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Have you ever had the honor of listening to and receiving the experiences of someone who has lived a different life from you? Most of us have. Though, many of us may not have felt honored in the moment. Often those who have different lived experiences from our own will say things that vex us. Have you had that experience?

I hope so. These experiences of stepping outside our comfort zones into new perspectives –  whether it be while we travel or at home, for work or play – are essential for our well-being and our world. I realize what I’m suggesting is that we do ‘hard things’, even on vacation.

We can then notice what shows up in us as an opportunity for personal growth and, hopefully, connection to new ideas and people. This is generative pluralism, a process of encountering and honoring difference, and even celebrating it, because this coming together of difference leads to communities that evolve and thrive.

Durango is a rural, ever more affluent community in a region where few have had the opportunity to accumulate material wealth, aka capital. Median home and land prices exceed what folks who farm, teach, caregive or run a small business can pay. The affluence here has generally been acquired by living in an urban region prior to moving here. Like those in many other mountain communities in Colorado, some folks have security and others lack certainty about where they will lay their heads each night.

Furthermore, southwest Colorado is the traditional homeland of the Ute and is a place of community and ceremony for four other tribes, Indigenous Peoples killed and forced away. Despite this, southwest Colorado is a cosmopolitan place where many Native Americans live within towns and county lands on and off the two reservations. The Indigenous diversity of the region is broadened by the students attending Fort Lewis College, who may come from any of the 574 U.S. federally recognized tribes at no cost for tuition. Southwest Colorado is a place we can step into generative pluralism – listening to and learning from one another.

Leaders from across the non-profits in the five southwest Colorado counties coordinated for a panel discussion on ‘decolonizing philanthropy’ during a three-day networking and skills building event this June. It’s called Rural Philanthropy Days, and takes place once every four years. The host community this year was Durango, with events also taking place in nearby Ignacio and Silverton. We welcomed philanthropists from Colorado’s Front Range to sit with us as we heard from six community members, counting the panelists and facilitator, Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, most of whom are Indigenous. They were asked: what’s it like for you here? For the people you serve?

They all shared – it is tough.

This was not unexpected. Our country is reconciling its past. Can we sit and listen to the voices of those who are oppressed? And what shows up in us when we do?

Indigenous People live with distrust every day. Words are said. Actions do not follow. Or actions take place that are different than what was promised. Without power, what can one do? Ask. Hope. Wait to see if the long arc of people residing in the region for tens of thousands of years will bend to a more equitable and just time. The panelists shared that this is their hope not just for the Indigenous Peoples of southwest Colorado, but for all people of the region.

Colonization was defined – it is taking control of place and people often by force. Decolonization was not defined, perhaps because what is in the past is known and understood in a different way than what is still to be lived.

Simple requests may be disregarded. For example, the request for there to be a land acknowledgement at a national conference one of the panelists attends regularly. He offered the request again each year for ten years. This year, there was approval for the land acknowledgement. Stories like this were shared highlighting that we can get there. We are learning to decolonize.

How we gather may be essential for decolonization to take place more quickly. The format of this event was a panel. Esther Belin, a panelist who is Diné and a lecturer in Native American and Indigenous Studies at Fort Lewis College, said, “we should be in dialogue”, noting discussion circles as necessary. I heard from at least one funder that they agreed. Ideas arose for them that they would like to have shared.

Dominant cultures of a country – in this case white, European, settler culture – affect philanthropic giving practices. The when, what, and how of the interaction can be transactional with rules reducing the opportunity to attend to the why.

What could be done differently? It’s important that timelines aren’t as rigid, grants are multi-year, and more funding is unrestricted – not obligated to specific programs within a non-profit and or to a specific aim of the funder. Cultural norms of Indigenous communities can be inherent in the process – nothing due during ceremonial time periods, centering community rather than individual success, trust and relationship rather than evidence-based review of work completed, and awareness that it is hard to ask for funding.

Hopes are that by meeting one another and listening, understanding can grow. Systems can shift. We can step outside our comfort zones and value difference, because it is this difference from which new ideas arise for a more perfect Union, a democracy that will continue to feel messy, but also alive and wonderful. Rather than apart, we will feel a part.

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