First, if you are reading this, I’d like to commend you on your commitment to this work, our world, and our relatives with whom we have shared the most challenging and unnatural experience of a generation. This pandemic has verified the Indigenous teaching that we truly are all related. The shared devastation of our communities is something that we must understand, grieve, and overcome together.
The pandemic has wrought many things, but as I reflect on the findings from CEP’s report, Overlooked (Part Two): Foundation Support for Native American Leaders and Communities, two outcomes stand out. First, it has exacerbated some of the harshest inequities for those already in the category of most marginalized in our society. Challenges that Native communities have faced for so long, such as health, economic, and educational disparities, were escalated in devastating ways. Those who were already struggling the most felt the devastation of this pandemic most severely. Second, this experience has given us a real opportunity to proceed in a new way, in ways that we have failed to do thus far but are now better equipped, with more knowledge, to carry out.
The challenges facing Native communities go beyond the fact that Native people died from COVID at higher rates than any other group. At Philanthropy Northwest, we received a grant to engage in a year-long project working with tribal communities in our region on economic development planning. As we began this work in early 2020, one of those challenges became immediately apparent: internet access. Our work was initially focused on creating a learning community for economic development in tribal communities, but as the pandemic set in, the realities of what it meant to not have internet access became glaring and urgent. The tribal advisory committee, made up of tribal voices from around the region, agreed unanimously that our focus needed to be on broadband and how to support communities facing the new challenges of not having access to healthcare, employment, and education while the rest of society easily logged on when stay-at-home orders were put into place. While tackling what was a new issue for Philanthropy Northwest, my voice became one of the advantages identified in the Overlooked report: a Native American staff person who lives in her tribal community.
A combination of knowledge and experience prompted us to structure our work a little differently. When we learned that tribal communities were the most under-connected, we took the approach that if we focused on the most marginalized, everyone would benefit. This approach was an intentional and a long-term commitment. Not only did we focus solely on tribal communities but we centered and uplifted tribal voices at a national table, one that would become increasingly more crowded as new funding, focus, and programs poured in from the federal government. By taking this approach we got more context on the statistic that only 0.03% of philanthropic funding goes to Native communities. Many communities had never even heard of philanthropy, let alone worked with a funder. Most communities’ experiences centered around federal funding, which also comes with incredibly complex applications, representatives who are often located on the other side of the country, and a long history of systemic inequity. It would feel uncomfortable, to say the least, to share what philanthropy is and does, yet follow it up with the reality of how under supported tribal communities truly are by the sector.
In that same CEP report, Overlooked, one of the most harmful practices by society and philanthropy was apparent: the practice of apathy toward Native American people and how that has made them invisible. When we talk about the most heartbreaking and unjust statistics in this country, Native American people have topped these lists. I would argue that the reason this fact has been acceptable to society and philanthropy for so long is rooted in apathy. Native Americans, those on reservations and in urban areas, have been othered and cast out as separate from the rest of society. The points that were raised again and again throughout the report point to the fact that Native peoples, values, and ways of life are in direct opposition to the ways in which they have been treated by the philanthropic sector. Nonprofit leaders interviewed in the report called for relationship, they called for respect, they called for the investment of time, and ask to be understood. These are the teachings that culturally we as Native people are taught as children, and it is frustrating and disheartening again and again when those from other communities do not seem to know what they mean. Under this context, the two findings from the report, that Native nonprofit leaders have less positive experiences with foundation funders and that foundations continue to overlook nonprofits that serve Native communities, were not surprising.
But with great challenge always comes great opportunity, if you are looking for it. The opportunity now is to engage in critical reflection like never before. The challenges that have soared during the pandemic in Native communities are also so magnified that they need not be overlooked any longer. The data is there. The information is there. All that is required by philanthropy to change this unacceptable lack of investment is an authentic willingness to do the work for the long-haul.
The fact that the single most marginalized community in our country is also the most overlooked in philanthropy doesn’t add up. This is something that we have the power and ability to address once and for all. How we got to this place is not as important as what we are willing and able to do about it now. Barriers to working in Native communities are real — they are complex, but they are not insurmountable. Native American peoples are the first peoples of this continent; there is a significant history that requires us as individuals to do our own learning and to, in turn, bring what we find into our lives and our work in a meaningful way.
The ringing question of “when will things go back to normal” seems to be getting asked less and less. The path forward is one that none of us have walked before, but one in which we can all carry a deeper understanding with us. There is real opportunity in this moment for the sector of philanthropy — if it chooses to take it. Native communities being overlooked by philanthropy is part of past normalcy that we should commit to never returning to.