Racial Equity - Funders for LGBTQ Issues
About the Toolkit
The importance of native histories

Learning the various histories and crushing societal conditions of Native people in our country—including Two-Spirit communities—is crucial for grantmakers. Native Americans in Philanthropy Board Chair Ron Rowell shares some insights.

Tell me about yourself. How did you become a policy advocate, an activist and a grantmaker?

I date becoming a policy advocate to a moment in the mid-1980's when I realized what the intersection of high rates of STD infection, substance abuse, and the unfolding HIV pandemic might mean to the health of indigenous populations of North America. I realized I could no longer just sit back as an observer as someone from the community who had been privileged to get a higher education and a graduate degree in public health.

For me and for many in my generation, becoming an activist was born in the cauldron of the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights in the South, which is where I lived at the time. The issues were personal, pressing and fundamental.

I wanted to become a grantmaker because I felt that it rounded out my professional experience in the nonprofit sector and local government. At that moment, The San Francisco Foundation advertised a position for a Program Officer in Social Justice. I saw that job description and said out loud to my family, "That's my job." And fortunately, it was!

You were a program officer for the social justice at the San Francisco Foundation and serve as the board chair for Native Americans in Philanthropy. What has been the relationship between American philanthropy and Native American communities nationwide?

The vast majority of Americans don't know much about the original people of this land. What they know was learned through popular culture and its layers of stereotypes. More specifically to philanthropy, what was once the myth that "The federal government takes care of Indians," has now become "Indians are taken care of by gaming."

Although we are a relatively small population among hundreds of millions of other people in this country, we are relatively complex. There are 560 federally-recognized tribes with a government-to-government relationship to the U.S. and 3.3 million American Indians and Alaska Natives. It takes some effort to understand the historical, legal, and cultural context of indigenous peoples. And I should mention that Native Hawaiians have their own issues born of the US-sponsored coup d'état against their monarchy.

Only a small number of foundations have been willing to take the time to engage in the relationship to build the kind of trust and reciprocity necessary to be effective.

This toolkit is exploring how funders can better promote racial equity in this country among LGBTQ communities. Through your work at the foundation, or through other experiences, how have you seen racial, economic and gender inequities affect LGBTQ communities of color?

Just within the past five years, African-American men were routinely and purposely being denied entrance to a Castro neighborhood bar called the Badlands. Just in the past week, someone painted KKK symbols on a Black-owned florist business in the Castro. Blatant individual racism is still alive and well, inside and outside the LGBTQ community.

Structurally, resources have flowed only weakly and sporadically into LGBTQ organizations of color. The fight against Proposition 8 in California illustrated how this structural racism can come back and bite. What is needed is a more concentrated, long-term effort to support LGBTQ activists of color in building the organizations and coalitions that will provide the kind of political muscle necessary to achieve a broader vision of social justice that includes everyone.

You've also worked extensively on policy and programmatic interventions addressing HIV/AIDS and other health issues in Native American/American Indian communities, notably as founder and executive director of the National Native American AIDS Prevention Center. How has HIV/AIDS affected American Indian communities? What are their unique challenges?

HIV/AIDS continues to be a disease that too many in our Native communities see as something to be hidden. That leads to isolation for those who are infected and is particularly difficult in more rural areas where a little under half the population lives. It also raises the profile of underlying risks that put people at risk. I have always argued that substance abuse is one of those major underlying risks.

One of the biggest challenges I see is that there is a long-standing problem of accurate infectious disease surveillance in our population. This is due to a great extent to the fact that the majority of legally recognized American Indians are mixed-race and many Indians in the West have Hispanic surnames. The professional literature is full of studies showing how misclassification leads to underestimates of reportable diseases in the population yet little has been done to try to overcome this misclassification. Also, the fact that many tribes have taken over their own health care systems from the Indian Health Service has led to an even more fractured system from the disease surveillance perspective and historically, federally recognized tribes do not deal with states, which is where surveillance is usually coordinated. It's not an insurmountable problem but it requires sustained attention. Given the reality that resource allocation seems based upon sero-prevalence, i.e., that the more HIV infections in a population, the more resources that should be targeted to that population, inaccurate sero-prevalence data has real consequences for the ability to fight new cases in Native America. Just last week, CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Programs announced it will no longer support national capacity-building for Native American communities by Native Americans. No other ethnic group was treated in this fashion. I find it shocking and I hope they reconsider their approach.

And what are the needs and barriers facing Two Spirit communities?

Much of the prejudice that you find in Native communities against Two Spirit people is based in the religious teachings of various Christian sects. I don't want to smear Christianity with a broad brush because this is an issue that cuts across all sorts of boundaries and there are plenty of allies of faith who support LGBTQ equality. Nevertheless, there are still strong traditions of bigotry and ill treatment based in religious teaching as I think was reflected in the Cherokee Nation lesbian marriage case recently.

Most Americans don't realize that the U.S. Government assigned different Christian denominations the task of "civilizing" the indigenous peoples in the mid-19th century. That's why you see different tribes under the influence of different Christian traditions. For example, my own tribe, the Choctaw Nation, passed a law in 1861 under the influence of the missionaries to prescribe hanging for "sodomy." To my knowledge, no such sentence was ever carried out, but it was on the books. So Two Spirit people have the same challenges other people do with the bigoted side of organized religion.

