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I Don't Trust Humboldt Area Foundation on Race, Safety and Belonging



Social justice and racial equity in Humboldt and Del Norte counties will not be defined or achieved by the four white women who signed the Humboldt Area Foundation statement titled "A Statement on Race, Safety and Belonging" that recently appeared on the organization's website. As an institution, the HAF does not practice what it preaches in regard to equity, diversity or inclusion in terms of community representation at the board level, or in the hiring and promotion practices at the senior staff level. I cannot in good conscience stay silent and allow this institution to continue to co-opt the stories and suffering of people of color so it can present itself as a racially enlightened organization. The HAF has an embedded classist, racist and elitist structure and culture that must be publicly scrutinized, challenged and changed.

I've interacted with the HAF for almost a quarter century, for 10 years as an employee — the foundation's first Indigenous male. When I left HAF's toxic work environment in 2014, I wrote a letter to the board of directors detailing my reasons. I wrote another to the HAF board of directors in 2018 regarding several of the points included in the recent post on its website. Neither board responded with any meaningful actions I know of. If they did, they can be transparent and let the community know what steps they took.

The foundation was established in 1972 and its board of directors has historically been overwhelmingly white and over the age of 50. I only personally saw two people under the age of 40 serve on the board at separate times. Parents with kids in a local school district form the backbone of any healthy region. Their perspectives should be a priority in any community initiative or effort the foundation creates. But the foundation's board meetings are held during working hours on a weekday. What working person can afford to take time off to be an effective board member? This rules out participants who aren't rich, retired or self-employed, and it's an example of HAF's classism.

The foundation sits among the largest Native tribes in California. In 48 years, there have been just three Native people on the board — two Karuk tribal members and one Yurok/Karuk member — and none currently. No one from the Wiyot, Hupa, Bear River, Tolowa or Tsenungwe tribes. To my knowledge, in 48 years, the foundation has never had an African American board member. It's had one Asian American board member and four Latinx board members. These numbers do not reflect racially equitable representation, they reflect white supremacy in action.

Native people are not just a separate ethnic group; we are members of sovereign Native nations. We have democratically elected representatives who work directly with the U.S. Congress as equals. The Humboldt Area Foundation has a group of majority white, unelected people who make decisions on our behalf. This racist entitlement needs to be stopped. No one currently on that HAF board has the right to represent local Native people in any way. We have not given that power away. It continues to be taken away through the secretive HAF board selection process. We don't know how the HAF selects board members, or what qualifications are desired or used to pick people. This process should be on page one of its website.

The HAF foundation does not value local Native history, knowledge, or cultural or community development in a fair and equitable internal manner. The HAF board has twice hired white executive directors from the East Coast. Neither needed any experience working with — or knowledge of — California Native Tribes or people. Instead, local Native people are expected to educate and train the HAF chief executive director how to work with us, and we provide this expertise for free. The HAF chief executive director should be required to earn a four-year degree in Native American Studies at Humboldt State University. All future applicants for this position should have such a degree or equivalent experience as well. Again, the largest tribes in the state surround the foundation. You want equity and racial justice? Include it in your actual hiring practices for the top job at the foundation.

The Native people I know who are involved with cultural and community development work a lifetime to achieve those roles. But at HAF, you can be a white person with no such experience on the senior staff or on the board and assert authority and power, making decisions that impact Native people for years. Native people have no equity at HAF. But the foundation will continue to take our money as donors, to write about our issues and our histories as if we've discussed and given them permission to do so. The HAF has never had a local Native person on its senior staff.

When the community effort to create the Native Cultures Fund began more than two decades ago, Native nations on the North Coast were at a drastically different capacity than today. Today, we have Native nations with resources and a huge cohort of local Native leaders we didn't have back then. As local Native people, we still face great social and economic challenges, but we have more knowledge and training to combat and solve them.

The Native Cultures Fund was never meant to be just a grant-making program overseen by a white-dominated foundation staff and board. It was not meant to be led or directed by anyone other than a California Native person. But that's where it is today. When I left the job, there were at least five local Native women from the Wiyot, Yurok and Karuk cultures who applied for it, each with a college degree, some with Master's degrees relevant to that job. None of them got the job. Most of them were denied even an interview. I know this because they each told me what happened. These are the ones I know of.

The HAF recently had the audacity to invite a Maidu artist to display her art featuring images of California Native women on the walls of the HAF buildings. This is symbolic of what the white people in power at the foundation are comfortable with. They are fine with paintings of local Native women hanging on their walls. They are also fine with the racist denial of qualified local Native women for a job with real power and potential equity. They are fine with keeping that job in their middle management, despite the fact that the fund covers the entire state and its mission includes work tasks that correlate to a larger role in national and international philanthropy.

As California Indigenous people, we have earned the right to own and direct that Native Cultures Fund separately from the Humboldt Area Foundation. I know there is an effort by some local Native people to discuss this and formulate a strategy. I will not allow the white people at the HAF to obstruct this effort without a social media response. I will be posting a video soon where I give more of the background and history of the Native Cultures Fund to those who want to learn more. The white people at that foundation need to realize that I'm not going to stop holding them accountable for their racist, pretend attempts to be "allies" when the reality is they just want control without being questioned.

I wrote this letter from the perspective of a father of young Native children. I'm speaking on their behalf because they deserve the opportunities that the Native Culture Fund should represent but currently does not. Only California Native people have the right to speak about this fund, period. Anyone else who does is obstructing our cultural progress and impeding our sovereign rights as we work to achieve actual social justice in this country. We will represent ourselves. It's what those community leaders who met 25 years ago to create the Native Cultures Fund wanted.

Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the Journal has an ongoing relationship with the Humboldt Area Foundation through the Community Voices Coalition project, in which the Journal receives foundation funding to produce coverage of under-represented communities locally that is made available to all regional media. The Journal newsroom retains full editorial control over all project stories.

Chag Lowry (he/him) is Yurok, Maidu and Achumawi, and holds a masters degree in education.

Editor's note: This article has been updated from the original print version to more accurately reflect the racial makeup of the board of the HAF.

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