Respecting Land, Indigenous Culture, and Human Creativity

RSF’s Amy Beck speaks with Mariana Lopez of Pawanka Fund and Alan Zulch of Tamalpais Trust about working together to support indigenous peoples around the globe.

This is an expanded version of an interview featured in our Spring/Summer 2019 newsletter

Amy: Could each of you tell me about yourself and your current work to build a more equitable economy?

Mariana: I’m the Program Director for the Pawanka Fund which started in 2014 during the World Conference on Indigenous People organized by the United Nations. Before joining the Pawanka Fund, I was the Program Manager for The International Indigenous Women Forum (FIMI) where I learned about indigenous women organizations, how they work at a local level, and how they connect at the international and regional levels.

Alan: I’m the Senior Director of Tamalpais Trust based in San Rafael, California, where one of my focus areas is work with the Pawanka Fund. We are a charitable family trust that was created in 2012, and we support Indigenous-led initiatives and organizations around the world Prior to joining Tamalpais Trust, I was the Senior Program Officer for Kalliopeia Foundation, which is another grantmaking entity in the ecosystem of similar donors, and both are based on a world view of interconnectedness. It’s been amazing and exciting to explore what is possible for indigenous-led grantmaking, and to participate in its evolution has been a great honor.

Amy: Can you tell me about your organization’s mission? What is the impact that you’re trying to have and how do you achieve that impact?

Alan: Tamalpais Trust centers around the belief that we need to invert the traditional power structure in philanthropy. This includes putting the self-determination of indigenous peoples first because they know what they need, as opposed to a top-down approach that is present in contemporary philanthropy.

We have a specific focus on indigenous-led work, and the notion of intercultural philanthropy is what has evolved from our partnership with Pawanka Fund. This is not simply a matter of giving over all interest and resources without any involvement, rather we partner in multiple ways that have evolved as over the past four years as we’ve developed capacity.

This has been a trust-building journey that we’re on together, and there has been a lot of healing that has taken place on both sides, and we have recognized that we’re in it together and need each other. This is not a zero-sum game where if it’s more for me, it’s less for you. It’s a recognition that if we want to solve or even mitigate the issues that are facing the world, we’re going to have both step-in and participate.

Part of that means that we must take big steps toward equalizing our relationship and having mutual respect, which has often been missing in past attempts to work with indigenous cultures. This is what undergirds our work: we’re trying to be respectful; to shift power dynamics; and to make investments that are effective and not just furthering past attempts that have not worked for indigenous peoples or investors.

Amy: Mariana, can you address your impact and share are any lessons learned over the four years of Pawanka Fund?

Mariana: I would amplify Alan’s point about self-determination–all our work is based on the principle of self-determination of indigenous people. We are trying to impact the philanthropic process by building this model of intercultural philanthropy, as well as demonstrating that an indigenous-led fund can be successful.

Ownership is a crucial issue, and we believe that in the work that our local partners are doing, they need to have full control of their resources and the decisions. They are not beneficiaries because we are building a partnership with the local community, and they have full control of the resources they receive, the decisions they make, and the processes they want to implement.

One thing that we’ve seen is that when processes are implemented at the local level and are entirely are owned by the communities, that they have sustainable and positive results because these solutions are deployed by their community.

Another of our lesson learned is about the value of taking a holistic approach: because these solutions are implemented at the local level, they are not focused just on one part of the life of indigenous people. All different aspects of life are connected and considered. For example, land or natural resources are considered, but so are issues like the quality of life for all members of the community, including women, youth, and elders.

Participants at Weaving Strength and Knowledge exhcnage prgoram. Guatemala. Photo: Alan Zulch

Amy: I think you’re taking such a radical approach, and these aspects that you’ve mentioned regarding shifting power dynamics and placing control in the hands of people who really are the experts is huge. Can you talk about how that is tangible through your grantmaking, and what that participatory grantmaking process looks like for you?

Mariana: An important strategy that we have implemented has been creating a governance body that is composed of indigenous leaders from different regions. This is the guiding committee that is leading Pawanka Fund, and it provides guidance and the lights and the way.

This is a structure that the indigenous leaders collectively build among themselves, and they bring their different backgrounds and knowledge to the group. They play a pivotal role in the selection of local partners, as well as the implementation and evaluation of the project. This is an enriching experience as we learn together: Pawanka Fund is learning from the local partner; the local partner is learning from the guiding committee.

