Change Labs breaks ground on new building in Tuba City
Change Labs broke ground on a building and new headquarters in Tuba City after many years of struggling to find a space on the Navajo Nation, thanks to the To’Nanees’Dizi local government.
The new headquarters will be neighbors to the local chapter and will be a space for entrepreneurs and community members to gather, a press release said.
"We ran Change Labs events for four years and it became clear in that time period, that the needs, particularly on Navajo...are so great that it demands physical presence," said Heather Fleming, executive director of Change Labs. "This is not something that can be done virtually or spontaneously or sporadically. It requires a continuous presence in the community."
Fleming said the brick and mortar structure is still the way communities work, and the ability to talk to someone in an office works better for business and marketing concepts Change Labs works on with its Native businesses.
"To really wrap your hands around it, it's easier to go into a space and just talk to a person and see the tools in a real space and have a real conversation with a friendly face," Fleming said. "It was critical to us that we get to that point where we can be a round the clock resource for local business owners and start-ups. That's huge and that's significant for us."
Fleming said the process to look for office space started in 2017. Change Labs always knew they wanted to create a flagship space in Tuba City because most co-working spaces were in Window Rock or the eastern part of the reservation.
"We couldn't find anything on the western side," Fleming said.
At the same time with rumors of Navajo Generating Station closing and with the Western Agencies being a gateway to the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, Change Labs knew it was going to be an issue.
"There was all this untapped potential there for all of these fantastic Native businesses but no support network," Fleming said. "We knew we wanted to be in Tuba City. And we also naively assumed it might be easier to get land in Tuba because of its LGA status."
They were wrong.
"It was four years of just constant fretting and saying, 'Oh my God, what if there's nothing. What if we can't do it here?" Fleming said. "It was just a paralyzing prospect. You look around Tuba City and all our communities and there's space galore but it's all tied up in all kinds of issues. Everything is tied up in an issue."
Fleming pointed out that the problems and issues Change Labs had in securing land is the same that small businesses go through on reservation land.
"If we can't figure this out [for Change Labs] then how do we expect others to figure it out?" Fleming asked. The prospect of moving to a border town like Page or Flagstaff was unappealing because it went against Change Lab's mission.
"The whole point of Change Labs is to foster a Native economy and it wouldn't be the right message if we said, 'We're going to foster Native economies in border towns,'" Fleming said, adding that that's already happening with other organizations because it's so difficult to access land on the Navajo Nation for a business.
Eventually, Change Labs acquired .85 acres of land because of the To’Nanees’Dizi local government, which established a land use agreement with the organization.
Fleming said Chapter tract land is usually reserved for government initiatives so the idea to establish an agreement with nonprofit is unprecedented in Tuba City. As a result, came with its bumps and challenges.
“We are so grateful to them for basically taking charge of the situation,” Fleming said of To’Nanees’Dizi Local Government. “I understand how difficult it could be for them to make this decision because land is so valuable on Navajo.”
Fleming said that Change Labs doesn't own the land, it will always be Chapter tract land.
"We will own our building, but we won't own the land," Fleming said.
Although the initial building will be small, Change Labs plans to grow their presence in the future and establish a campus of buildings to support local businesses. The new Change Labs headquarters plans to be a communal space for the public, offering work space, micro retail opportunities, a coffee bar, and conference rooms for trainings, workshops and meetings.
On the outside of the building, there will be community gardens raised by local farmers that are in the Change Labs program. The coffee bar will also act as a marketplace for entrepreneurs in the program to have an opportunity to sell their goods and have their businesses displayed. The design and development of the new headquarters is being managed by Navajo-owned Rock Gap Engineering.
Fleming said that many home-based entrepreneurs use their kitchen tables as workspace, clearing it multiple times a day for family meals. Without a dedicated work space, other things like printers and marketing tools become challenges to store.
"Many entrepreneurs enrolled in Change Labs' programs have unreliable internet service," Fleming said. "So creating a physical space for business owners to work, network and learn how to run successful businesses on the reservation is a mission [I] am set on accomplishing."
Fleming said many of the philanthropic community want to visit the Navajo Nation to see the space and she believes that Change Labs can do a lot to further efforts with entrepreneurs by building on the land they have.
“I think in order to create this new narrative about what it is to be a Native American entrepreneur, we have to build that presence in our communities and one of the best ways to do that is through a physical building. So, this is a huge deal for us,” she said.