Grantees & Grantmaking, Strategic Approach | January 18, 2024

Program Officer John Fetzer: Why Healing Became a Core Part of Our Funding Approach

By John Fetzer     Program Officer, NWAF


The need to heal from historical trauma and its present-day legacies should be part of funding conversations.

I was recently at a gathering of Native nonprofits and funders in South Dakota. One of the presenters said something that struck a chord with all of us in the room: “The most unselfish thing you can do is heal yourself.”

We see the work of healing as fundamental to racial, social, and economic justice. Our grantmaking approach supports work to overcome long-standing policies, practices, and beliefs that have harmed people from our priority communities: Native Americans, communities of color, immigrants, refugees, and people in rural areas.

Historical trauma serves as a barrier. It’s like a weight on people’s shoulders, always there, making everything harder, even as you try to get around it.

Because we care about justice, we also need to focus on helping people feel whole and safe—and hopeful.

In my role as a program officer, I often hear the echoes of historical trauma in conversations with our grantee partners. It serves as a barrier. It’s like a weight on people’s shoulders, always there, making everything harder, even as you try to get around it.

Youth ages 14 to 18 worked with actress/writer/producer Cara Jade Meyers (Wichita and Affiliated Tribes) at the 2023 Warm Springs Community Action Team’s five-day filmmaking workshop to learn the fundamentals of acting and filmmaking and create a short film. Photo courtesy of WSCAT.

“Every tribal person who’s really looking at and actively responding to problems in Native communities is confronting their own trauma every single day,” says Carina Miller (Warm Springs, Wasco, Yakima) a research analyst at central Oregon’s Warms Springs Community Action Team (WSCAT). The organization aims to help its multi-tribal constituency realize its potential and achieve self-reliance as individuals, families, and communities.

As we updated our funding approach at the end of 2021, we heard other, similar observations about the pervasive influence of trauma on individuals and communities and the need for healing.

“Every tribal person who’s really looking at and actively responding to problems in Native communities is confronting their own trauma every single day.”

Carina Miller (Warm Springs, Wasco, Yakima)
Research Analyst, Warms Springs Community Action Team
Healing was such a consistent theme we heard from them that we included it among the five conditions of justice that guide our grantmaking. The others are cultural wisdom, the need to address systemic causes, self-determination and power, and accountability to communities. (Read more about them in Program Director Karla Miller’s blog that outlines some of the thinking behind the changes in our funding approach.)

To us, healing can be viewed as a step toward the racial, social, and economic justice that we pursue alongside grantee partners. It is the restoration of personal and collective well-being from the suffering caused by injustices that are rooted in history and are still 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.

Healing is often rooted in culture, spirituality, and relationships.

Among Native communities, emotional and physical health are key cultural tenets, but centuries of historical trauma alongside current inequities require healing.

“Healing is so important. Our spirituality and culture—our whole Lakota way of life—dictates that we need to be healthy in all aspects,” says Marla Bull Bear (Sicangu Lakota), executive director of Lakota Youth Development.

Located on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Lakota Youth Development has been reclaiming the Lakota language, lifestyle, and spirituality for three decades. It promotes education and a healthy lifestyle for youth by basing its practices and programming on Lakota culture.

“Our spirituality and culture—our whole Lakota way of life—dictates that we need to be healthy in all aspects.”

Marla Bull Bear (Sicangu Lakota)
Executive Director, Lakota Youth Development
“The trauma we see as a Native nonprofit isn’t just among the people we serve. It’s our staff members, it’s me, it’s everyone,” Marla says. “We carry generational traumas, and we’ve lived through our own layers of trauma. That weighs us down mentally and physically.

“Invitations to take a moment to reenergize and refocus are gem opportunities that rarely come along. In fact, Northwest Area Foundation’s assistance with a staff and board retreat to Paha Sapa (the Black Hills), a sacred place for us, is the only entity to offer that up for us. We were able to refocus and reenergize through ritual and prayer and sharing meals. That was healing.”

Lulete Mola, president and co-founder of Black Collective Foundation MN

Lulete Mola, president and co-founder of Black Collective Foundation MN, in April 2022 during the Collective’s Rooting social that provides a space for connectedness, mentorship, relationship building, and learning. Photo by Awa Mally, courtesy of Black Collective Foundation MN.

