Jen Racho, Northwest Area Foundation
Kirstin Yeado, Ascendium

Workforce Matters is excited to share more about our Workforce Grantmaking in Native Nations and Communities Initiative! We asked some of our first grantmakers involved in this effort, Jennifer Racho of the Northwest Area Foundation and Kirstin Yeado of Ascendium, to reflect on their participation in this initiative:

Why did you decide to participate in the Workforce Grantmaking in Native Nations and Communities initiative? 

Kirstin: We believe that access to high-quality postsecondary education and workforce training is the surest path to upward mobility. At the same time, we also know that many learners from low-income backgrounds – especially those from rural communities and Native nations – face unique barriers in accessing and completing education and training, and have historically received a fraction of the public and philanthropic resources that support programs in more urban/suburban communities. We are excited to join other funders in supporting this initiative that is intentionally focused on aligning resources with the needs of Native-led organizations and the Native nations and communities they serve. 

Jen: What is exciting to me is that there are many program officers who are grappling with important questions about what equity looks like in their grantmaking practices. They want to expand their knowledge of and be in relationship with Native leaders. At the same time, there are countless Native leaders who are working to help their communities thrive on their own terms. These leaders have the wisdom and vision. This initiative hopes to bridge that gap and bring together these resources in ways that are based on fairness and reciprocity.

How are you currently investing in/partnering with Indian Country and/or Native-led efforts, particularly with respect to workforce development? 

Kirstin: We are deeply committed to postsecondary education and workforce success for rural learners. As an important part of this, at Ascendium we have invested in initiatives at tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) throughout the country. As we have deepened our focus on workforce systems in recent years, we are using the insights and lessons from our partnership with TCUs to inform our investment in the Workforce Grantmaking in Native Nations and Communities initiative. 

Jen: Northwest Area Foundation aspires to partner with Native leaders in ways that advance self-determination, honors their cultures and values, and trusts them to lead the way. They have been doing this work for decades. We try to lead with our hearts, not only our heads. We know we will make mistakes. We embrace and want to share those learnings. What we have learned from our grant partners in workforce development is that we have much to learn. Native leaders are redefining ‘workforce development’ in ways that are more holistic, sustainable, and impactful.

What is different about this effort, and what do you hope to learn? 

Kirstin: The Workforce Grantmaking in Native Nations and Communities initiative is unique in that it is led by an advisory committee that includes stakeholders representing Native and tribal nations. We think this is important to ensure that the goals, strategies, and implementation of resources are culturally-responsive to the unique assets and challenges of the communities we intend to serve. We also think this initiative has a double bottom line: the chance to provide resources and support to Native-led workforce organizations, and an opportunity to educate and engage new funders to sustainability support Native-led workforce development efforts. Ultimately, we hope to identify the most effective ways to support culturally-responsive workforce programming that improves employment outcomes and leads to the upward mobility of individual learners, families, and entire communities. 

Jen: This initiative is unique because we are asking funders to come with an open mind and an open heart. We are trying to focus on relationships and not outcomes. The Northwest Area Foundation hopes to connect and work more closely with other funders who are committed including Indian Country in their efforts to advance equity.

What would you say to other funders who are interested in increasing their investments in Indian Country? 

Kirstin and Jen: Join us! Native nations and communities have long been overlooked by both the public and private sectors. But, simply directing resources to these communities is not enough. As funders, it’s critical that we take the time to truly understand the unique assets and needs of Native nations and communities, and work with Native-led organizations to identify the best ways to make sustainable, culturally-responsive investments. We believe there is tremendous value in the opportunity to engage and learn alongside one another as funders, and we hope you consider joining us.