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A Challenge to Philanthropy: Expand Health and Educational Opportunities for Native American Youth

March 30, 2018

Native_american_youth_standing_rockThese days, everyone is looking for new thinking about the tough challenges we face as a country. But perhaps what we need is not new thinking but the wisdom to revisit older approaches that have stood the test of time.

A value shared by many Native Americans is that all suffering is reciprocal, as is all healing. Each of us can only thrive when everyone does well.

The power of this wisdom is enormous. And it has endured despite a long history of genocide and racism toward Native Americans, helping our communities remain resilient in the face of tragedy, discrimination, and neglect.

For instance, Native American activists recently led one of the most galvanizing environmental justice campaigns in years — and it all began with a group of Native American youth leaders. Images of young people chanting "Mni wiconi — Water is life" showed up in mainstream news for the better part of 2016 in what became popularly known as the Movement at Standing Rock.

The leadership, conviction, and voices of these young people spoke to the hearts of millions of people around the globe. And their message was profound: We are protecting the most precious source of life — water. Not just for Native people, but for all humans and living beings. By having the guts to challenge the power and prerogatives of the oil industry, these youth — alongside an intergenerational community of "water protectors" — stood up for the inherent right of Native peoples to exist and determine their future.

Standing Rock showcased the power and potential Native American youth have as drivers of social change — both in their communities and across the nation.

Yet much like youth of color more generally, Native American and Alaska Natives face enormous challenges. As I've noted elsewhere, the suicide rate among Native youth between the ages of 15 and 24 is two and a half times the national average. Native youth are five times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than white youth, where they receive disproportionately harsher sentences and are more likely to suffer injury or harm than members of other racial/ethnic groups. Native women also experience high rates of violence. And because Native Americans are often categorized in data and reports as "statistically insignificant" or "other," too many programs, policies, and systems — not to mention philanthropy — ignore or overlook them.

Although there's no quick fix for the traumatic consequences of colonization, philanthropy can benefit from inviting the perspectives and wisdom of the people most exploited and excluded by policies and systems designed to marginalize communities of color.

In recent years, philanthropy has expressed growing interest in, and taken steps to address, issues of racial equity in America. It's an encouraging trend, but the sector has much work to do if it truly wants to reverse its history of neglect of Native American-serving organizations. To put it in perspective, Native Americans make up 2 percent of the country's population, but Native communities receive less than 0.3 percent of the philanthropic dollars awarded annually — numbers that haven't changed in decades.

But it's about more than just too few dollars. Foundations and the charity sector have unwittingly perpetuated a worldview fashioned and exported globally by white European culture. It's a worldview that has forced people of color to the margins — none more so than Native Americans.

To truly end racial inequity, we simply cannot continue to look past the Native American community, especially young people, our most precious resource. The perspective they bring to the world is critical for fixing our failing systems.

The philanthropic sector needs to commit to long-term, sustained investments that address economic and racial disparities and opportunity gaps affecting Native youth. We must do more to ensure that Native youth have access to a comprehensive system of supports so that they reach adulthood healthy, educated, and prepared to join the next generation of leaders. And we must fundamentally change how we approach equity with respect to marginalized populations, how we define success, and what we mean when we talk about bringing new voices to the table.

The Schott Foundation for Public Education, in partnership with Native Americans in Philanthropy and with support from the Nike N7 Fund, recently released a report, Original Instructions: A Challenge to Philanthropy to Expand Health and Educational Opportunities for Native Youth, that offers a set of recommendations for helping Native youth live healthier lives. The recommendations came directly from Native American leaders with expertise in health, physical fitness, education, and youth development. The report is both a challenge to philanthropy and an opportunity. Most importantly, we hope it is a first step to acknowledging and learning from Native youth.

Edgar_villanueva_for_PhilanTopicEdgar Villanueva is vice president of programs and advocacy at the Schott Foundation for Public Education, chair of the board of directors of Native Americans in Philanthropy, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe. 

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