We’re implementing our new funding approach in partnership with grantees.

Our ongoing work of nurturing the Foundation’s relationship with its grantees is profoundly gratifying, and not just in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of my job as the program director. The greater satisfaction comes from witnessing our grantees in action.

We’re learning from the tangible outcomes of their efforts to advance a more just and equitable prosperity in this region that claims me, born and raised in Minnesota, and a long-time rural resident. I count myself among the diversity of people across the eight states and 76 Native nations where the Foundation invests financially and has a strong connection and ongoing commitment.

Alongside my Foundation colleagues, I’ve been listening and learning (both physical and virtual) with rural and urban grantees struggling to upend a status quo that sidelines too many individuals, households, and entire communities.

This and future listening-and-learning opportunities are central to the Foundation’s method of tapping into and trusting guidance from our grantees, who lead from the front lines of change.

Author

Karla

Karla Miller

Program Director, Northwest Area Foundation

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A teen intern harvesting produce at Cheyenne River Youth Project‘s Winyan Toka Win (Leading Lady) Garden. Photo courtesy Cheyenne River Youth Project.

Lessons we learned from the Mountain | Plains Regional Native CDFI Coalition.

One of those opportunities was at the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. Assembled on that spring day on lands of the Oglala Lakota, the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, the Standing Rock Sioux, and other amalgamated tribes was the Mountain | Plains Regional Native CDFI Coalition, whose leaders come from Native community development financial institutions (CDFIs).

We were joined by officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) and other regional funders. They all share the Foundation’s aim of leveling the economic playing field. Too many Native Americans, people of color, immigrants, refugees, and people in rural areas are insufficiently housed, educated, medically served, employed, owners of businesses, or otherwise thriving on their own terms.

As the EDA checked in with the Coalition, we and other regional funders receded into the background. We did more watching, listening, and learning than holding forth with what we think we know. Out front, on that day, were members of the Coalition, which is creating economic systems grounded in the culture, belief, and most pressing imperatives of Native peoples.

Too many Native Americans, people of color, immigrants, refugees, and people in rural areas are insufficiently housed, educated, medically served, employed, owners of businesses, or otherwise thriving on their own terms.

The Coalition is growing a purely Indigenous finance system. Non-Native-led banks had denied access for Indigenous people trying to start businesses, secure mortgages, or get credit cards or car loans with fair interest rates. So, institutions such as the decade-old Lakota Federal Credit Union (LFCU) are stepping up to fill those needs. LFCU was started by Lakota Funds, a Foundation grantee.

LFCU is located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and is one point in a Native finance network that itself is an outgrowth of listening, yielding, valuing everyone’s insights, and making sure everyone is aligned. With every decision, these Native financiers lean on each other, compare notes, and figure out ways to best support one another. 

What they do is exciting. It’s an example of how to reimagine systems so that they become more just, and it informs our work as we dive deeper into our new funding approach.

Justice—social, racial, and economic—is at our new funding strategy’s nexus.

The Mountain | Plains Regional Native CDFI Coalition, along with many of our other grantees, has helped place justice at the root of the three, overarching goals of our funding.

Justice Is the Goal of Our New Grantmaking Approach.

Our approach advances:

Social Justice: Everyone has equal rights, opportunities, and access to tools they need to thrive, including communities that have long been denied them.

Racial Justice: The repair of centuries of harm inflicted on Native and other communities of color, reflected in the elimination of long-standing disparities in life outcomes experienced by these communities in economic opportunity, well-being, and other areas.

Economic Justice: Everyone can thrive on their own terms because the economic system provides equal opportunities and produces fair outcomes, which will look different in every community.

Our grantees and we believe that five conditions lead to justice.

