Leading with her heart

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From the moment you meet Norma Renville, you know you are in the presence of a leader. A soft, yet certain sense of power and determination radiates from her, a power that went into creating Women of Nations.

Giving hope
What began 25 years ago as a community advocacy program providing culturally appropriate support for American Indian women grew to include a domestic violence shelter in 1991. The goal was to create a program to physically and spiritually support women who experienced domestic violence.

The Eagle’s Nest shelter’s daily reminder reads: “Rekindle my spirit, cradle my soul, for I may be your Daughter, your Sister, your Auntie, your Grandma, your Mother, your Niece, your Neighbor … Be my strength when I am weak, be my voice when I can’t speak, pick me up when I can’t reach … I am everything because you love and believe in me …”

Renville’s deep sense of care for her community shone through her as she reflected on her experiences. “I wanted women … to have the resources and support to move out of those violent relationships and understand, most importantly, that what is happening to them isn’t a result of what they are doing … that they didn’t bring it on themselves. I wanted women to know that we are more alike than we are different. That there is hope and with persistence you can change your life.”

In ‘the system’
Renville herself became part of the system early in life. As an infant, she was placed in a home with older foster parents, whom she called “grandmother” and “grandfather.” It was in this home, in the West 7th neighborhood of St. Paul, that she was given a strong foundation to become the leader she is today. “I was raised by a grandmother who was very nurturing,” Renville said. “Even though I was the only American Indian child in the family, she really wanted me to feel that I was just like everybody else.”

When Renville was 4, caseworkers were concerned that she was becoming too attached to her foster grandparents. “They thought that if I was in another foster home, my chances would have been better of being adopted.” They took her from the only home she knew and placed her with another family, where she was very unhappy. Renville’s foster grandmother, who had maintained a relationship with Renville’s biological mother, coached her to visit Renville at the new foster home. Renville recalled, “My grandmother said, ‘you know, you could pick Norma up. You have the right to visit her. And when you pick her up, don’t bring her back. Bring her back to me and we’ll hide her.’ So they kidnapped me! My mom picked me up, took me out, and brought me straight back to where everything was familiar. I remember being so happy, but yet, I remember the people around me being so nervous!” Eventually Renville’s mother was arrested and Renville was unwillingly returned to the new foster home. Soon after, Renville’s grandparents decided to proceed with permanent custody. “I was no longer part of the foster care system. They raised me as their own,” Renville said.

Renville was enmeshed in a strong support system that helped her lay the stepping-stones to a life of service. “There were several teachers in my life … that really inspired me to want to push myself to be better at whatever it was … I think I received enough support in that environment that allowed me to know that if I worked hard enough at something I would be able to get to the next level,” Renville said.

Leadership came early. At age 14 she was involved in her first political campaign for a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives. “I grew up with amazing friends and they encouraged me to assume leadership positions. Something inside me said, ‘OK! I’ll do it.’ Even though I’m scared to death, I’m going try.”

Life became more difficult when Renville was 15. Her grandmother died, and Renville became pregnant the same year. Decisions were made for her, and she no longer lived in the home where she raised. “Things were a lot different in the 1970s when young girls became pregnant,” Renville said. “I had four sons by the time I was 22 … it was during that period of time that I experienced domestic violence. When I hit what I thought was my personal bottom, I decided that I was going to change things in my life.”

Finding her community
At that same time, she was becoming reacquainted with her siblings, and with their help, she was able to admit that she was chemically dependent. “They were hell bent to sober me up.” Her oldest brother encouraged her to enroll her kids in the Red School House, an American Indian-designed St. Paul alternative school. Each day her boys would come home from school and, “They would tell me the stories that they learned, the songs that they learned. That was the piece that was missing in my upbringing … the language, culture, spirituality, roles in the family. Little by little I was being introduced to it through my children.” She absorbed every story, and let herself be guided to what was next. “There is a part of me that knows that the strength and the persistence … goes way back to ancestors that I’ve have never met.”

Tapping into that connection, Renville moved forward. She got her GED, worked at a nonprofit, and gained job skills that she would bring into future work opportunities. She worked for many years in Indian Education for the St. Paul Public Schools. She later worked at St. Paul Technical College as a financial aid officer. She finished her B. A., and also completed a technical college esthetician program. Never one to hold just one job, she had part-time careers in retail sales and esthetics.

Community change
Renville’s commitment to making change in her own community led her to join Eileen Hudon, Wanda Weyhaus and Leslie Snow to bring Women of Nations into the world. The women noticed that American Indian women were leaving the domestic violence shelters within a few days to return to abusive relationships. “That was the result of not having a culturally competent American Indian shelter,” Renville said. “Prior to European influence, we didn’t have domestic violence. Women and children were considered the keepers of life, and children were considered to be sacred beings.” Domestic violence, then, not only physically and emotionally attacked the victim, but also spiritually violated fundamental tenets of the American Indian belief system. The founders of Women of Nations shared this knowledge, and what began as an exploration of the differences from culture to culture, developed into a lesson in the similarities. Although their organization started with a strong commitment to the American Indian Community, the client base of the shelter is very diverse.

“It is part of our philosophy to be a sharing culture,” Renville said. The shelter and the organization serves people from all cultures; the largest number of residents come from the African American community, followed by the American Indian community. “We don’t make any assumptions about who people are and how they identify themselves. We ask them, ‘Is there anything we can do to meet your cultural or spiritual needs?’ When you are able to be nurturing to their spirits and provide that place … they can be safe.”

Renville is committed to staying open to the needs of her community, and is willing to let the organization continue to grow organically. Women of Nations is reaching out to youth through a current project they’re developing to assist homes for Minneapolis American Indian youth. After the tragic shootings on the Red Lake reservation in 2005, Women of Nations stepped in to staff the National Native Youth Crisis Line. “I’ve allowed myself to be open enough to intuitively find myself on this path … you just keep yourself open.”

When Renville isn’t actively serving the American Indian community, she spends time at her home northeast of St. Paul with her husband of 23 years. “It is nice to be able to see the stars and to smell the sweetgrass,” She said. Her sons are all grown, and she has eight grandchildren.

In an age when the statistics are stacked against women who leave abusive relationships, Renville first credits her co-founders and the volunteers of Women of Nations. “The three other co-founders are amazing women. I wasn’t alone. Being able to confront the individual and institutional belief systems that perpetuate violence,” she said, is what keeps her going. “If what I’m doing is confronting those belief systems, then we’re going to be getting at some of the root causes.

Renville summed up her mission in a gentle, yet confident way. “To be supportive of people on their journeys … that’s really what is important to me.”