Let Me Spare You the Suspense: We Remain Invisible – Non Profit News

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This article is the seventh article in our series—The Promise of Targeted Universalism: Community Leaders Respond—that NPQ is publishing in partnership with the national racial and economic justice nonprofit Prosperity Now. In this series, writers will examine how targeted universalism—a narrative framework that advocates the use of targeted approaches to achieve universal goals—can inform efforts to close the racial wealth gap, community by community.


I am all for having conversations about targeted universalism and other potential theories and practices to approaching equity in public policy—or its younger sibling private philanthropy. But for Native peoples in this country, I think we need to first chat about visibility and agency.

In articles like these, I am always trying to find a vehicle to get folks’ attention. Maybe paraphrasing the introduction to Dear Evan Hansen will do it. The eponymous character self-talks, “Today is going to be a good day. And here’s why: because today, today at least you’re you and…that’s enough.” Or possibly using pop music references. Or both.

I share this because much like Evan Hansen, I wish to start a conversation about agency. Sarah Smarsh may have said it best in her memoir, Heartland, when she shared, “But it heightened my awareness of whether I had a right to take up space, and that allowed me to notice when an entire society said I didn’t for reasons that had everything to do with class.” Or in the case of Native Americans in the United States, with their ethnic identity.

There is a stream of thought—often articulated by john a. powell—called targeted universalism, where agency is given equally, and in turn all groups concerned have universal goals established for them. The possible danger of such an approach is that Native Americans are often not included in the defined groups who need to be targeted, and all too often are left out of the conversation, especially in philanthropic conversations where the targets are seemingly binary—Black or Latinx.

For philanthropy to target universal policies may be seemingly easier, and even less costly. But for Native Americans—often the most marginalized people—count us as skeptical of universal policies of equity. We know from decades of experience that “one size fits most” rarely hits the mark when it comes to Native peoples in the United States.

One of the prompts that I was given for this essay was that George Floyd’s murder ignited what many call a racial reckoning of the modern era, and that a true reckoning requires a willingness to shake up the status quo. And for 41 years, my organization and its leadership have been willing to do just that.

Let me share a recent example of agency and visibility—or rather the lack thereof. On November 1, the Ford Foundation tweeted, “BIG NEWS: @FordFoundationwith governments and institutions pledged $1.7 billion today at #COP26 towards Indigenous People and Local Communities for their efforts in protecting nature and our planet.”

An earlier tweet in September showed a picture of Ford’s president, Darren Walker, holding up a sign saying: “Thank you #GuardiansoftheForrest.” A quick Google search tells us that the Guardians of the Forests are representatives and leaders from Indigenous and local communities from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Congo, and Indonesia.

While I appreciate the recognition of Indigenous peoples in the Southern Hemisphere inherent in Walker’s statement, the irony is not lost on the Indigenous peoples here in the North or the many Native-controlled nonprofits serving them. Where is the Ford Foundation’s response to the Indigenous groups in North America doing similar yeoman’s work trying to pull our world back from the edge of climate catastrophe?

We know, and are frequently reminded, that in the eyes of many philanthropic leaders, Indigenous peoples in North America remain invisible day to day. And although we may enjoy a few column inches of attention each November during Native American Heritage Month, we garner very little attention (or funding) otherwise. And trust me, we’ve tried. To quote that famous pop philosopher Marshall Mathers: “I was playin’ in the beginnin’, the mood all changed; I been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage.” You name the method, and we’ve tried it in Indian Country. When it comes to trying to engage private philanthropy, persuading, cajoling, incentivizing, shaming—all lead to the same underwhelming outcome.

My organization, First Nations Development Institute, was founded in 1980 with a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Our partnership with Ford has continued for First Nations’ entire 41 years of existence, with only a slight interruption. And they remain among our supporters today, for which we are very grateful. So please do not take this as an indictment of the Ford Foundation alone.

We have often shared here at First Nations that because we enjoy such a sound relationship with private philanthropy, we also have a responsibility to share with our friends and colleagues when they could be doing better. The timing for doing so is almost always: now!

A couple of years back, I started writing a letter. It was written to Walker at Ford, but it was really directed at private philanthropy at large, imploring them to do better. I am a pretty big fan of Walker. In his New Year’s blog post “The Coming of Hope,” he talked about the privileges enjoyed by institutions like his own and others in private philanthropy. That served to jog my memory about his September 2016 entry where he quoted James Baldwin, “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

I will have to say that Walker’s encounter with James Baldwin preceded mine by probably decades—according to his blog, at the time he was a sophomore in college.  My encounter with Baldwin came when I was in my early thirties.

What was striking to me, however, was that we are both attracted to the same quote.  In Walker’s blog, he addresses unexpected blind spots. It’s a very thoughtful piece on self-awareness and the need to address inequities. But perhaps Walker and his philanthropic colleagues would find that this is an opportune moment to recognize another blind spot—addressing the systematic land theft and genocide perpetuated on America’s Native peoples and allocating real resources to remedy the long-term consequences that have resulted.