Part of this mentorship role is also providing the emotional support and knowledge that the local partners also need, not just giving the resources. We’ve built a network and offer the opportunity for local partners access other groups, such as the United Nations or advocacy groups at the regional or at national level. This exchange of resources is not just financial.

Alan: I think one of the strengths of the Pawanka Fund is that it’s composed of these guiding committee members, with each representing a different indigenous community from around the world. They represent a diverse group with different capacities that vary from a local level to those with a regional approach. For example, in northern Kenya, we’re working with traditional cultures and women’s groups, as well as other members that are deeply engaged in the UN and international policymaking.

There is a coherent connection between the global and the local that is tangibly represented because everyone recognizes the importance of the local level, and there is a transfer of information back and forth between the local level and the policymaking level, creating a fascinating and rich guiding committee dynamic.

Another area of focus for Tamalpais Trust is the empowerment of indigenous women. It’s not just from a human rights standpoint, which is enough, but one of the things we’ve learned from the Pawanka Fund is that supporting indigenous women leaves no one behind. If you support indigenous women who are aware of their indigenous consciousness and culture, they automatically bring in the whole community. They bring in the men, women, and youth, as well as all aspects of life: they bring in the ecology, food, nature, traditional culture, language — all of it is woven in together in a way that is very holistic. For us, supporting indigenous women is not only the right thing to do, but it’s also an efficient and effective use of grant-making funds. And seeing this work over time across these diverse projects from around the world has been an incredible learning as well as an affirmation for us that what we felt was right.

Another beautiful and inspiring thing about working with Pawanka Fund is seeing what its innovative approach offers in terms of changing philanthropy. Three key lessons we take away are: what is Pawanka Fund calls “cultural due diligence;” the mentoring process that is created between the guiding committee and the local partners; and the fact that Pawanka Fund is a learning organization and utilize monitoring and evaluation.

We do feel connected to it because we are partners, and this is not distant, remote hands-off grantmaking. There is a heart connection: it’s a heart-engaged grantmaking process where we’re learning, refining, pushing our boundaries, and being stretched in a very rich way.

Mariana: I would also highlight that the Pawanka Fund is focused on traditional knowledge and was created to support initiatives that recover and revitalize traditional knowledge.

This is part of the innovation that Alan mentioned, and we’ve seen throughout this process how culture is dynamic, and that it’s possible to both recover traditional knowledge, as well as transform aspects of culture. Because we’re also documenting this process, we can learn, and are able to share this information, thus we are better able to advocate and influence the philanthropic process.

Currently, we are working on developing this area of monitoring, evaluation, and learning by using and implementing different tools, and local partners are a big part of this monitoring and evaluation process. And to clarify, monitoring and evaluation do not mean supervision, and it allows us the opportunity to learn alongside our local partners.

We work with these communities to find ways to document that take language and technology into account. These communities are excited and proud to share their pictures, video, and materials. I’m excited to receive videos, photos, and even information via Facebook groups, which are all accessible from their cellphones. One of our current projects is to implement software so that we can codify this information we are receiving and share it with different audiences.

At Pawanka Fund, we have developed seven areas that are the guiding committee’s choice of focus. These include well-being; gender relationships; indigenous systems of learning and knowing; spirituality; innovation; organizational capacities of the organization; and The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Amy: Mariana, can you share one of the projects on which Pawanka Fund and Tamalpais Trust partner?

Mariana: We have a project in Guatemala that illustrates how we connect everything. There is a small, local organization called ASODEEMI in Nebaj, Guatemala, home of the indigenous Ixil people. It’s an indigenous women organization, and its leader, Ana Ceto Chavez, started participating in a global leadership school developed by FIMI, which is also supported by Tamalpais Trust. The leader of that organization engaged in the Global Leadership School, and then established an indigenous women’s organization four years ago.

They first received seed funding from FIMI, and then Pawanka supported one of their first projects which were based on indigenous women, weaving, and economic empowerment.
The project is not just for the women to weave but also to document the meaning of the patterns, design, colors, because weaving is an ancestral practice that is transmitted from one generation to another.

Pawanka organized an exchange program between different local organizations that gathered in Guatemala and brought together these women weavers from around the world, including Thailand and Kenya. They came to Guatemala to do the exchange program and were able to share many things. We could see how the participation of one leader in the global leadership school of FIMI was not just an individual empowerment process, but also connected this leader to different groups and to different women from all over the world.

