Reflecting Upon South Dakota

by JLMC’s Program Director, Tessa Davis

Tessa Davis, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, in Uganda with Brian, a young boy who had been orphaned during the war.

I was born and raised in the Black Hills of South Dakota, home to the Lakota Nation. After college, I joined the Peace Corps and served in Uganda, learning the language, the culture and the complexities of the context. I have since been building a career with Just Like My Child Foundation using my experience, skills and talents to support community leaders in East and West Africa in building community led and sustainable solutions to resolve issues of poverty, violence and inequality. My work for the past decade has specifically been focused on developing the Girl Power Project® alongside my Ugandan colleagues. This is a replicable, evidence-based curriculum that empowers adolescent girls and their community members to avoid early pregnancy, forced child marriage, early dropout and disease like HIV. 

While most people understand the positive global impact of empowering girls a world away, we often get the question at Just Like My Child Foundation….Why Africa?…..girls in the United States need this program. That question has always especially stung for me because throughout my years of work in Africa I have always kept the Black Hills in my heart. My home community faces many similar issues.

Tessa (on the right) with her stepdad Dennis and siblings circa 1983 (5 years old) in South Dakota.

The Lakota (Sioux) Nation today consists of about 150,000 members, separated on to seven different reservations. Because of genocide, displacement, and generational trauma many are living in extreme poverty, disconnected from their traditional values and, isolated from mainstream society. Lacking vital resources and basic human rights, the Lakota make up some of the 5,712 indigenous women who were reported missing or murdered in 2016. To give that number some perspective, in 15-years of conflict in Iraq the US has suffered 4,541 fatalities.

Tessa with four students whom she mentored and who now have grown into empowered university students and professional women.

The statistics speak for themselves, yet it is surprising how few people in the United States actually know about these events. Even people living in the Black Hills lack an awareness of the vulnerabilities that indigenous women face right in their backyard. There has been a silent epidemic of disappearances, homicides, violent crimes and trafficking of Native Americans. For more than a decade, the US Department of Justice has estimated that Native American women are  2 ½ times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than the general population. One in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetime, they are ten times more likely to be victims of homicide, and in a new study 90% of Native women have experienced sexual assault.

South Dakota’s history of colonization has contributed to these egregious acts of violence against Native American women and shaped current race relations that leave Native American communities facing prejudice, discrimination and hate crimes from non-natives. I’ve personally witnessed the trauma and mistrust this has created among Native Americans and the resulting complexities and cultural sensitivities required to create collaborative relationships between non native persons and Native American leaders and communities. 

Nikkole Bostnar & Sunny Red Bear, Founders of Sinew, at an MMIW rally.

This complicated reality, along with my deep commitment to working on solutions that come from within the community, challenged me for many years, to ponder how I could serve the Native American population in the Black Hills. 

This made it all the more meaningful when founders of Sinew, Sunny Red Bear, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and Nikkole Bostnar, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, who have personally experienced the statistical vulnerabilities Indigenous girls in South Dakota face approached me to learn more about JLMC’s Girl Power Project® and asked to have JLMC to train them in teaching the Girl Power Project and for assistance with building the sustainability of their organization. 

As community organizers for the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement Sunny Red Bear and Nikkole Bostnar have brought awareness to these egregious issues through their advocacy. In an effort to transition their advocacy into action, they founded Sinew an organization dedicated to creating an environment where healing and transformation can occur by equipping and inspiring youth to become visionaries through indigenous-based education and mentorship.

Tessa, & JLMC Strategy Consultant, Shawn Ruggeiro, on their trip to South Dakota in February 2020.

Arm in arm, Sinew and Just Like My Child, have partnered to address these issues and Sinew is already delivering Girl Power Project curriculum on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. It is hard to describe how honored and grateful I feel to be invited and trusted to share my skills and experiences, and to work and demonstrate alongside Sunny and Nikkole and others to transform our community in the sacred Black Hills, One Girl at a Time. 



Follow JLMC on Instagram @justlikemychild and Facebook @justlikemychildfoundation for more updates on the progress of this partnership.

About Just Like My Child Foundation: About Just Like My Child Foundation: Since its founding in 2006, Just Like My Child Foundation has developed deep partnerships with rural communities in Africa to deliver sustainable programs that address health care, education, microenterprise, social justice, and women/girls’ empowerment. Through that work, JLMC came to understand that empowering vulnerable adolescent girls to amplify their voices and achieve their fullest potential is the most powerful weapon in disrupting the cycle of poverty. Today, Just Like My Child Foundation is focused on expanding its evidence-based, replicable model of girls empowerment, Girl Power Project® Global, beginning in the US with the Lakota Sioux Nation in South Dakota, and in Rishikesh, India.  Learn more about our quest to transform the world, one girl at a time, at

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