Urban and rural/reservation Two Spirit organizers have some of the same problems other LGBTQ people of color have with getting attention and getting funded. It's compounded when folks are organizing on reservations however, because Indian Country is not part of the state and has its own government and legal framework. That seems to scare some funders away.

American Indians, no matter what their sexual orientation, have lower life expectancy that the U.S. as a whole, have mortality rates from alcoholism that are 510% (yes, that's right) higher than the U.S. population as a whole, suicide rates 62% higher, tuberculosis 600% higher, and very high Diabetes II rates, among other disparities. (Source: Facts on Indian Health Disparities, Indian Health Service, Jan. 2006)

As you reflect on the early years of the AIDS epidemic, to the major shifts and gains we've seen in LGBTQ rights across three decades, what are some successes that resonate?

Now I'm really feeling my age! The territory we've traveled since I was an adolescent to allow LGBTQ people to live their lives in freedom and openly integrated into the larger community is truly impressive. I never in my life believed we'd be at a point that we could marry in some states, for example. The progress we've made is due of course, to all those who refused to sit down and shut up and accept anything less than full equality. The LGBTQ community owes an enormous debt to the civil rights and feminist movements. Without them we'd be nowhere today.

That also suggests that the LGBTQ Movement needs to revisit its roots! Like many gay men, it took me a while to understand the importance of the marriage equality fight. I came out during the early 70's when we were trying to build our own institutions and many looked down upon mimicking heterosexual society. It's clear to me now that marriage is fundamental to helping heterosexuals understand the emotional and physical bond between two people of the same sex. The fact that we appear to have so many straight allies in this fight is testament to the power of the idea.

What are LGBTQ issues that still need significant support?

Equality and equity. We need, as funders, to help all of the LGBTQ community organize to improve people's lives without assuming that LGBTQ issues always play themselves out the same, or that different populations who share being LGBTQ don't sometimes need different strategies one from the other. Listen, I grew up in the segregated South where the paradigm was Black and White and skin color was everything. When I was young, people very rarely crossed the color line and communities of color and Whites lived lives in proximity but emotionally and socially at a distance from one another. That time was not exactly the distant past and it still reverberates throughout American society. The institutional structures that are indigenous to different ethnic communities and the role they play in both the oppression and support of LGBTQ people of color are best engaged by people in those communities.

Equality to me is people being treated with full dignity as human beings, with all the fundamental rights we say we believe human beings have sui generis. Equity suggests at the least a proportional share of the resources to work on achieving that ideal of full human equality. We won't get there without it.

You serve on the board of directors of Funders for LGBTQ Issues, which launched a campaign two years ago to increase the amount of funding reaching LGBTQ communities of color. What are your thoughts on this campaign? Have you seen any positive shifts?

Yes. I think that campaign is one of the most sophisticated I've seen and that it speaks in a language that everyone should be able to understand. It's clear that Funders has touched a nerve and that there are folks in the community who are ready and willing to work hard to take it to the next level.

What are some successes—in our society, in our political movements, in the media—that you'd like to see in your lifetime?

Right now, let me say that a success much on my mind is that of universal health care coverage for all Americans, like in other economically advanced countries. That's an issue that is fundamentally important for communities of color and low-income people and should be for the middle class as well. If, before I die, I could see this, and marriage equality, and the end to the emotional tragedy faced by same-gender couples of different nationalities in this country, I would feel we had really accomplished something in our generation.

I am very hopeful and I have a lot of faith in the next generation. I just don't want to be the generation remembered for the last eight years.

Finally, what advice would you give to a grantmaker who's interested in exploring funding to LGBTQ communities of color?

The first thing I want to say is that I think the grantmaker's job is not to be cautious. It's to jump in and get to know the people trying to make a difference in communities, what their challenges are, and to partner with them for success. I've always heard we're in a "relationship business." It would be good if we always acted like it, not just with the wealthy and powerful, but with those who can turn hard currency into hope.

I have heard too many grantmakers complain about the small size of grassroots organizations working in communities of color. If scale is a challenge for a given foundation, we all know how re-granting works and how to partner with other foundations for whom it isn't as much a challenge. There really is nothing particularly unusual or difficult about partnering with LGBTQ people of color!

Speaking with my hat on as President of Native Americans in Philanthropy, I would also add that there are resources available for funders who wish to become more aware and knowledgeable about Native American communities. Native people with long experience in philanthropy are willing to assist or link you to other funders.

Use Funders for LGBTQ Issues and the ethnic affinity groups! That's what we're here for!

Ron Rowell, President, Native Americans in Philanthropy (Minneapolis, MN)

Ron Rowell (Choctaw Nation of OK), is Vice President of Funders for LGBTQ Issues and President of Native Americans in Philanthropy. He worked for the past nine years as Program Officer for Social Justice at The San Francisco Foundation. He is also co-chair of the Public Policy Committee of Northern California Grantmakers. He is currently a foundation and nonprofit consultant in private practice.

Native Americans in Philanthropy