Age 25, Willamette Falls Trust
2021 Prize Winner
Give!Guide: You’re the youngest of this year’s Skidmore Prize recipients. How did you end up in the nonprofit sphere?
Gerard Rodriguez: I feel, for myself and for a lot of other people that grow up in communities of color, community work is not really much of a choice, but really a need; one of survival and responsibility to yourself, to your community, and to everything in life that helps give you the opportunity to be here. Starting out really young, this is the essence of what I was asked to do all the way from advocating to the U.S. Forest Service as a high school student for funding for Indigenous-specific programs and natural resource management. That just continued to lead down to more asks and more opportunities to make a difference in that way.
What was your relationship to Willamette Falls growing up?
It's a place that's known throughout Indian country, all across what is now called the state of Oregon and beyond. Tribes from across Oregon, Washington and tribes from Idaho all have connections to this place, and people would come from well over 200, 300 miles [away] as part of a seasonal round. I think my connection to the falls, and to the importance of place, is one that I was raised with. Everywhere you go, you're a part of the land and the water. Those things provide for you. So it's our responsibility, no matter where we are, to help protect them, to help honor them, and to help continue their lives so that ours can [continue] as well.
How has the organization gone about integrating Indigenous values and traditions into the riverwalk project?
Our role really is to listen and to help build opportunities for more of that listening to take place. It's going to communities, it's listening to those that pass on culture, that pass on stories and language, and can also share what they need to see in order to help not just represent them in interpretation and historical telling, but bring that knowledge into the present and into the future. It's a matter of access to the river, access to demonstrating, and experiencing traditional fishing and passing on cultural teachings.
Is there an interaction you’ve had that you feel particularly represents what you’re hoping to accomplish with the Willamette Falls Trust?
In working to gain the board of delegates that we have from each of the tribes, which was something that began in the summer of 2020 when I came on, going to Warm Springs and hearing chief Delvis Heath speak about the falls with such reverence, especially as his community was undergoing so much loss, and really looking to this as a significant part of the future, a significant part of all of our shared responsibility, and the hope and the continuance that is symbolized through the falls—hearing that from him, and then subsequently having him be the appointed delegate to our board to represent that community, is so deeply touching and really demonstrates the significance of what this place is and what it deserves to each of the Tribes.