JANEEN COMENOTE ON INDIGENOUS ADVOCACY, INTERSECTIONAL COALITION-BUILDING, NATIONAL IMPACT
Making the Local Global: Janeen Comenote on Indigenous Advocacy, Intersectional Coalition-Building, and National Impact
A few short weeks after the election of Donald J. Trump—and mere days before the first major win at Standing Rock—PASS met with Janeen Comenote to discuss the future of indigenous advocacy in the U.S. Comenote founded the National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) in 2003 to address the unique needs of off-reservation American Indians living in poverty in some of America’s largest cities. Since its inception, the NUIFC has worked to impact policy at local, state, and national levels. Here, Comenote discusses past and future challenges for indigenous advocates and the power of coalition-building.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you come to lead the NUIFC as its Executive Director?
I have been working in what we call Indian Country, which is the catch-all term for all work that happens with American Indians in the U.S. and Canada. I’ve been working in Indian Country in the nonprofit sector since my early 20’s,in a range of areas including juvenile justice, Indian child welfare, poverty reduction, research, and development. Somewhere in the middle of all of that, I was introduced to a program called the American Indian Ambassador Program, for young leaders under 35 to hone their leadership abilities and ground those abilities within the indigenous core cultural value context. And that was a life-changing experience for me that led me to start working with off-reservation populations and the organizations that provide services to them.
In the U.S., when people think of American Indians, they tend to think that we’re all on horseback and that we all live in teepees—the “Noble Savage” stereotype—but almost 80% of us don’t live on reservations. We live in cities. I call us the “silent majority” in Indian country. Through the Ambassador Program, I had this idea to take a deeper look at what’s going on with urban Indian communities around the country, because I was already working off-reservation in Seattle with all the urban Indians in my own community. And that was the genesis of what would become this national coalition of urban Indian organizations that provide services to Urban Indian families.
What are the key issues for urban indigenous and Indian families? And has that changed at all since the NUIFC was founded in 2003?
Basically, no. American Indians who live off the reservation face a lot of the same socioeconomic tribulations that many other urban communities of color do, and we occupy the lowest rungs of those indicators. Deep, pervasive poverty is a problem for our community both on and off the reservation. The unique issue for our community is that because we are very small in number, we are often overlooked when it comes to overarching policy or even organizational funding.
Here’s an example of the cycle that leads off-reservation communities to become and remain invisible to policymakers. In some of our cities, American Indian children make up less than 1% of the child population, and often make up anywhere between 15% to 25% of children in foster care. In Seattle, American Indians have historically comprised up to 10% of the homeless population even though we account for less than 1% of the overall population. So even though we’re low in number, we have a disproportionate impact on systems due to the entrenched poverty and social issues that face our community—and decisions made in those areas have a similarly disproportionate impact on us. Where the invisibility comes into play is that often organizations who are providing services to impact these issues are ignored in both resource allocation and policy consideration at the civic level.
Conversely, part of our work is not just to shine a light on these disparities. It’s also to shine a light on organizations that do amazing work to improve outcomes. Looking at organizations that are doing really culturally-specific, outside-the-box work with really good results and return on investment is also something that we look really closely at.
What does your coalition do to bring these issues to the fore?
When you are a silent majority, you have to develop your own mechanisms to have your voice heard. And that’s difficult because I always say that urban Indians have triplicate citizenship. First and foremost, we are members of our tribe. Then, we’re residents and we’re in the taxpayer base in these cities; we vote for city council and county council and that kind of thing. And all of us are citizens of the U.S. Where it can be a bit more complicated is that the policy needs of off-reservation American Indians put our civic system in a bind because there’s a sovereign government-to-government relationship between the US government and our tribes. Once we leave the reservation, we also leave the jurisdiction of the tribal government relationship.
In part, what the NUIFC looks to do is raise awareness about this group of people stuck in policy limbo. When we first started, we concentrated on child welfare. We had several high-profile meetings, but it very quickly dawned on me that you can’t even have the conversation until there’s some information about the population out there. So we looked at the landscape, did an analysis of it, and realized that there’s not a lot of good information out there about urban Indians. So part of our job has become creating that information. We’ve done a couple of big reports, and every 3 years we do a census analysis and get that out to the cities and the sort of drill down on individual issues that were identified as most important. For example, when the NUIFC was formed, we cold-called 12 organizations to talk about this. We had them all rank and list the issues that their communities face, and homelessness was the number one issue in every city. It comes up time and again—homelessness and education—which is to be expected. So, another part of our job is to be responsive to on-the-ground realities.
We also do a lot of advocacy work. We’ve met with the White House four times now. We’ve met with the various federal entities that play a part in the funding cycles for our centers and successfully increased federal spending specifically for urban Indian service organizations. But to be honest, although it’s great to go to the White House and talk to the key players, the real change comes in the form of the think tanks and NGOs out there. The Center for American Progress, a think tank, has been a major policy force for the Obama administration. So, one of the things we began doing in the last year is concentrating on developing relationships with think tanks to educate them about our issues, because they are the thought leaders for administrations. For example, right now we’re doing a deeper dive into urban Indian education through the creation of a comprehensive policy and practice paper as well as creating an innovative, non-traditional summer education program for urban students which will be steeped in Indigenous education research. So that’s what we do in a nutshell: create information and convey it to key policymakers.
“Although it’s great to go to the White House and talk to the key players, the real change comes in the form of the think tanks and NGOs out there… [Think tanks] are the thought leaders for administrations.”
Can you talk a bit about the tension between long-term advocacy versus meeting short-term needs? I’m sure your communities have a lot of direct needs for resources and support, but you also need to be thinking about your long-term strategy.