Healing is a necessary ingredient of justice.

Lulete Mola, president and co-founder of the Black Collective Foundation MN, the state’s first Black community foundation, says her organization’s work centers healing justice. The term emerges from the mission of the Healing Justice Foundation and the work of Dr. Joi Lewis.

Launched in 2020, Black Collective Foundation emerged after the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent civil unrest across the nation and the world. It aims to fuel a thriving ecosystem of Black-led change and a community in which all Black people are holistically well and living in dignity and prosperity.

“To achieve racial justice there is no lasting economic intervention without healing. You may have infrastructure, you may have material things, but you haven’t truly addressed the human component of racial justice.”

Lulete Mola
President and Co-founder, Black Collective Foundation MN
Healing justice,” says Lulete, “considers the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of a people with consideration for harm from the systems they have experienced in past and present generations—and looking toward generations after us.
“That’s where we start our thinking. Too often, people with the ability to make grants think about economics first. How do we build pathways to jobs, or how do we make sure people have a sound education so that they have opportunities? Those are all commendable goals, but to achieve racial justice there is no lasting economic intervention without healing. You may have infrastructure, you may have material things, but you haven’t truly addressed the human component of racial justice.”

Black Collective Foundation MN’s Fellowship program supports and sustains dynamic organizations and visionaries across the state, creating a thriving ecosystem of Black-led change. Photo by Stacy Papier-Meister, courtesy of Black Collective Foundation MN.

Moving from economic prosperity to a more holistic aspiration.

Lulete’s perspective reflects the evolution of our own aspirations. We used to think of “prosperity” primarily through an individual, economic lens. As Lulete says, that’s commendable, but it’s not what people from priority communities were telling us was most pressing.

When 2020 hit, and all the traumas and injustices of society came to the forefront, we decided we wanted to be helpful in a more holistic way. Instead of funding wealth-building work, we shifted to focusing on justice—and along with that, healing.

Warm Springs Community Action Team small business development specialist Mallory Smith (Oglala Sioux, Wasco, Warm Springs, Yakama, and Snoqualmie) nurtures creativity in young community members at a WSCAT youth ceramics class. Photo courtesy of WSCAT.

Healing happens on its own timeline, and there’s no universal solution.

“If you’re going to work with tribal communities, you have to be ready for open-ended, unsolved issues,” WSCAT’s Carina Miller points out. “Every single area in tribal communities contains trauma.”

With our new funding priorities in place, we’re providing longer-term grants that offer communities the time and flexibility to respond to the complexity of the barriers they face. Often, in addressing one barrier, additional challenges emerge that require additional responses, including healing.

“Even something as simple as agriculture,” Carina continues. “Colonization completely disrupted our tribal people’s relationship to our sacred foods and, consequently, our spirituality. So here I am working with local farms to get fresh produce boxes to Native families—and I have to acknowledge the irony that I’m not even scratching the surface of restoring our healthy historical food relationships.”

Healing happens through truth and reconciliation, safe and affirming places that strengthen social connections, spiritual well-being, identity, self-worth, and belonging.

I’m trying to make sure I recognize trauma and encourage healing.

My role as a program officer means I am constantly in touch with organizations doing important work advancing justice in many ways across the region we serve. Through grants and in conversations with leaders of grantee organizations, I want to make sure we’re showing up as a partner that recognizes the need for healing in communities.

We can be supportive by connecting grantees with resources and ideas, and we can include healing work as part of a grant. It’s not something we may have funded a few years ago, but we will now. I’ll also simply continue to encourage grantee leaders to take the time to heal—within themselves, their teams, and their communities. Collectively, it’s the most unselfish action we can do.

Learn more about and participate in the Foundation’s ongoing conversation about healing.
Read about our funding approach, including the fuller context that surrounds healing.

Author

John

John Fetzer

Program Officer, Northwest Area Foundation

Photo top: Black Collective Foundation MN’s Community Builders and Fellows gathered for a retreat in May 2023 to learn, build community, and reflect on the intersections of racial justice and philanthropy as they work to advance the social, economic, and political interests of Black people. Photo by Awa Mally, courtesy of Black Collective Foundation MN.
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