Nicole Maher

Nichole MaherWhen she was 23, and a recent OSU grad, Nichole Maher (’01, Public Health and Ethnic Studies) applied for an ambitious job she never thought she’d get,— as the Executive Director of Portland’s Native American Youth Association.

“I was encouraged by community partners to apply,” she says. “I thought I’d just learn the process, but they ended up hiring me.”

She applied not expecting to be hired, but Maher proved herself to be a stellar leader. In her 11 years there, she helped grow NAYA, an organization dedicated to strengthening native communities, from a staff of five to an organization with a ten million dollar annual budget and 100 employees.

NAYA now supports a private high school and early college academy. Their programs have expanded to include tax, business and home buying assistance for Native families, and space for elders’ crafts, exercise and potlucks.

Maher made such an impression on the Portland community that she was invited to give a TEDx talk at Concordia University in 2012, and in 2007 was named by Willamette Week as one of the up-and-comers who could give then-mayoral candidate Sam Adams a run for his money.

Maher cites the skills she learned as an ethnic studies major, like communication and understanding a historical context, as integral to helping her build bridges and investment within her community. She attributes NAYA’s success to this cooperation and to their successful communication with funders. “NAYA was doing really unique things and having great results, but we hadn’t built a foundation of evaluation or telling that story,” she says.  we weren’t telling why the way we did things was important and creating the evidence was another part of the success.”

At OSU, Maher began to explore the context of Native communities like those in Portland. “I was so interested to learn the history of federal relocation. I had grown up in very rural native communities and I didn’t know the whole history of relocation to urban cities.”  This history became an integral part of how NAYA told their story.  “We’re the 9th largest Native community in the U.S. and they were being chronically left out and underserved. Being able to articulate that social justice framework and the historical and current inequalities was pivotal to our growth.”

Now, at 34, Maher is the President and CEO of the Northwest Health Foundation, a non-profit that supports programs and projects to improve the health of underserved people in Washington and Oregon.

Maher’s goals are similar to the ones she had at NAYA—to create community involvement. “We’re starting a community engagement process in the fall, and we’re really looking forward to hearing from folks about the health solutions that they've seen success with.”

When she’s hiring, Maher considers the major on an applicant’s degree less important than the skills they he or she bring to the work. “I’m interested in people who can write, who are articulate, who have strength in public speaking,” she says. “We like to hire people who know how to problem-solve and can reflect on success and failure for themselves, and learn from that to implement new solutions in very concrete ways. I think those were the skills I learned in Ethnic Studies.”

-Story by Leslie Rutberg, and photo by Kirk Crippens