For me, the Baldwin quote that most speaks to me is this:

In the case of the American Negro. . .It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.

It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.

I highlight this quote, because when it comes to private philanthropy in the US and private philanthropy’s privilege, American Indian peoples have come to discover (please forgive the awkward paraphrase) that our lives and our identities have not, in its whole system of private philanthropy reality, evolved any place for us.

How similar are Baldwin’s and Smarsh’s sentiments on agency!

As I shared earlier, since we have enjoyed a great relationship with private philanthropy, First Nations often feels compelled to serve as an advocate on the part of Indian Country and Indian nonprofit organizations. As a part of that long-term work, we have recently completed a constellation of reports having to do with American Indians’ place in the mind’s eye and narrative of the US population. A couple of the reports consider American Indians’ place in the consciousness of private philanthropy.

Reclaiming Native Truth: A Project to Dispel America’s Myths and Misconceptions,” reveals that across the educational curriculum, pop culture entertainment, news media, social media, and the judicial system, the voices and stories of contemporary Native peoples are missing. The purpose of the project was to understand the narrative Americans hold and use when (or rather if) they think of American Indians. Included in American peoples’ myths are that “Indians” have been the beneficiaries of America’s largess—that we receive monthly government payments merely for being Native.  These beliefs are often paired with the mistaken belief that American Indians are all rich from casino gaming. For us in Indian Country, it’s infuriating to have to push back against these misperceptions. And it would be one thing if only the public held these beliefs. Unfortunately, the institutions leading the fight for social justice and racial equity hold many of these same unfounded beliefs.

In “We Need to Change How We Think: Perspectives on Philanthropy’s Underfunding of Native Communities and Causes,” First Nations examined private philanthropy’s perception of American Indians. The research looked to identify underlying reasons for the chronic underfunding of Native American communities and causes. Guided by input from First Nations, researchers conducted 42 key informant interviews with leaders from philanthropic foundations and Native-led nonprofit organizations.

The result? The folks in philanthropy share—with an almost 1:1 correlation—the myths and misperceptions of their less educated and less social justice-conscious brothers and sisters in the public at large. Interviewees described philanthropy’s misconceptions about Native American communities and explained that these misconceptions have often been influenced by racist stereotypes. One of the interviewers commented that there seems to be “a willful ignorance and ambivalence on the part of private philanthropy, when it comes to the understanding of American Indians and American Indian issues.” 

The sad news is that the more highly educated and more socially minded folks in philanthropy did not distinguish themselves above the rest of the US population when it came to their understanding of American Indians. Nor did these same folks demonstrate a willingness to look beyond commonly held and racist stereotypes.

The last of these three studies is “Growing Inequity: Large Foundation Giving to Native American Organizations and Causes 2006 – 2014.” This report demonstrates the results of private philanthropy’s “willful ignorance and ambivalence” when it comes to attempting to understand or fund American Indian causes or institutions. The report found that foundations giving to American Indian causes fell off a cliff during the Great Recession, from a high of $119 million in 2006, dipping to $65 million in 2009, and never fully recovered. The report shows an inflation-adjusted decrease in giving to Indian-related causes by 40 percent in the near decade covered by the report. Furthermore, the report’s more humiliating finding is that only half of the funds in support of American Indians are given to organizations controlled by (led or governed by) American Indians.

The Ford Foundation, too, participated in that reduced giving. Ford’s giving to American Indian causes decreased from a high of 76 grants between 2006 and 2007 to 12 grants between 2013 and 2014.

While Walker and his philanthropic colleagues spent the eighties reading great writers like Baldwin, I was watching too much television, the pop culture medium that all too often defines Americans’ perception of American Indians. In my case, it was the cultural phenomenon MTV. But the words coming across my television might have been just as prophetic. In my case, the lyrics to the iconic eighties band Missing Persons and its song “Words,” which . . . more closely expresses the sense of invisibility and ambivalence of private philanthropy, when it comes to American Indian peoples:

Do you hear me

Do you care

Do you hear me

Do you care

I share this because if good-guy organizations like the Ford Foundation are voting with their grantmaking and portfolio dollars, it appears as if their distinguished organizations care less and less about Natives here in the United States. While the US has many inconvenient truths, we Natives in this country may be America’s most haunting and still mostly unacknowledged truth, and an ever-present rebuttal of US exceptionalism.

I have spent a career at First Nations attempting to challenge the idea that American Indian lives matter less than others or that our representation in philanthropic portfolios, representing 0.23 percent of grants issued, is even remotely close to okay.  Again, 23/100ths of one percent—that is hard to do. One would have to be pretty darn deliberate to care so little.

I have focused on Ford because they are so prominent. But they are hardly alone in their neglect. As Ellie Buteau of the Center for Effective Philanthropy recently noted in NPQ, when it comes to funding Native Americans, many foundations remain missing in action.

It is time for philanthropy to truly champion Native causes within US borders (and create deliberate strategies for its funding). It is in these conversations that considering approaches like targeted universalism might be a useful framework. I would welcome a conversation with them about how that might become the case.



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