ChangeMakers: Autumn Dillie, combating homelessness with culture and care

A woman smiles as she stands in front of a mural
Autumn Dillie, 31, is a street outreach worker with American Indian Community Development Corporation. She stands at Pow Wow Grounds in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

Updated: 8:30 a.m.

Five years ago, Autumn Dillie worked at a treatment center where she saw a lack of cultural understanding when helping Native American patients. She met a woman in the beginning stages of recovery who had to ask a case manager for permission to smudge, a spiritual purification ceremony. 

“I felt so strongly that we shouldn't have to ask to cleanse ourselves,” Dillie said. “We shouldn't have to ask to pray. It's not right for somebody to have to give permission to do so.”

Dillie, 31, is now a street outreach worker for the American Indian Community Development Corporation (AICDC). She goes out to meet Native Americans experiencing homelessness where they are and makes sure their basic needs are being met. If needed, Dillie provides them with resources if they want to get off the street or need mental health treatment. 

The AICDC drop-in center serves Native Americans from over 31 different tribes from Minnesota and the Dakotas. That’s why it’s important to have outreach workers who understand Native traditions and can relate to the intergenerational trauma people experience. Dillie said providing culturally specific services is key to long-term stability.

“I personally believe helping our people find their way back to who they are always wins.” 

A big motivation for the single mother is her 8-year-old son, Greyson Garcia Dillie, who sometimes joins her at the office when she’s providing services. His coat has the word “outreach” printed on the back, and he wears it with pride. 

Dillie said it’s important for her to teach Greyson that Native Americans are disproportionately experiencing homelessness. She wants him to recognize the humanity in the people who lack permanent housing. She wants him to understand why she cares. 

“This could be us,” said Dillie, who is a descendent of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. “This is your auntie, this is your uncle. These are people that are our relations. We need to take care of one another.” 

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now? 

For me personally in this moment, I feel like we're getting closer and closer to a breakthrough. In light of George Floyd's murder, people are really coming together even though we're so apart because of the pandemic. I feel like people are communicating. They're having all of these conversations about real change, to the point where I think that we might actually have some sort of change, some sort of system reform, if anything, now the government's listening [and] we have their ear. With the different shelters that are coming online, we'll have more services for folks who are on the street. 

What figures have shaped you?

My mother, Evelyn Dillie, used to do foster care. So when people talk about me and they talk about these great things that I do, these are traits that I learned from my mother. Her door was always open. You could come in [and] she'd washed your clothes. She'd iron them. You'd have somewhere to stay. Whatever it is that you needed, she was there to take care of you. She always made sure that I had everything that I needed.

A woman stands with her son in front of a mural.
Autumn Dillie and her son Greyson Garcia Dillie
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR

She also took in foster children. I was one of those foster children. I saw foster kids come in and out of our home. When I started working with homeless youth, I would just cry. I would call my sister and I would just be like, "I don't understand how mom did this. This is so hurtful." And my sisters would just say, "Autumn, you know, she cried, too. When kids would leave, she would go and she would sit by herself and she would cry, too. You just didn't see it."

When I really started to flourish was when I met Michael Goze, who's my CEO. He didn't create a ceiling for me. Anything that I could dream of that I wanted to do, he would help me walk through and do it. When I did the coordinated outreach effort last winter, he sat down with me and was like, "This is how you create a budget. This is how you get an idea of how many people you plan to serve. And these are all the things that you need to do it." 

I work with such a supportive team. I have had such a strong core group of men that have literally helped me follow through on any dream that I could possibly have dreamt about during these last two years. They also give me a safe space to scream, to work problems out and figure out how I can best serve somebody. Because you get tough cases all the time. The way that AICDC operates is such like a family network. It's helped support me to grow into the places that I wanted there. 

It's also the matriarch people that I have in my life. Christine McDonald works for the city. She helped me learn the different parts of office that there are [and] coached me on how to talk to all of the different elected officials. Peggy Flanagan, I admire her big time. She's just so poised. I watch these women when they apply pressure. They do it so gracefully that you don't even realize that they're applying pressure to a problem [and] then getting that problem heard out and solved. 

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

I think about my kid and I think about other children I consider my nieces. I just really hope they find a way to continue to resist against being extinct. Just to continue to have beautiful Native children. They all go to the Bdote Learning Center. They are learning more of our language than we ever got the chance to learn. I really think they're going to bring our language back. They'll bring back a way to be rich in our traditions, and they're going to revive our ways. I really believe that they will be better than we are. 

I want to see longer life averages. I want to see more healthy results for our people. We've been struggling with different diseases for so many years, and I would like to see that come to an end. I would like to see our people really, really thriving, and not having to deal with the epidemics, like the opiate epidemic, and all these drugs and alcohol that have been given to us. 

I would like to see that come to an end and I think that this generation will really well stop that. 

There's so many prevention programs out there right now for them to learn. I know a lot of kids that are 17-18 years old who chose not to drink. They choose not to use drugs. They are completely abstinent because they're trying to bring back our ways of life.

Correction (Nov. 25, 2020): A previous version of this story had incorrect information about when Autumn Dillie was employed at a treatment center.

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