MN VOICES | Noya Woodrich, a new leader but old friend for the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches

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It’s going to be a short move for Noya Woodrich on July 3, just down the hall to her new corner office. That’s the day she’ll take over as President and CEO of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches (GMCC) from Rev. Gary Reierson who retires after 23 years at the post. She’ll be both the first woman and the first American Indian to head the 107-year-old organization; even so, the change is more evolution than revolution.

From its 1905 origin as the Hennepin County Sunday School Association, GMCC has grown to include highly visible programs like the Metro Paint-a-Thon and Minnesota FoodShare, as well as supporting more out-of-view efforts on behalf of the incarcerated and those recovering from mental illness and abuse. With 25,000 volunteers, 700 member congregations, and a budget of 8 million, GMCC programs served over 300,000 people last year.

Woodrich has led the Divison of Indian Work (DIW) since 2001. Her career with the service organization started in 1991. She was a junior at St. Paul’s Augsburg College. She picked DIW from a list of internships available to social work majors. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she did a stint with their summer youth program and eventually joined the permanent staff.

She remembers feeling grateful she wouldn’t have to job-hunt, and that the salary was enough to allow her to quit working at the Tracy One-Stop gas station. As she tells the story, her face breaks into a smile that starts at her eyebrows and doesn’t quit until it takes in cheeks and chin. It’s Friday afternoon, and the DIW offices at 1001 East Lake Street are filled with a subdued, triumphant buzz. Last night, with a program at the Minneapolis Club, the DIW celebrated 60 years.

Woodrich choose the DIW internship “seeking to be involved in my community.” Lessons began the first day.  She remembers sitting across the table from some elders. “Where are you from?” they asked.

“Central Wisconsin,” she answered.

They looked at each other and chuckled, “No. Where are you from?”

“East of Wausau,” she offered, “A little town called Easton.” They laugh harder.

“As a young person, you often think they’re laughing at you. They were really laughing with me,” she remembers. “When Indian people ask each other where they’re from, they want to know which tribe they are part of.”

Woodrich was born in Alaska to the Athabascan community and adopted as a baby by German Lutheran parents. Her family ran a dairy farm, a convenience store, and an auction business. She learned to appreciate hard work, entrepreneurism and sauerkraut. She grew up comfortable with her heritage, but isolated from the experiences of other American Indian people. She was in high school when she first felt judged for her race. It was the late 1980s. Controversy about hunting and fishing treaty rights were rolling through her community.

This was the start of an exploration of identity that was both practical and academic. She directed a program for teen mothers at DIW and earned a master’s degree in social work from Augsburg. A 1999 Leadership Initiative Grant from the Saint Paul Companies allowed her to study the role of women in the Native American communities. She’s completed everything but her dissertation for a doctorate from Hamline. That’s on hold for now as she focuses on taking over the reins at the GMCC and spending time with her seven-year-old son.

“Being Indian but having grown up in a white household makes me a good person for this job,” Woodrich says. “While it might sound like a cliché, I can walk in both worlds.” Though she reflects on the challenges of working with a more formal board of directors, she feels well prepared for her new position. She’ll miss Reierson. He was ballast—her touchstone for whether an idea was feasible or grandiose.

One thing concerns her. Opportunities for day-to-day interactions with clients will be further limited when she takes over her new responsibilities. She resolves not to lose touch. Listening to stories she says, “keeps me legitimate and sincere.” She made sure that the program marking DIW’s anniversary included real people; a volunteer, a young father in a parenting group, a mother who lives in sponsored housing. The young mother was so nervous her leg shook. It was a powerful presentation. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Woodrich says of the program as a whole.

Asked about what the future holds for the Great Minneapolis Council of Churches, she touches a finger to her lip and glances out the door of her office. It’s certain the challenges will change she says. During Reierson’s tenure the group identified the growing West African population as a community in need of support. Woodrich hopes to make progress in the justice area by recruiting more peer mentors.

Whatever the years bring to GMCC, Noya Woodrich sees herself as part of it. “I may be the only Gen X’er to spend my whole career in one place,” she chuckles.  Well, there was the Tracy One-Stop.