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Robert Aitken III
Robert Aitken III, an enrolled Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member, helped to found Leech Lake Financial Services in 2012. (Submitted photo)

Breaking the Ice: Nonprofit director boosts community development

Robert Aitken III is helping to bring financial education and millions of dollars in loans to a north-central Minnesota “credit desert” as executive director and general counsel of Leech Lake Financial Services.

Aitken, an enrolled Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe member, helped found the nonprofit organization, a federally certified Community Development Financial Institution, in 2012.

Leech Lake Financial Services, in Cass Lake, has made more than $5 million in loans since 2016, Aitken said. It has trained nearly 1,000 community members on building credit and buying homes and cars and now offers coaching on retirement planning and investing.

Aitken has led development of innovative lending programs, to counter predatory lending prevalent in a community where he said 50% of members are unbanked.

“We need to build the financial acumen of our population so they can help start creating private industry on the reservation,” Aitken said.

Aitken, a licensed Minnesota and tribal attorney, serves as an administrative law judge in private practice.

Name: Robert Aitken III

Title: Executive director, Leech Lake Financial Services

Education: B.A., organizational management, Gustavus Adolphus; J.D., University of North Dakota School of Law

Q: Best way to start a conversation with you?

A: Be present with me because my wife says that I can talk to anybody. If somebody said, “Hey, I see you’re wearing a hockey sweatshirt; what’s going on with that?” that’s all I need.

Q: Why law school?

A: I worked for Leech Lake as director of human resources in my 20s and crossed paths with a lot of attorneys who worked with Leech Lake. They told me, you should go to law school. … I went to law school with the idea of coming back to serve our people.

Q: What are you reading?

A: “Reservation ‘Capitalism.’” The author’s a law professor at Arizona State. It talks about how we used to flourish; before colonization, we weren’t poor. He is delving into what happened and how we can fix it.

Q: Pet peeve?

A: “Perfect.” When people say “perfect” it drives me nuts. It usually happens when you’re ordering food. It’s not “perfect,” it’s a cheeseburger.

Q: Best part of your work?

A: We at this office are creating better lives for people. They’re starting to understand the value of peace of mind. They’re starting to understand the value of homeownership.

Q: Most challenging?

A: Until recently, we only had two of us here working. Now we’ve got five. We’re starting to grow but in the nonprofit world you don’t want to get big fast because then next thing you know, you’re struggling. The hard part is the patience that’s required for incremental growth.

Q: Favorite activity away from work?

A: I coach hockey. I love hockey because I coach, and I coach because I love hockey. When the ice is gone and the water is nice and soft, I spend a ton of time on the lakes up here.

Q: Where would you take someone visiting your hometown?

A: In the winter, to the curling club [in Bemidji] to teach them how to curl. As I was getting my hockey certifications, I also became a certified curling instructor. In the summer, Star Island on Cass Lake. I can give some pretty interesting tours about the history there.

Q: Legal figure you most admire?

A: My best buddy, Tom Kuesel. He’s the go-to guy for criminal defense work up here. On a national level, Laura Coates, the senior legal analyst for CNN. She’s from St. Paul and went to the University of Minnesota [Law School].

Q: Misconception that others have about your work?

A: When we’re looking for funding, people think the casinos are supposed to be funding us. That isn’t quite how things work on the reservation. The jobs provide a nice salary base for a number of people, but the majority of those entry-level jobs are not meaningful and don’t provide decent benefits.

Q: Favorite book, movie or TV show about lawyers?

A: I think I’ve read every [John] Grisham novel and seen every Grisham movie. “Runaway Jury” fascinated me. I couldn’t put it down.

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