Native American communities have again garnered support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, according to an announcement about the most recent round of grants from the foundation on Tuesday (Jan. 31). Fifty-eight grants totaling $6.6 million went to organizations throughout the five states that comprise the foundation's traditional focus: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska. Of that total, $1 million went to innovative projects in the region led by members of tribal nations.
Other notable grants in this cycle include $400,000 to create a new school in Seattle’s Lake Washington School District, with a curriculum centered on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), and $500,000 to renovate the historic Naval Reserve Armory in South Lake Union as the new home of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). In addition, 30 arts and culture grants in film, theater, visual arts, and music add up to a total of $2.2 million.
But on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the Allen Family Foundation is looking back with particular satisfaction upon a history of giving that has strengthened the ability of Native populations to meet challenges impacting their communities, said William Vesneski, who directs evaluation, planning, and research at the foundation and manages asset-building giving. Since 1997 the foundation has given a total of $10 million to various Native American programs.
One such project funded during the latest round will enable micro-lending from Craft 3 in Ilwaco, Wash., to promising Native American entrepreneurs. Another project with Southcentral Foundation will expand the Family Wellness Warriors Initiative in Anchorage, Alaska, a program aimed at reducing family violence in rural tribal areas, and will finance an assessment of how much the Initiative's main endeavor improves the economic well-being of families involved. An arts and culture grant will provide support for Earthsongs, a radio program created by Koahnic Broadcast Corporation in Anchorage, featuring contemporary and traditional Native American music that is regularly beamed beyond the Pacific Northwest region to 100 stations in 21 states.
The Allen Foundation has no "native philanthropy" program per se, Vesneski said, but projects have regularly come to its attention from tribal communities and from Native-led nonprofits working with those communities. The centerpiece of the foundation's responses has been building relationships of mutuality with the people.
“It's not always a linear process,” said Vesneski. “It takes time to build trust,” especially when tribal nations throughout America and the region were systematically injured and oppressed for so long. “I don't think you can do this work without being aware of that history.”
Foundation staff engaging with tribal groups spend extra time in person with their leaders and members — with “feet on the ground,” and “lots of face time,” Vesneski said. These groups “want reciprocity in the relationship, want to be fully participating and giving us something along the way.” So it's not “the typical 'write-in' approach to [foundation] work,” he said.
“Sometimes philanthropy can be very streamlined, focused on review of the applications, et cetera. We do all that, but we also build relationships that will let us learn from [the applicants].” Native communities are especially active in teaching the foundation “what's working and not working, what will have the greatest impact and what won't. They introduce us to other organizations and communities. They help us build other relationships.”
For example, foundation staff spent two years visiting tribal communities throughout Montana and meeting different tribal leaders there, to inform more fully its giving to Native projects. Of the grants awarded within the state, one to the Boys & Girls Club of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, an organization with a Promise Neighborhoods approach to improving the lives of disadvantaged youngsters, makes Vesneski especially proud. “It's doing incredible work in serving the youth of that tribe in ways the federal government has recognized as innovative,” he said.
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