This started by supporting one woman but then was able to grow and was multiplied to many groups, not just the woman but also the men, the children, and this is how our capacity-building process evolved and has resulted in our positive results.

Launch day at the Weaving Strength and Knowledge exchange program. Antigua, Guatemala. Photo: Alan Zulch.

Alan: It’s an incredibly inspiring example of a holistic approach and proof of what can happen when we trust and take risks. This woman, Ana, graduated from that and received a seed fund from FIMI, which was supported by Tamalpais Trust as well as other funders. We were able to witness this entire growth process, which we had not even been conscious of, with this one woman in Guatemala. She went on to law school and got her degree, and she returned to her community and created an organization to uplift the other women, men, and children of that community and beyond.

One of the things that is especially poignant about this example is that her community had suffered profound tragedy–her community was at the center of the genocide that was occurring in Guatemala. The pain in these communities is still so evident. As a reaction to this pain, they had contracted into themselves and weren’t really connecting with each other or villages nearby.

She took the initiative to start building bridges to these other local communities in order to find and empower each other. They connected other indigenous women and around weaving and have now created an organization consisting of three communities that are working together and weaving together– literally and figuratively–their knowledge, their traditional cultures, and their empowerment.

They’re using the context of physically teaching young kids in this intergenerational transmission of knowledge and of the culture through weaving. But while they’re weaving, they’re talking about women’s issues and women’s economic empowerment. It’s like they’re physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually weaving everything together, including weaving together communities.

Accountability is such a key thing in philanthropy and grant making. We want only to give when we feel there is going to be accountability, so we monitor and evaluate for that capacity. And really, it’s based on a distrust ultimately, on some level of suspicion. And it results in giving out money in proportion to the amount of trust one has the more trust, the more money given.
It’s a very transactional, fear-based approach, and the amazing thing that we see in the Pawanka Fund is in their approach to grantmaking. Rather than working from a fear-based paradigm, they’re approaching it from a trust-based, love-based, relationship-based paradigm that allows for a different kind of alliance with the local partners.

You can see that the implications of that are that accountability is that no longer this kind of extraction of coerced knowledge where the grant partner is obliged to be able to provide information back uphill to the funder in some way that impresses the donor.

Instead, we’re seeing is that the local partners want to share with Mariana and with Pawanka Fund. They’re eager to send videos, photos, and pictures that share what they’re doing. The accountability, instead of being pulled, is being pushed toward Mariana. That’s the profound difference in indigenous philanthropy that we’re seeing, and it’s beautiful and hopeful because it demonstrates what we can do if we move from fear to love, and from a Western paradigm to an indigenous paradigm.

Amy: There’s research that is coming out saying that when there are diverse voices at the table, better decisions get made. When there are more women in the picture putting women first, it’s good for climate change and many things, and then when it’s fully established and working, you can see the incredible ripple effects. Alan, could you tell us how or why Tamalpais Trust chooses to partner with RSF to make grants?

Alan: We have a variety of options that we could develop or utilize in terms of who we partner with to do this work, but we specifically appreciate RSF because your approach is based on a set of values that resonate with us, and that we hold very dear.

One is the acknowledgment of the sacred and the spiritual undergirding everything. I think that is both a rare principle and a unique opportunity to be able to partner with an organization that shares that awareness and sense of importance. This allows us to feel very comfortable because that’s what we’re identifying within so many ways within indigenous cultures is — it’s this worldview of interconnectedness. Because RSF, Tamalpais Trust, and indigenous cultures all have that worldview, it makes for a real sense of mutual commonality.

RSF is very sensitive to indigenous culture. And that’s been a wonderful thing for us to see and experience over time is — because working with indigenous cultures requires so much flexibility and empathy. It requires us as an organization to step out of our box and stepping into their shoes and finding out what indigenous communities need.

RSF has been an amazing partner in its expansiveness and generosity in terms of his approach, and that is invaluable for us. These aren’t things that are easy to find in other partnerships, so that makes this one very precious for us.

Amy: I feel like so many of the values that you both spoke about, the collaboration, the trust, the interdependence are things that we hold close and value.

Mariana: Initially, I was less familiar with RSF, so it has been the personal relationships that we’ve built with RSF staff. For us, this was very important, and the people at RSF make such an effort to work with us. They are generous with their time and make efforts to understand how important it is for the local partners to receive the grants.

Amy: Thank you. It is a privilege to collaborate with you both.

Amy is a manager on RSF’s client engagement team.

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