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Why Fund 'Insignificant' Populations?

April 28, 2016

Two-spirit-LGBTRecently, I was invited to speak on a panel concerning the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) and Two-Spirit Native peoples at a grantmakers conference co-sponsored by Funders for LGBTQ Issues and International Funders of Indigenous Peoples. When we entered the Q&A portion, someone in the audience stood up and asked, "Given that LGBT people are a small minority and Native Americans are an even smaller one, isn’t the population of LGBT Native Americans statistically insignificant?"

The attendee then added, "Why would you say to a foundation that they should fund statistically insignificant populations when they want their funding to have a big impact?"

It's a fair question.

On a strictly mathematical basis, the questioner is right: we are talking about small populations. In the 2010 U.S. Census, 2.9 million people identified as Native American/Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone. This puts the percentage of solely AI/AN people at approximately 1 percent of the total U.S. population. Unfortunately, the Census does not officially collect data on the number of LGBT people, but outside surveys peg the number around 6 percent of the total population. So if we are talking about absolute numbers, the questioner is technically right.

That said, I would argue that the question misses the point for three reasons:

Disparate impact. Seemingly small populations can be over-represented when it pertains to issues of particular concern to funders. Take homelessness. While LGBT-identified youth make up only 6 percent of the general population, they also constitute about 40 percent of the homeless youth population. Another fitting example would be educational outcomes. In South Dakota, which is home to a relatively large Native population, 91 percent of white fourth-graders are reading at grade level compared to only 34 percent of Native American students. How are we going to solve problems like homelessness and poor educational outcomes if we are not willing to address why some populations are faring more poorly than others? If you do not address the over-representation of so-called "insignificant" populations within larger, systemic issues, you’re less likely to make a significant dent in solving them.

The "canary in the coal mine" argument. As a descendant of Appalachian people, the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine resonates deeply with me. In the "old days," coal miners would take a caged canary into the mines to detect carbon monoxide and other dangerous gases. If the canary died, it was a sign the air was fatally toxic and it was time for workers to get out of the mine. Setting aside the animal cruelty, it's a meaningful analogy for social challenges that persist. As one Appalachian activist put it to me once, "If America sneezes, Appalachia gets pneumonia." Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres similarly argue in their book The Miner's Canary that the social ills that undermine American democracy are most pronounced among people of color, and thus solutions must begin with and focus on people of color. In other words, if marginalized populations aren’t doing well, the rest of society is in trouble, too.

If you want equity, start with inequity. When the attendee at the panel posed his provocative query, my first impulse was to simply answer, "Because it's the right thing to do." If we're going to meaningfully address the issue of equity – a concept most funders loudly proclaim their concern with – we must start by focusing on those who have the least amount of equity in society. LGBT Native Americans and other populations may not be the largest demographic in actual size, but they are often the most vulnerable and impacted by unjust systems that deny people access and opportunity. When Kristi Andrasik of the Cleveland Foundation was asked later at the conference why she, as a program officer, provides support for LGBT issues, she responded by sharing her foundation’s philosophy: If not all of us, then none of us.

Truthfully, I have to say I reject the basic premise of the original question. What is "significant" anyway? In moments like these, I am reminded of the parable of the person who encounters a child at the beach surrounded by thousands of beached starfish. The person watches the child tossing handfuls of the small beached creatures back into the ocean. The person finally asks, "Why bother? You can't save them all. There's just too many." In response, the child picks up a single starfish, throws it into the water, and replies, "I made a difference to that one."

Kevin_jennings_for_PhilanTopic2Philanthropy may not be able to solve every problem in society, but we can make a significant difference for some of the most vulnerable. Let's put these communities at the center of our work, so all of us benefit.

Kevin Jennings is executive director of the Arcus Foundation.

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