Experimenting and Experiencing: What We Learned at Local Matters: Alaska + Indigenous Communities

November 16, 2015

Lyn Hunter, Senior Program Manager

Local Matters: Alaska + Indigenous Communities was an experience unlike any other that we’ve offered here at Philanthropy Northwest. From October 11 to 14, we joined a cohort of 62 people from philanthropy, nonprofits and government for a unique, immersive experience as part of First Alaskans Institute's 32nd Annual Elders & Youth Conference, followed by the opening of the AFN-NCAI Tribal Conference. Our participants came from across the country and from within walking distance of the convening. Half hailed from Alaska and half from "outside." Just under 40 percent self-identified as Alaska Native and/or Native American.

Local Matters: Alaska + Indigenous Communities attendees

So what was different? One of our challenges was understanding ourselves how different this gathering would be and then, of course, communicating it. Guided by our board, our Alaska Native and Native American leaders and allies, and our ongoing commitment to community building in Indian Country, we suspected that we were onto something big.

What happened exceeded our wildest expectations. Here are the themes we heard from participants, in their own words:

It was designed to be experiential opportunity within a community-driven, indigenously-led conference

“There was the Elders and Youth Conference and there was the greater picture of the philanthropists and others from around the country that met to take part in it. It was a gathering within a gathering. I liked the format of having a group of us taking part in this other conference. It gave you a different perspective and it brought different players to the table and you were able to meet with an entirely different group of people than what would take place at a Philanthropy Northwest conference of funders and philanthropists. It was very nice and very refreshing." — Amy Hyfield, The O.P. and W.E. Edwards Foundation

"The beginnings of this were grassroots and the leadership was entirely indigenous. I would recommend this to someone funding indigenous communities or Alaska. I think the opportunity to really get to sit down with people who live, breathe and work there was really good. Especially being able to sit down with both elders and youth and see the mentoring and the learning and the interactions that were going on. I can definitely see the power of such a gathering.” — Amy Hyfield, The O.P. and W.E. Edwards Foundation

We weren’t entirely certain what would happen

“It (Local Matters: Alaska + Indigenous Communities) made such an impact on me. I haven’t stopped thinking about how to connect at a much deeper level. This interstate level of connection and collaboration is fascinating.” — Tony Lewis, Wyoming Department of Family Services

“I’ve been to a lot of cross-cultural trainings in the last 20-30 years of work here in Alaska and this was the one that probably brought more of a realistic flavor to my understanding of how I act and how my actions are perceived by Native people and organizations…. Spending the time talking, observing and listening was inherently valuable. It’s raised my awareness more than any other cross-cultural training I’ve been to. I think that will help give me more background into my dealings with those from the Native community and organizations.” — Ray Michaelson, Mat-Su Health Foundation

"Having lived in Alaska for 15 years, I am fairly well versed on many of the state's issues. Yet participating in this experience was a first for me. I went into it with an inquisitive mind. I met people from areas of the state I'd never visited. I gained a new perspective about their lives and what's important to them. While there is much about Alaska that is different from Montana, we also have much in common." — Mary Rutherford, Montana Community Foundation

The key was our partnership with First Alaskans Institute

“[For] Philanthropy Northwest and First Alaskans and the CIRI Foundation… to come together and to try this was really brave and it was a very unique and innovative idea. I think it will ultimately bear fruit in that the folks who came up see how diverse and beautiful and wonderful our cultures are up here and we do share common issues and we all want the best for our kids, regardless of who they are. That, to me, is a big deal.” — Greta Goto, Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation

“What I liked about the Philanthropy Northwest part of it was: I liked the way that the relationship with First Alaskans Institute really put us on a good footing in the beginning. As an aboriginal person, it certainly helped me because I wasn’t from there. I’m generally comfortable in a crowd of indigenous people but if you hadn’t been in something like that and you’re not indigenous, it’s not always a comfortable place to be.” — Victoria Grant, Community Foundations of Canada

Another key was being welcomed in by the community as their guests

We were honored to be joined by FAI trustees Willie Hensley (Chair), Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, Sven Haakanson, Jr., Valerie Davidson, Sam Kito, Sylvia Lange, Georgianna Lincoln, Oliver Leavitt, elder Della Cheney, and other Alaska Native elders.

“It was all a surprise. It was all very new to me. One thing that stuck out in my mind was the way the community welcomed us. As outsiders, it was amazing to see that welcoming nature. I really appreciated that sense of feeling a part of and not feeling excluded.” — Marci McLean, Western Native Voice

It was a useful experience for those who fund in Alaska and also for those who don’t

“(It was) a safe place to learn more about how to partner in respectful ways with indigenous communities. It was humbling, celebratory, overwhelming, rich in learning, eye opening, welcoming. The bonding experience among a relatively intimate group of people made it all the more valuable.— Susan Foley, Alaska Community Foundation

We are excited about taking what we've learned from Local Matters: Alaska + Indigenous Communities, along with our other Local Matters programs this year, and applying this to our programming in 2016. We'll be returning to our regional annual conference format for 2016 (stay tuned for news about time and place in December!), but we'll be working hard to bring you place-based conversations and experiences in a variety of forms throughout the year. As always, we welcome your energy, ideas and engagement — what do you most want to learn in 2016, and how can we help you do it?

Lyn Hunter can be reached at lhunter@philanthropynw.org. For more about Local Matters: Alaska + Indigenous Communities, see our photo gallery or Jeff Clarke's blog post.

Comments

Part of an ongoing theme emerging--should funders do the convening or perhaps is it more effective for funders to be included in a community convening. I love how the quotes in this blog post capture the experience from a variety of participant perspectives--making me realize that I sometimes need to be more open to hearing the "stories" of an experience rather than trying to summarize/synthesize a gathering into one "story."