Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Janeen Comenote, Executive Director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition and Marguerite Casey Foundation board member.
1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?
When I first started working in the nonprofit sector over 20 years ago, the concept of philanthropy was completely foreign to me and, frankly, intimidating. I wish I would have known then that my lived professional, personal, and cultural experience is an important story for philanthropy to hear. I think there is real power in sharing our stories with one another and philanthropy needs to hear our collective stories. When I first started my career, it was in a sort of silo, I was unaware of how invisible the Native community was in the larger philanthropic, and American, diaspora. I think, had I known then how profoundly that realization would shape my career, I may have utilized additional messaging about it earlier.
2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?
As an executive director of an intermediary grant-giving and advocacy organization, one of the biggest challenges I face is articulating how intermediaries who are rooted in the very communities they serve are simultaneously trusted partners and a funder. There is a very real power imbalance embedded in philanthropy that we work hard to put into balance and, being an intermediary funder, we also serve to balance that power structure by being from the Native community.
3. What inspires you most about your work?
Everything!! I have such a profound respect for the organizations we work with. Their creativity and unrelenting drive to provide for our Native community is just so inspiring to me. One of the best feelings in the world, to me, is being able to get resources for our communities and be able to get these resources to the ground. I get immense satisfaction from knowing that every single one of these organizations we work with know what’s best for their community and that what we build nationally, we build together.
What I find ultimately inspiring is that all Native organizations, both local and national, bring our core cultural values into our collective work. I think Indigenous people have a lot to teach the world by way of how to respect the planet we live on, gender equity and our collective responsibility to view the one as all.
An elder once said to me, ‘Every grant written is a prayer for our community.’ I love that.
4. How does your gender identity inform your work?
Indigenous cultures globally largely share Matriarchy as a cornerstone of our worldview, and that didn’t end with genocide or colonization; we are still matriarchal people. I come from a line of strong Native matriarchs on both sides of my family so in some ways, I don’t think twice about gender identity as a standalone identity — gender equity is baked into my culture. Looking back on how I was raised, by an Oglala grandmother, she was not only a matriarch, she was a staunch feminist – leading all the women in the factory she worked in on a strike for equal pay, in the 1950’s. That type of almost militant insistence on gender equity was seen as a birthright in the home I grew up in.
All of this informs my work in a continuous way. There is a direct line between my matriarchal culture and how gender equity informs my work, which is that there’s simply no question about whether or not a woman should lead within our communities. It’s simply expected that we do.
5. How can philanthropy support gender equity?
First and foremost, having women of color in both executive and governance levels is a good first step. I think seeing ourselves reflected in the power structures that govern us and provide resources is critically important. Ideally, before philanthropy can really support gender equity, there must first be gender equity in philanthropy itself, which is largely governed and run by white men.
6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?
As we move forward as a society, I would like to see the gender equity movement not have to exist any longer. In the meantime, I think amplifying the voices of women in leadership positions is a solid start and making those voices the norm as they are in Native cultures and other communities of color throughout the country.
More on Janeen Comenote:
Janeen Comenote (she/hers) is a citizen of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington State. She is the founding Executive Director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition (NUIFC) and new board member for the Marguerite Casey Foundation. The NUIFC, headquartered in Seattle WA, is a coalition of 45 American Indian nonprofits in 32 cities that strives to, “Make the Invisible Visible,” by advocating for and amplifying the often silenced voices of urban American Indians and Alaska Natives. The NUIFC supports member nonprofits through grantmaking, technical assistance and shared power building.
This interview has been minimally edited.