Nick Tilsen of the NDN Collective says the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic provides "opportunity here to architect and build a new world"
Nick Tilsen
Nick Tilsen
| Credit: courtesy Nick Tilsen

The coronavirus pandemic has most people eager to get back to business as usual, but what if it's an opportunity for a new and improved normal?

That's the hope of Nick Tilsen, a change-maker who founded the NDN Collective to empower Indigenous people.

"Everyone says, 'I can't wait until things get back to normal.' There's a part of me that's like, 'Normal never did us justice,' " he tells PEOPLE. "The normal meant injustices for Indigenous people. The normal meant underinvestment of our people. The normal meant fossil fuel industry exploiting our lands and our communities. This is a point and time for me where we don't want to go back to supporting the same old economic systems and the same old energy systems. There's opportunity here to architect and build a new world."

Protect the Protectors
Credit: Indigene Studios

The NDN Collective has created of the $10 million COVID-19 Response Project to support tribal nations and Indigenous-led organizations, with Tilsen noting that Indigenous communities already experience some of the worst health disparities in the nation such as low age expectancy and underfunded healthcare systems.

"COVID-19 doesn't see geography, doesn't see race, doesn't see all these other things. But when you have inequities already baked into society, you have extreme impacts that puts our communities extremely at risk," Tilsen says.

Indigenous communities are also dealing with dumping of nuclear waste and fossil fuel industries exploiting their lands.

"At the same time we're dealing with the global pandemic and the underinvestment of native people, we're still on the front lines battling the fossil fuel industry who are trying to put the little drinking water we have left at risk," he explains. "You have all of these stressors that are impacting the lives of our people."

Nick Tilsen
Credit: courtesy Nick Tilsen

The NDN Collective also has special grants for artists and entrepreneurs. Tilsen notes that one person could be supporting multiple families, so supporting artists and entrepreneurs "creates a stabilizing factor for indigenous communities at large."

In addition, "Artists are culture bearers and communicators of Indigenous culture. Art and culture and interpreting what is happening in real time is important for the voice of Indigenous people at this time in history."

Nick Tilsen
Credit: courtesy Nick Tilsen

Tilsen is an Ashoka Fellow, a community of social entrepreneurs who are teaming up with Catalyst 2030 to launch the "Catalysing Change Campaign." This Thursday and Friday, the campaign will host virtual lessons on pressing topics related to the coronavirus crisis, including the rapid changes needed to support food security, healthcare, education, sanitation and hygiene, mental health, leadership and other critical global social needs.

While Indigenous people are often thought of as "other" or forgotten about completely, Tilsen says their experiences could be of value as the world moves forward from the coronavirus pandemic.

"Indigenous people have survived so much in this country. We've survived the stealing of our lands, the colonization of our communities, health epidemics and pandemics. We've been through a lot," Tilsen says. "The resilience that lives amongst indigenous people is important for humanity right now."

"It's important that we, as humanity, come back from this — but come back from it in a way that makes us stronger and healthier and better instead of saying, 'We were doing everything right before.' "

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.