Stumbling into philanthropy, walking with community

By Levi Weinhagen

Looking back at her multiple career paths and 15 years into working at the Blandin Foundation, Becky LaPlant says she stum­bled into philanthropy. But to hear her story and how she talks about the work she’s doing now, her role as a public policy and engage­ment program associate in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, makes perfect sense.

“I was raised on Pokegama Lake, just five miles south of Grand Rapids. I went to Colo­rado for school and didn’t come back for 20 years. I had a whole life out there and many different career paths,” LaPlant says. “But my mother and my family are here. I’m a LaPlant and that means I am one of... I don’t know how many cousins. My dad had 11 siblings in the family. I was raised within five miles of all of them.

Building Skills and Being Called Home

After graduating from Colorado State Univer­sity, LaPlant stayed in Colorado and built a career working for Hewlett Packard. Because it was home office based work, she was able to become a hospice volunteer, spending years working with people in their homes.

“You learn a lot of things when you’re in other people’s houses, especially when you’re in people’s houses when families are really out of balance. A lot of it is relatable, because in community, we’re off-balance too. Since Blandin operates as part of the community, we’re always out here in reaction to what’s happening around us. That means under­standing that when I am over in the Ball Club community sitting at someone’s house talking to them, I am in sacred space with them.”

LaPlant adds, “That’s how I approach a lot of my work. I am in a sacred space with peo­ple, and they have a lot going on. So I really do try to hold myself in a place of love and kindness. I’m hearing people in philanthropy talking more about compassion these days.”

LaPlant returned home to Minnesota to help care for her ailing parents. Blandin, because it was so close to home and mission driven, was already on her radar.

“The thing about philanthropy, I believe after being here for 15 years, is that we work in a very privileged space. We have resources and we have connections. For example, the Blandin Foundation sent me to graduate school, and I got my degree in advocacy and political leadership with a focus on commu­nity organizing. We’re continually learning and we have the privilege to be able to do that. I’ve never been at a place before that has that value set or has the capacity to do that,” explains LaPlant.

How the Work Looks and Feels Now

For LaPlant, living in discomfort and being open to personal growth is a core part of the work. She has sought out formal and infor­mal training for how to work in and with the communities she’s surrounded by.

“I’ve been working with the Circle of Healing now for over six years, but I don’t facilitate that group. If you’re familiar with collective impact language, at the Blandin Foundation, we backbone. I backbone that group. I provide structure for them. And, as part of circle practice, I’m not a facilitator in that group. I hold space for them and, frankly, I spend most of my small budget on buying people food,” she says.

The ways into and through the projects she leads and manages at Blandin have all been about listening and being open.

“Through our Student Success work, one of our Ojibwe members told us about a training that was happening in White Earth. It looked at the past to heal in the present. In March of 2011, nine of us went to White Earth. We were a mixed group of mostly Ojib­we people and some white people. We got there and the five of us who were white were the only white people of about 250 people. They were talking about decolonization and genocide and oppression and treaty rights, and all of these things that were not taught in school. It’s like this whole side of history that wasn’t really taught,” LaPlant says.

“When the group left,” she continues, “we were all like, we need to do something. So I brought it back and the foundation said, ‘Convene them’ because that’s that we could do. And that’s how the Circle of Healing started. And very early on, one of our Ojibwe members, who is like a brother to me now, looked to me and said, ‘Becky, the first thing you guys need to do is you need to talk about white privilege.’”

LaPlant took this directive back to Blandin and to the Circle of Healing and that became the initial focus. She explains, “We actually spent the first 18 months of that group just talking in circle. The action was talking because there was so much that we did not know. We had people in that group who were generous with us as teachers. There was a lot to teach us and now I totally understand that it’s not their responsibility to teach me anything; it’s my responsibility to learn.”

Continuing, LaPlant adds, “It was the same member who told me we had to talk about white privilege who sent me an email that said, ‘Hey, there’s this three and a half day Anishinaabe Worldview Training. I think our group should do this.’ So we did a pilot of it here in Grand Rapids and we invited some other people in, including some men­tal health people and the chief of police at Grand Rapids.”

This bringing together of Native communi­ty members, foundation staff and city officials through training drew people closer togeth­er around shared experiences and deeper understanding of one another. The changes LaPlant experienced have encouraged a push for even more work and growth for herself and for Blandin.

She elaborates, “Police chief Scott John­son came, along with his sergeant Bob Stein, and after we were done with three and a half days of sitting in that discomfort of learning about culture pre- and post-disruption, it was just like you can’t unsee any of this. So at the Blandin Foundation we are now in a place of very active learning about intercultural organizational development. And it requires discomfort. People don’t often walk around and ask, ‘Oh, what is my world view?’ And so to bring to light things that are happening and have happened in an unconscious place requires some work.”

Progressive Change is Never Done, For People or Programs

The Blandin Foundation continues to work internally and externally in ways that make LaPlant feel even more connected to the communities she serves as well as the foundation itself.

She explains, “In the arc of my lifetime, I’ve had the privilege of working in many great situations, surrounded by mostly fabulous people. I’ve been at the foundation for 15 years and our mission, vision and values that we aspire to are what feed my worldview and allow me to practice being flexible in my thinking and open and curious to the thinking of others. The values that are part of my worl­dview shape my work in philanthropy and in the way I approach all aspects of my commu­nity life. I’ve seen, and believe to be true, that: Inclusion of all people, voices and worldviews is central to community health; trusting relationships are earned and it’s through them that positive change is created; and trust comes through integrity and, in my case, through my practice of love and kindness.”

And LaPlant looks excitedly forward to the continuing work being done in the Circle of Healing. “The Homegrown Na­tive Teacher work the Circle of Healing is currently engaged in is truly energizing,” she says. “Their goal is to increase the number of American Indian Teachers in the Itasca area, and they’re partnering with the Itasca Area Schools Collaborative (IASC) to start making this happen. This is equity work and, yes, it does come with the discomfort of unpacking the whys behind why this intentional, concert­ed effort is needed in the first place. And of course it demands that systems evolve.”

The trouble is that once you see it, you cannot unsee it. Once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet and saying nothing becomes as political an act as speaking out, there is no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable. —Arundhati Roy.