Native-led non-profit receives grant designed to help close social and economic gap.
Native-led non-profit receives grant designed to help close social and economic gap.
With headquarters in Tuba City on the Navajo Nation, the mission of Change Labs is to create transformative change by removing the social, financial and political barriers for Native American entrepreneurs doing business on sovereign Native land.
The grant comes from the national organization, Common Future, which announced on Feb. 7 that Change Labs is one of 10 organizations across the country selected to participate in its new accelerator initiative.
Change Labs, a 501c3 non-profit with a staff of eight, was founded in 2019 with the goal of providing workspace, tools and resources for entrepreneurs across the Colorado Plateau.
“We’re working hard to push the boundaries of what’s possible on Native land,” said Heather Fleming, executive director of Change Labs. “But one of our primary challenges is that there are too few peer organizations and experts that can support and mentor us through our process and our thinking. Finding like-minded peers is one of the things that excites me the most about the Common Future Accelerator and the opportunity to learn, share, test and get constructive feedback on our ideas in a safe environment.”
As part of the accelerator cohort, Change Labs will receive an unrestricted $50,000 grant, along with mentorship, coaching and support from the Common Future team and its network of peers and partners.
Founded in 2001 and located in Oakland, California, the award-winning Common Future non-profit works to power community-driven solutions to advance racial and economic equity, said Andrea Perdomo, director of portfolio advancement at Common Future.
“Our current economic system does not work for everyone,” she said. “Generations of black and indigenous communities and other communities of color have been and are currently intentionally locked out of wealth and power. Centuries of policies that systematically favor a select few cause persistent economic inequities that hold us all back.”
The positive impact of the grant to Change Labs is expected to be widely felt. Although Tuba City is an inherently intertribal community serving Navajo and Hopi members, other Native communities also are enrolled in Change Labs programs, including members of the Pueblo and White Mountain Apache tribes.
“We invite any Native entrepreneur to participate, but our knowledge and network is focused on rural communities in Northern Arizona and Western New Mexico,” Fleming said. “We’re currently working on expanding our workspace to entrepreneurs and non-profit leaders in the Shiprock community.”
The challenges are daunting, they say, for growing the next generation of Native American entrepreneurs who will strive to build stronger and more resilient Native communities. Even the term “entrepreneur” is not well understood for Native business building.
“One of the main challenges we face at Change Labs is the perception of ‘entrepreneurship’ and ‘entrepreneurs’ in our community,” Fleming explained. “There isn’t a word or even a concept in the Navajo or Hopi language that directly translates to ‘entrepreneur,’ despite our long history of trading and bartering prior to colonization. Despite the number of artists, food producers and craftsmen in our communities, the word ‘business’ or ‘entrepreneur’ doesn’t always resonate.”
Fleming said alumni of Change Labs programs often report that they have to reconcile their traditional ways of living with the needs of their business. “There is often this feeling of living in two worlds, feeling isolated or feeling like they’re working against the tribe or their community in order to get their business going,” she continued. “We strive to create a space where people feel safe to share their ideas, take risks, collaborate and be constructive.”
Other obstacles to doing business on Native land include the difficulty obtaining capital because of a lack of local banks, scarcity of investment in entrepreneurship, as well as an absence of credit and collateral to prove eligibility.
In addition, starting a business is hampered by inconsistent internet access, as well as the hardships associated with not having a physical mailing address, which makes it harder to get packages delivered, to get an employment identification number or to market a business on Google Maps.
“There is so much work to be done to untangle the federal and tribal policies that have made the Navajo Nation one of the most difficult places in the world to start and grow a business,” Fleming said.
She believes the wealth gap is very visible to those who have visited Native lands. “Anyone who’s driven from Flagstaff to Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly or Lake Powell has driven across the Navajo or Hopi nations,” Fleming said. “You may have wondered why it is that lodging and food options are so limited on the reservation, why mom and pop shops don’t appear to exist, or why so many of our artisans and craftsmen are selling out of the backs of their trucks or on a roadside stand instead of a retail shop. The Navajo Nation is a major tourism thoroughfare, but you would never know it based on the number of visible businesses we have.”
To better understand the situtation, Change Labs conducted a study in 2020 to compare how easy it is to start a business in Tuba City (population of about 8,000), versus starting a business in Cortez, Colorado, which has a similar number of people.
“We knew there were challenges on the reservation but even we were astounded by what we learned,” Fleming said. “Registering a business takes seven times longer on average and is two to three times more expensive. Accessing land requires four times as many procedures, takes six times longer and is also significantly more expensive. Similarly, acquiring electricity is six times longer on the reservation versus off the reservation, and resolving a commercial dispute takes upwards of two years.”
The grants provided by Common Future are expected to greatly aid organizations in their efforts to close the wealth gap by easing obstacles to growing businesses. Because they are marked as “unrestricted,” participants can use the grants as they see fit and Common Future does not have any requirements on the allocation of these funds.
According to the Common Future timeline, distribution of grants will be in two installments of $25,000 each, one already distributed in December 2022, and one at the end of the program in April 2023.
In addition to Arizona, other states where recipient organizations reside include Georgia, New York, Nevada, Massachusetts, California, Florida and North Carolina. Some of the communities identified include low-wage earning single mothers in East Point, Georgia; Native women on Southern Paiute land in Las Vagas needing workforce training and skills; and help for underserved smallholder farmers of color in the Los Angeles area to have access to climate-smart innovation and the carbon credit market.
Participants in the accelerator program will have a time commitment of four to six hours a week for the intensive part of the program, which ends April 27. They will be required to host weekly workshops, cohort check-ins and bi-weekly one-on-one meetings. In addition, there will be office hours offering the opportunity to activate additional support resources. All programming will be remote.
There will be an end-of-program event in the first week of May and post-porgramming from May 1 through June 29 when Common Future staff will be offering access to additional external and internal resources, such as executive coaching and financial advising for participating organizations.
Partricipants can also learn how to expand their networks, as Common Future has brought many people together with common goals through the years, by creating introductions and forging connections and partnerships.
Personal development will be enhanced through mentorship that builds confidence and leadership skills and broadens horizons by offering new perspectives and approaches.
Change Labs will host a grand opening on May 5, in Tuba City, with a facility offering 1,400 feet of community workspace where the organization will host various workshops for the public, training for business incubator members, regular business coaching appointments and a variety of meetings and events.
“Our new space is outfitted with printers, prototyping materials and other marketing tools to improve a business,” said Fleming. “And we will offer opportunities to participate in our microloan program for business owners.” FBN
By Betsey Bruner, FBN
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