I think you hit the nail on the head. At the local level, all of our centers are broad social service nonprofits that provide a huge laundry list of services to these communities. They are, in their own right, experts at navigating through local politics, policy, and resource distribution. Our work blends very nicely with that because often you can create a national dialogue around the needs at the local level.
The simple way of putting it is that we act as a megaphone. We are very reliant on the organizations fill us in on the local needs and how they’re fulfilling them. As I collect information from agencies in cities all over the country, what emerges for me is, for example, that if we have a big problem related to employment, we can go to the Department of Labor or talk to philanthropic organizations and relay critical information to them from the field.
To expand these efforts, we completed a project this past year called Making the Invisible Visible. We hosted 11 individual policy roundtables in 11 cities, and divided them into 2 sessions. First, we met with local community members because we wanted to mine their knowledge about policy and get recommendations about what their needs were. Then, we met with policymakers, and we had another set of questions for them around their knowledge of the local Indian communities in their cities, how they work with American Indian communities, and the barriers for you to work with them. It was a fascinating project and we got all kinds of very cool and a couple of seriously crazy responses. Like, an elected official in Los Angeles said, “I don’t really have to pay attention to Indians because there’s not a lot of them and they don’t vote.” This is an actual quote!
It sounds like one of the main benefits the NUIFC draws from being a coalition is that the local organizations can meet short-term needs, while you as the board can play a policy-oriented long-game. What would you say are your main challenges?
I think it’s that advocacy work in general is not a direct service, so it’s hard to measure. The evaluation that comes with it is a lot mushier than when you can offer hard numbers to your outcomes. It takes a long time and lots of repetition to get results! 13 years ago, urban Indians weren’t part of the vernacular for Indian Country, but now we are. This represents our success but also one of our greatest challenges: that it’s a much longer time trajectory to see your results, which flies in the face of a lot of philanthropy and other funding mechanisms.
Given some of the recent political changes in the U.S., I’m wondering—how might this affect your organizational strategy and approach?
In a word: everything. I’m just personally exiting a stage of shock. I had already been thinking ahead to who Clinton was going to name as the head of the Department of Health and Human Services and how we were going to work with that administration. So it acted as a bucket of ice water in my face. It’s fair to say that the incoming administration shows every potential to devastate the social service sector, not just for Indian Country but for America, with a square bullseye on programming that helps Americans who living in poverty.
As we begin looking into the next 4 years, within the urban Indian sector itself, we need to bring all of our organizations together and do a pretty deep analysis of federal funding. I know about 70% of our centers receive federal funding, so we’re going to need to take a long hard look at which of these programs are the most vulnerable and collectively look for ways to chart their course forward.
Even though Obama was by no means perfect, we had access to every federal department at whim. We could just go to Washington, D.C. and meet with them, which was kind of amazing. That had never happened before. So now with this massive harmful change on the horizon—and with the full knowledge that even if we wanted to, they’re probably not going to meet with individual communities—part of what we need to do is rethink, from the national perspective, how we build strategic alliances.
The silver lining in a very dark cloud is that we have an opportunity to begin power-building with other advocacy and philanthropic communities—particularly other communities of color. How do we begin to build those relationships on the national level and more importantly how do we build them on the local level? It’s time to seek out other models that have been in existence. For example, the Native community in Portland, Oregon actually spearheaded the Coalition of Communities of Color there about 6 years ago. After a few years of deep relationship-building with all of the communities of color in Portland, they formed what’s called Color PAC, a political action committee of their communities of color, and they just put a number of people in office in the state of Oregon! So we’re looking at these sorts of models that are working so that come 2018 we can at least get a new Senate to stop some of these harmful policies that are coming.
I think it’s going to be as bad as we think it’s going to be—and we certainly have to plan as though it is. The incoming administration is going to leave devastation in its wake. We know: when a demagogue tells you he’s going to do something, believe him! From a Native perspective, we look at things like Standing Rock, and I think even if Obama, who isn’t doing much right now, did anything for Standing Rock, Trump is just going to come in and undo everything because he has a stake in the company—he actually has shares in the Dakota Access Pipeline!
Before we end, I did want to talk a bit more about Standing Rock. I’m curious what the NUIFC has done to engage with that conflict, and in what ways this struggle intersects with the work of the NUIFC.
First and foremost, it’s a human issue because climate change touches all of us. You in Washington, D.C., me in Seattle, the millions of people who stand to have their water poisoned when that pipeline leaks or bursts. It’s an on-reservation tribe, the Standing Rock tribe—which is actually the Hunkpapa Lakota—and the local community has been leading the movement. And it is a movement. It’s something so much bigger than the NUIFC or any organization.
Indians are the second largest user population on Facebook, so social media is insanely powerful in our communities. It’s how Standing Rock became what it was, like Arab spring. Black communities talk about “Black Twitter,” and Indians have “Indian Facebook.” So a lot of the work that the NUIFC has done and all of our organizations is to sustain an unceasing social media presence to make sure that everything happening at Standing Rock goes live.
So the NUIFC hasn’t had a formal role at Standing Rock, but we participate with the Native Voice Network, which is a different network of organizations that’s really more concentrated on direct action. And I’ll be going out as part of a coalition of coalitions in December to meet with even more coalitions to talk about strategy moving forward and what happens after January 20.
But what’s so interesting to me about Standing Rock is that it started as a local movement grounded in core cultural indigenous values of peace and prayer and mni wiconi, which means “water is life” in Lakota. We see this groundswell of support coming from all sectors of America, and to have it be this indigenous-led movement is huge. This work is a service to humanity, not just to Indian Country.
Banner photo credit: Flickr user Javi / Creative Commons license