Building Justice through Arts, Culture, and Restoration

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By Guest Writer Darren Walker on the transfer of the Yale Union Building to NACF

There can be no justice in America without justice for Native Americans. Whether it’s preserving their rich cultures or defending their rights to land and resources, the actions we take to support Native and Indigenous communities are crucial to any fight against inequality.

For decades, the Ford Foundation has affirmed this truth through our work. In the 1960s, Ford staff outlined an expansive grantmaking strategy to bolster Native Americans’ ability to advocate for their own interests. In their report, staffers weren’t shy about calling out the “significant change” that needed to be made “in the power balance between government and the governed to allow [Native Americans] the privilege to advance toward goals of their own choosing.”

Since that report, Ford has been committed to elevating Native-led organizations and empowering Native communities to tell their own stories and shape their own futures. Over time, our dedicated staff and researchers found that Ford’s efforts could only extend so far. So, over a decade ago, the foundation initiated a new report, “Native Arts and Cultures: Research, Growth, and Opportunities for Philanthropic Support,” and considered how the broader philanthropic community could better serve Native Americans. This research project surveyed a wide range of leaders in indigenous arts and cultural spaces around the country, and their insightful commentary led to a new idea: an independent foundation dedicated to championing Native American causes. Thus, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) was born.

From the beginning, the NACF has recognized and fully embraced the power art offers to marginalized people. And over the years, the NACF’s work has proven what the First Development Institute said about philanthropic giving to Native American organizations in their 2006-2014 report: “when armed with the appropriate resources, Native peoples hold the capacity and ingenuity to ensure the sustainable, economic, spiritual and cultural well-being of their communities.” Indeed, when given a chance to express themselves through art, those who have been silenced and ostracized by society can recalibrate how people perceive them and their ability to thrive. In this way, the arts are an essential piece in the work of justice.

Today, the NACF continues to connect Native artists and cultural groups throughout America to much-needed resources and community. This vibrant collective funds the work of Native singers and storytellers, creatives and curators alike. By supporting artists and cultural activists, the NACF elevates the majestic beauty of Native American art forms and cultures, and restores power to Native American communities.

Of course, there are more ways we can empower Native communities with “the appropriate resources,” by taking bold and creative action. For example, the NACF recently announced that the Yale Union—an artist-founded center for contemporary art in Portland—would transfer ownership of their historic headquarters to the foundation. This repatriation not only affirms the work of NACF and the power of the arts, but it also offers a vital case study for the various ways those in positions of power can use their privileges to address the history of inequality and advance justice.

For as long as the NACF has existed, the Yale Union building has been a haven for the Portland arts community. Since 2010, the Yale Union has used this location to provide studio space to local artists and host countless community programs and art exhibits. The actual building predates the Union, added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 2007, because of its storied history with the women’s labor movement.

The land the building stands on has an even deeper history. Portland, Oregon sits at the intersection of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, where Native tribes throughout the region have historically come to fish, gather, and settle. Since these traditions go back further than the Yale Union, the building, and even the birth of the United States, today’s transfer of ownership is less of an exchange and more of a return. And now that it has been returned, the NACF has a unique opportunity to establish a bustling hub for Native American artists and cultural producers to come curate and celebrate the beauty of this heritage.

This partnership between Yale Union and NACF is just one example of a bigger idea. Right now, social justice advocates and community organizers across the country are leading a burgeoning movement for restorative justice. In addition to dismantling current unjust systems, these activists, institutions, and organizations are looking for ways to right the wrongs trapped within our collective history. In Seattle, The Duwamish Solidarity Group has created Real Rent Duwamish, a fundraising project that encourages people living and working on historic Duwamish lands to “pay rent” to the tribe. On the other side of the country, Georgetown University students voted last year to create a $400,000 a year reparations fund for descendants of the 272 enslaved people who were sold to keep the college from going under. In each instance, they show how restorative justice can take hold, return dignity and resources to marginalized communities, and tell a more inclusive, more just version of our history.

This way of thinking is vital to our ongoing work for justice. As America continues grappling with systemic racism, economic inequality, and other oppressive forces, there’s no denying these contemporary issues are products of this country’s complicated past; they’re consequences of America’s dark histories of enslavement, colonialism, and even genocide. The only way we can fully address the injustices we’re witnessing today is to acknowledge and atone for the transgressions of our yesterday. When it comes to seeking restorative justice for Native communities—people who’ve had their lands stolen from them—this Yale Union-NACF partnership is a powerful example of what’s possible.

I have no doubt that the Yale Union building—under NACF ownership—will continue to serve the arts. But this new era comes with a new understanding of what this space can and will represent. This building will be more than an incubator of Native artistic expressions or a convening ground for indigenous cultural celebrations. It will serve as a signal to the Portland community, and all those who enter it, that Native Americans are not confined to some bygone chapter of history. Native Americans—their histories, cultures, and art—are shapers of America’s history, influencers of its present, and writers of its future. They are America, and they deserve access to the resources and opportunities that will help them gain full autonomy over their ways of life and how they are represented.

So, while this repatriation is only one building, it is also a building block in a larger movement for restorative justice. May it inspire countless others to envision equally powerful ways to empower Native American communities—because, in the end, justice has no expiration date. It can always be pursued, so let us all pursue it—always.

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation

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