As we learn how to advance justice in meaningful, lasting ways, we’ve looked to our grantees’ expertise. They’ve been doing this work for decades and lead it with courage and wisdom. Collaboratively, with our grantees and other thought leaders, we’ve discovered that our grantmaking should support five conditions that consistently help produce justice for communities.

|  HEALING
The restoration of personal and collective well-being from the suffering caused by injustices, rooted in history and harming people today. Healing happens through truth and reconciliation, safe and affirming places that strengthen social connections, spiritual well-being, identity, self-worth, and belonging.

|  CULTURAL WISDOM  
Ways of thinking passed on across generations, reflecting communal values and worldviews and serving as a guide for individuals and communities to live and thrive. Cultural wisdom provides vitality and resilience for communities suffering injustice, so they can thrive on their own terms.

|  SYSTEMIC CAUSES
Formal policies, practices, and beliefs that lead to injustice by creating advantages for members of a dominant group while creating disadvantages for members of groups who don’t share the same identity. Solutions that intentionally create a sense of belonging for all groups, and remove specific barriers that harm people and hold back their communities, can counteract systemic causes of injustice.

|  SELF-DETERMINATION AND POWER
The ability of community members to make decisions about their lives and to enact their decisions. Communities need to have self-determination and power to change the systems of policies, practices, and beliefs that harm them so they can seek and achieve justice.

|  ACCOUNTABILITY TO COMMUNITIES
Grant partners have staff and board members who come from communities impacted by injustice. Their program design and evaluation are based on direct engagement with community members. When organizations are accountable to their communities, they help ensure their efforts to advance justice are responsive to communities at every step.

We’re practicing “learn-out-loud” grantmaking—with grantees as uncensored, equal partners.

Even before the Foundation shifted its focus to justice and the conditions that create it, we’ve sought to be good stewards of our portfolio. As a practice, at the outset, we’ve gained strong firsthand knowledge of our grantees.

What we’re doing now is leaning into our efforts to know our grantees even better. We call it “learning out loud” from grantees. This involves letting grantees—and, through them, the communities they serve—speak their truth, not just what they think a funder wants to hear. It’s been a welcome shift for us and our grantees.

Tistilal Village, a redevelopment project by the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, OR, will include 57 new affordable housing units targeted to serve Native American families, including those experiencing homelessness. Architectural rendering courtesy NAYA.

“This new approach is about what’s more important to us, versus funders driving the agenda and giving you the money to move something they want moved,” Community Development Director Oscar Arana, of the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) in Portland, OR, tells the Foundation.

“Many organizations,” he adds, “have pursued that kind of funding simply because they need resources. But when you get flexible funding, flexible resources, you get to call the shots on what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. That’s the kind of shift we want.”

“This new approach [with flexible funding and flexible resources] is about what’s more important to us, versus funders driving the agenda and giving you the money to move something they want moved. . . . That’s the kind of shift we want.”

—Oscar Arana, Community Development Director, NAYA

We trust grantees to show the way.

As the Foundation lives into its new grantmaking approach over the coming months, we’re planning to reach out to a grantee advisory group. When creating our revised approach, we sought unfiltered advice, suggestions, critiques, and upfront, in-person knowledge from a grantee advisory group about how justice is achieved and how those five key conditions get actualized.

Ale Linares, owner of La Mexicana, Minneapolis, with tacos she made for the Latino Economic Development Center’s (LEDC) Taco Tour on Lake Street. Photo courtesy LEDC.

Such grantee organizations as the Latino Economic Development Center in St. Paul, MN, have helped us sharpen our theory of change and the conditions that foster it. From incubating new businesses to paying rent for workers laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Center’s initiatives are grounded in the culture, language, and ways of life of its largely immigrant community members.

The outcomes of their work are proof of how cultural wisdom and the other four conditions lead to justice. They are proof, too, that the Foundation is on the right track.

This new approach to our funding is urgent work. The Foundation is bending hard toward that urgency, which is embodied in a favorite quote of mine from Civil Rights Movement author and activist James Baldwin:

“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

This work is very much a part of our region’s and our nation’s way forward.

That’s a truth I was learning, even if I didn’t know it, as a Minnesota girl watching banks foreclose on small farms, and later as an adult working for a bank holding company. What should have remained as local resources for the local economies got funneled to mega-dollar institutions in California and New York.

These kinds of practices shifted farming and rural communities in an awful way. And this raised my awareness of why we need vibrant local economies, built on local ownership and oversight.

This new approach to our funding is urgent work. The Foundation is bending hard toward that urgency, which is embodied in a favorite quote of mine from Civil Rights Movement author and activist James Baldwin: “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.”

We’d love for others in philanthropy travel with us on what we are convinced is a much-needed reset and critical journey.

PHOTO TOP: Youngsters enjoying an arts and crafts event at Cheyenne River Youth Project’s Čhokáta Wičhoni (Center of Life) teen center. Photo courtesy Cheyenne River Youth Project.

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