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Program Officer Marley Williams reflects on Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the opportunity for movement building

The Irvine Foundation is fortunate to have talented staff with diverse backgrounds and life experiences, and we want to introduce some of our colleagues to you. We spoke with Program Officer Marley Williams about growing up around activists and community leaders, the inequities in philanthropic resources flowing to Native-led nonprofits, and philanthropy’s role in creating a future rooted in justice and a deep connection to one another and the land we reside on. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell Us About Yourself

I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, as the child of two activist, social justice lawyers. My father is a Lumbee Indian human rights lawyer, and my mother is the Jewish daughter of a lifelong union member and the granddaughter of immigrants who came to this country fleeing persecution. My parents’ individual and collective identities has meant that they spent most of my life championing causes aimed at advancing economic and racial justice. I often say I was marching on my dad’s shoulders in immigrant and Indigenous rights marches before I could walk.

I was fortunate to spend much of my childhood surrounded by committed activists, academic thinkers, and community leaders from all over the world. These movement elders were the first to teach me the power of community organizing and the power of my own voice for achieving social change. My dad would often remind me that the most important question to ask myself was the same question his Lumbee elders would ask him: “What have you done for your people today?” This is the question that drives and centers me in all that I do, professionally and personally.

Why philanthropy? How did you get into this work?

For me, the COVID-19 pandemic brought into focus the unique role philanthropy can play in supporting communities during times of crisis and how the right folks working inside philanthropy can serve as trusted partners in the movement to advance racial equity and justice. Working with government and community partners, I saw firsthand how the capital and institutional power of philanthropy could play a critical role in advancing community-driven change.

However, despite what I saw as the promise of philanthropy, it was also undeniable to me that racial inequities still run deep within the sector and that the impact of racial bias can be seen in the philanthropic and grantmaking process. Organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and Latinx leaders receive only an estimated 4% of total grants and contributions.

For Native-led organizations, the situation is particularly stark: First Nations Development Institute found that only 0.23% of all philanthropic funds went to Native-led nonprofits. While there have been some promising shifts in the past few years, there is still a long way to go.

I was drawn to philanthropy because I believe it can be a powerful vehicle for supporting community-driven policy, practice, and systems change. I also saw the need to have more Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, who have been most harmed by structural racism and oppression, at the decision-making table to shift the relationship and flow of capital between philanthropy and our communities. In joining Irvine, and particularly the Fair Work team, I feel connected to philanthropy’s potential to support Black, Indigenous, and People-of-Color-led community organizing and cross-racial movement building in the work to create economic equity and justice.

What does Indigenous Peoples’ Day mean to you?

A national study on public perceptions of Native Americans found that “invisibility is one of the biggest barriers Native peoples face in advocating for tribal sovereignty, equity, and social justice.” Growing up in the Tucson public school system, I was deeply aware that Native history was often inaccurately presented or completely erased.

My dad, not one to sit idly by while the public education system participated in this systemic erasure, would kindly demand that my teachers reserve time for him to come into the classroom and provide more than one chapter of Native history and context. My dad would teach us about the history of Indigenous people in the United States, explain why “sitting Indian style” (a common saying at the time) was just not cool, and the reality of who really “discovered” America. I know this was his way of showing me what it meant from an early age to decolonize an institution from the inside.

The Indigenous and cross-racial activism and organizing that has led to a nationwide movement to reclaim Christopher Columbus Day for Indigenous peoples and our collective history, is one that I feel incredibly proud of. For so many of us who identify as Indigenous, from the U.S. or elsewhere in the world, the arrival of Christopher Columbus also meant the arrival of death, disease, and genocide. Indigenous Peoples’ Day not only recognizes and reteaches the reality of that history, but also powerfully affirms that Indigenous peoples are still very much alive, present, and active in the movement for racial, economic, and climate justice here in our country and around the world.

How do you see philanthropy (and/or Irvine) and its role in advancing racial equity?

For Indigenous people, decolonizing is deeply rooted in our history and relationship with one another and our communities. Edgar Villanueva, fellow Lumbee philanthropist, popularized the term “Decolonizing Wealth” to mean the process by which philanthropy can recognize the ways it has benefited from this country’s history of genocide, slavery, and colonization — and use its influence and institutional capital to help heal and repair our broken systems by shifting resources to communities that have been most harmed by that same history.

Philanthropy is not the cure for structural racism, but when done in authentic relationship with leaders of organizations rooted in justice and liberation for their communities, I believe it can serve as a partner in the work to envision a California whose future is rooted in equity, justice, and most importantly, a much deeper and stronger connection to one another and the land we reside on.