White supremacy is a pandemic. In this moment in time, the shared global narrative centers around COVID-19. But white supremacy is a more pernicious virus, permeating every strata of human life for at least the last 500 years.
Our Indigenous communities are still reeling from the disproportionate adversity that COVID-19 has brought, from the highest death rates (as headlined in the New York Times) to the economic devastation faced by our Native Nations, enterprises, and entrepreneurs. Philanthropy has had two primary responses—either leaning in to provide relief and real-time solutions—or an even greater distancing from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities and organizations to protect their own “at-risk” endowments and prestige. The latter is a symptom of white supremacy.
The distancing occurs even as foundations hide behind admirable organizational mission statements aimed at reducing racial wealth disparities and building inclusive economies. This last statement is lifted from the website of the Clinton Foundation, which has announced a new initiative focused on reducing the racial and economic disparities amid COVID-19.
During a virtual conference held earlier this month, called The Power of CDFIs for Today’s Inclusive Economic Recovery, former President Bill Clinton amplified the importance of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) to “address the inequalities facing Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, and other historically underserved groups who have borne the brunt of both health and economic consequences of COVID-19.”
As an Indigenous woman leading community finance work within an all-Indigenous organization, the NDN Collective—a group founded in 2018 that seeks to defend, develop, and decolonize Indian Country and which recently launched a national Native CDFI—I normally would feel reinvigorated by those words. However, the Clinton Foundation is among those in philanthropy that hide behind their mission statements while their leaders and staff too often act in direct opposition to Black, Latinx, and Native Americans, and other historically underserved groups.
Just one week ahead of the February 2nd conference, I was confirmed to speak during one of the breakout sessions with other CDFI representatives from across the country, on a panel titled Environmental Justice, Financial Recovery, and Rural Communities.
The Clinton Global Initiative team was enthused by NDN Fund’s participation, given our intersecting work of CDFI financing and climate justice that lifts up the resilience and regeneration of marginalized communities across Indian Country.
Days later, I received a short, out-of-the-blue call curtly informing me that I would be dropped as a speaker due to the “pending federal investigation” of NDN Collective’s president and CEO, Nick Tilsen of the Oglala Lakota Nation. The concern was specifically stated as wanting to avoid “negative press associated with the federal investigation.”
There never was a pending federal investigation regarding Tilsen, so they operated on gross misinformation. The charges they referred to stem from a nonviolent action taken by over 100 land defenders on July 3, 2020, at the Paha Sapa, Black Hills to peacefully protest the broken promises of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and the violence and oppression Indigenous peoples experience on a daily basis.
In fact, the only violence that day was from white counter-protestors who spit at and physically assaulted Indigenous demonstrators. (Of course, they were not arrested.) Ironically, the Clinton Foundation team’s decision to pull me as a speaker served to undermine its goals and mission, including the foundation’s history of focusing on building the resilience of Afro and Indigenous peoples in the Caribbean and their current effort to bridge racial disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.
The good news is that, ultimately, the Clinton Foundation backed down and I ended up participating on the panel. My presentation was well received (even if I did not get the run-of-show on time), but that is not the point. The real point is that the Clinton Foundation’s behavior in this case was not unusual. Rather, it is a perfect example of the common hypocrisy of “do as I say, not as I do” that we see often in the field of philanthropy.
I was only reinstated as a speaker after a last-minute call held the evening before the panel between the leadership teams from each of our organizations. NDN Collective spent most of the Zoom call staring at the blank faces of the Clinton Foundation leadership team as we explained the impacts of their misinformed decision and provided them with a brief version of “Indigenous 101,” the historical legacy of white supremacy, and how this plays out in the day-to-day life of Indigenous peoples. We emphasized our desire to be in reciprocal relationship with philanthropy and that we can be a resource for them moving forward if they wanted to be in authentic partnership.