She stresses the need for flexibility in her role, a quality reflected in her leadership style. “I have a transformational approach, which is all about how do we evolve, grow and respond to identified needs and then help be a supporter and a guide.”

Although the preference is to meet communities in person once it’s safe, NRT now has a solid foundation for online outreach, as long as staff can set some boundaries. “You don’t have to travel, and so we spend maybe too many hours sitting,” Williams says. “I’ve never had six meetings in a day before, and I’m not sure how sustainable that is.”

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that adaptation is key—something that resonates with Williams. “I don’t focus on status quo or what we’ve always done,” she says. “I look forward.”