In May 2013, First Nations announced it received a substantial grant from The Kresge Foundation that we’ll use to help improve numerous American Indian nonprofit organizations in urban or metropolitan locations. The project will accomplish this by helping build the capacity of those organizations, which means we’ll provide tailored training and technical assistance that will help them better organize, strategize, manage and grow their organizations. In turn, they will become stronger, more efficient and more effective in achieving their missions.
This is a bit of a departure for First Nations. Throughout its more than three decades of existence, First Nations has primarily focused on rural and reservation-based Native communities. We are now expanding into a new focus area that helps address the well-being of Native Americans who happen to live and work in bigger cities.
And in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration that we use in everything we do with Native communities, we have partnered with a great organization that provides us with enhanced “street smarts” in those urban communities – the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, or NUIFC, which is a network of urban Indian organizations that strengthen urban Native families. It is led by Executive Director Janeen Comenote, who founded the organization.
Janeen is passionate about her work. “We know that American Indian families and children are among the most vulnerable of America’s urban populations,” she notes. “Today, more than 4 million, or 78% of American Indians, live off the reservation and lack a collective national voice. In culturally and geographically diverse Indian Country, the populations of American Indians residing off reservation often remain the ‘silent majority.’ American Indians and Alaska Natives populate some of the most disproportionately low social and economic standards in every large city in which they reside, with a child poverty rate at 25%, which is nearly triple the national average and unemployment at double the national average.”
- Janeen Comenote
Janeen knows first-hand the situation of urban Indians. She was born and raised in Seattle, Washington – she is Hesquiaht and Kwakiutl First Nation from her mother’s side, and Oglala Lakota and enrolled Quinault from her father’s side – and she has worked in this area, in one form or another, for nearly 20 years. “I am driven to do this. I have worked with Native street youth, Indian child welfare, as well as poverty research and program development,” she says. “This breadth and depth of experience has given me a unique view into the day-to-day realities of Native people living in urban areas as well as provided the impetus to do what I can do to help address some of those disparities.”
The partnership will draw upon First Nations’ extensive capacity-building expertise and NUIFC’s networks, evaluation and data-collection experience, and insider knowledge of urban Indian organizations and their needs. Over the life of the Kresge Foundation grant, which runs to the end of 2016, First Nations and NUIFC with work directly with as many as nine urban Native American nonprofits to help them improve their management and leadership skills and boost their organizational effectiveness, provide customized assistance and training, host an annual capacity building conference for participants, and document the project’s best practices and potential for replication in other Native American urban communities. First Nations Senior Program Officer Montoya Whiteman (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes) is managing the grant and the partnership.
“For 32 years, First Nations has worked primarily in rural and reservation-based Native American communities, helping them develop much-needed stronger economies by doing our work on several fronts,” noted Michael E. Roberts (Tlingit), First Nations president. “We’re now excited to take our successful track record and apply it to urban communities of American Indians. Native nonprofits that are more effective at what they do and how they are managed are a key resource to the health, prosperity and growth of Indian communities, whether rural or urban.”
Urban Indian organizations, some of which were launched in the 1940s and 50s, are an important support to Native families and individuals, providing cultural linkages as well as being a hub for accessing essential services. There are nearly 250 local or state-focused urban Indian organizations in NUIFC’s network representing over 600,000 Indians nationwide.
According to Janeen, one of the primary intentions of creating the NUIFC is to ensure access to traditionally excluded organizations and families, and to focus attention on the needs of urban Indians. “Our primary goal is to contribute to better living standards and develop a resource pool through which we can reach this goal,” Janeen said. “I cannot overemphasize the importance and impact this innovative work will have in strengthening the urban Indian nonprofit sector and thereby improving the outcomes for our communities. Projects and partnerships like this provide important acknowledgment that the needs of our urban populations are important and being addressed.”
By Randy Blauvelt, First Nations Senior Communications Officer