RCAC presents an ongoing series of discussions featuring state directors from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD). Our series provides a glimpse into USDA RD’s priorities and showcases the dedication of state directors in serving rural communities within our region.
In this issue, we speak with Julia Hnilicka, State Director for USDA Rural Development-Alaska.
Hnilicka was born and raised in the rural Alaskan village of Nenana, where she has spent most of her life. Her upbringing as the child of a tugboat captain and an educator has provided her with a firsthand understanding of the complex issues confronting rural households. Her deep-seated connection to the region is coupled with extensive professional experiences that include education, economic development, Indigenous studies and political science.
Hnilicka holds a master’s degree in rural development from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Department of Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development. Her studies and students have taken her all across Alaska, allowing her to experience the vast variety of Alaska’s vibrant cultures and formidable wildlife.
She brings over a decade of practical experience from managing a freight business on the Yukon River. This aspect of her career exposed her to the practical logistical challenges faced by rural Alaskans due to their extremely remote locations, small populations and short summers. As an advocate for rural Alaskans, Hnilicka educates non-Alaskans on the need for flexible funding to address the needs in Alaska.
In our conversation, we will explore Hnilicka’s background, her leadership vision at Rural Development, and her strategies to address Alaska’s unique issues and the potentially transformative role of the recently-launched Rural Partners Network (RPN).
RCAC: Could you share with us some insights about your rural Alaska roots and how they influence your rural development outlook?
Julia Hnilicka: Growing up in rural Alaska is a truly incredible experience. My community has a population of about 300 people, so growing up, someone was always looking out for you. One of the most succinct ways that I can illustrate to a reader what that means is: When I contracted COVID during the summer of 2022, for many days, food would just arrive on my porch. I was too sick to leave my home, but my community knew and made sure I was cared for during my time of need.
When I have the opportunity to harvest animals or plants, one of the first expectations is that I share my abundance. When I pick berries, the first gallon always goes to an Elder. When lucky in hunting moose, at least half of it is usually shared with Elders and other community members. This system of reciprocity is important to our collective survival, especially during our long, cold winters.
That is what Rural Development means to me. It means supporting one another. Often, it takes a whole community to pull off a project of any magnitude so that means there needs to be community consensus and support.
RCAC: Given your background in logistics, how do you plan to use this experience to tackle the logistic and infrastructural challenges in Alaska’s remote communities?
Julia Hnilicka: In rural Alaska, the vast landscape of mountain ranges, waterways and distance means people can’t just drive to the nearest large town to obtain essential services. Most villages are not connected to the road system. In fact, 86% of Alaska’s communities cannot be reached by road; this means the movement of goods and people is not only difficult but costly. For many communities, supplies must be transported by boat or airplane. To obtain advanced education, training, medical care, or other services, rural residents often must travel by air to the nearest regional hub community like Fairbanks, Juneau, Bethel or Anchorage.
Rural Development is always thrilled to host policymakers from out of state. We invite senior leaders from the Lower 48 to visit rural Alaska and see and experience the remoteness for themselves. We also encourage Alaskans to contact their congressional delegates to enact statutory changes that will streamline application processes, so that we won’t miss the window for supplies to be barged up or for our short, summer construction season to begin.
RCAC: What are your plans to promote homeownership in Alaska while also addressing rural housing insecurity?
Julia Hnilicka: Our immediate priorities are training staff to work in more challenging areas, so that each one of Rural Development’s housing specialists in Alaska can support potential homeowners statewide. We’re also working with community partners to certify them as packagers for loans to purchase and repair homes. When housing authorities become our partners in this work, we are able to increase administrative capacity through our partners’ efforts in outreach and paperwork; this also benefits them while saving time for Rural Development staff and getting more Alaskans into homes.
RCAC: Alaska faces distinct challenges due to the rapidly warming climate, including permafrost thaw and coastal erosion. How does your office plan to assist rural Alaskans in navigating and adapting to these profound changes?
Julia Hnilicka: Whether villages are defending in place or conducting a managed retreat, Rural Development is ready to support them with our own grant and loan programs, as well as the Rural Partners Network which can connect Tribes, municipalities and village corporations with other federal resources.
RCAC: Alaska’s rural communities encompass a diversity of Indigenous cultures. How do you intend to engage with and address the specific needs of Alaska Natives, considering both their cultural practices and economic development necessities?
Julia Hnilicka: Visiting rural Alaska, my staff and I hear over and over, “We are not the same.” Every community is different and deserves to be heard. The Biden-Harris Administration and Secretary Vilsack have been instrumental in their support for Rural Development’s ability to travel to so many communities around the country. Because of this support for equity and emphasis on working with communities that we haven’t in the past, myself and my staff have traveled to over 70 different communities around Alaska in the last 18 months.
Meeting with leaders from Tribes, municipalities and village corporations has shown us time and again that local priorities vary. What we, as the federal government, might think a community wants or needs, might be, and usually is, totally wrong. Listening with an open mind and creative thinking are the most important aspects of the work that we do.
RCAC: The new Rural Partners Network signifies a new approach to supporting and connecting rural communities in Alaska. Given the distinct challenges and opportunities in the state, how do you envision RPN playing a transformative role in rural development across Alaska?
Julia Hnilicka: Since the Rural Partners Network doesn’t originate loans or oversee grant compliance, community liaisons under this program can focus on developing relationships with municipalities, Tribes and village corporations to find out local priorities and help connect communities with the best federal, state or nonprofit resources to accomplish their goals. As a new program with several open positions, there is also a natural opportunity to hire new people, and we are working hard to find the right people for the jobs, bringing Alaskan innovation and perspective into the space of federal government and community development.
RCAC: Lastly, what do you hope to accomplish during your time as Alaska state director?
Julia Hnilicka: My mission as Alaska state director for USDA Rural Development is to leave a lasting impression across Alaska, being the agency with boots on the ground and creative staff who work towards yes. I want every person in leadership and public service in Alaska to reach out to Rural Development when they have questions.
Programs like the Indigenous Animal Grant are where I hope to make an impact. This year, for the first time, USDA is working with Tribes and Tribal organizations to help them harvest, process, store, transport, sell and distribute indigenous animals like reindeer, moose, muskox, and salmon. With no match requirement, and no minimum or maximum grant request, the USDA’s Indigenous Animals Harvesting and Meat Processing Grant Program is intended to be flexible to the funding needs of Tribes. For a long time, it’s the kind of program people in Alaska have been asking for. Many Alaskans have been working hard to preserve culturally and spiritually significant foods – this recognition and realized funding will accelerate that work.
Also in this issue of Network News
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