This month, the Seacoast Trust accepted a $2 million contribution from the Rasmuson Foundation and the Edgerton Family Foundation. As Southeast Alaska closes out another unprecedented year, that commitment brings this home-grown permanent fund to nearly $20 million.
But what does this actually mean for the lives of Southeast Alaskans? How far does $20 million get you? Who is behind all of this? What’s different about this fund? And how can people with deep passions but not deep pockets support the work?
To discuss these commonly raised questions and deepen regional understanding for the Seacoast Trust, we had a video call with Ralph Wolfe, Góos’k’ in Yakutat. Wolfe is the program director for the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
SSP is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. SSP is the host of this monthly column Resilient Peoples & Place. It includes Tribal governments, local businesses, Native corporations, culture bearers, educators, state and federal agencies, community doers and more. It is the mechanism for executing on the vision of the Seacoast Trust.
As Ralph and I joke through the inconsistencies of Yakutat’s broadband and cringe at our own digitized faces before hiding “self view” (my saving grace of 2021), we recognize that this exchange reflects one of the key strengths of SSP. Before Zoom fatigue was ubiquitous, the SSP grew as a grassroots effort over the past decade by connecting Southeast Alaskans from Yakutat to Hydaburg, to identify and build solutions for a shared vision of the region. Let’s dive in.
Where did the concept of this Fund come from? Can you give us a very brief understanding of how we got here in the first place?
At its foundation, the Seacoast Trust is about financial sovereignty.
Southeast Alaskan communities are increasingly reliant on short-term grants and philanthropy in order to operate year to year and that dictates the direction we can move as a network and as communities.
While SSP is continually grateful for any support we receive, as a network we are also exhausted and tired of being restricted with how we spend our money. A huge chunk of our time is just spent fundraising and managing grants. This is not working, and it is not sustainable. Small communities are expected to operate within a system that prevents them from moving forward and thriving.
The SSP partnership grew over a decade and partners began to see positive outcomes and forward momentum. At that same time, the network members had to decide, what is the future for SSP? So,a few years back, a group of leaders from the SSP traveled to British Columbia to learn about the Coast Funds model and were motivated to create something similar for Southeast Alaska.
One element of the Seacoast Trust that is particularly novel is the process of fundraising and the original commitments that launched it. An Alaska Native Corporation (Sealaska) put down a hefty commitment of ten million dollars and called for a match. The Nature Conservancy was the first to answer with a 7 million dollar match. What is significant, unique, and symbolic about this approach?
Conservation organizations have a history of parachuting into communities with a predetermined model of what ‘land stewardship’ should look like which has traditionally included acres locked up and out of the hands of the people closest to it. That model isn’t working and has never been practiced by Indigenous people.
In some ways, this Trust is challenging funders to trust the people closest to our lands and waters as leaders with the solutions. It’s changing philanthropy.
And it’s certainly not just Sealaska making that challenge. SSP is an entire network of tribal governments, non-traditional environmental partners, and so many more individuals who have been doing that hard work internally for over a decade. We have been challenging each other to redefine a “conservation” that understands people and communities are inseparable to a healthy environment. As Partners, we’ve all changed as a part of that work, not just Conservation. Sealaska has too. Just look at the shifts they have made to their business model and investments in the last decade.
The Seacoast Trust as a funding mechanism is an extension of this ongoing work.
Getting an international conservation organization together with what began as a predominately timber-focused Native corporation— I never thought it would happen. But here we are! A significant minority of conservation dollars goes into Indigenous led efforts. We want to change that.
And of course, it’s not just environmental funders stepping up to meet that challenge. We just had two private family foundations and an individual donor contribute as well.
Regardless of who the funder is, the important thing is that when we enter into a relationship, those funders become partners of this work but that money isn’t coming with a preconceived agenda or metrics and expectations that don’t align with our self-determination.
If they do, we don’t want them. They need to trust in our work and the commitment we are making to long term environmental stewardship and the success of future generations.
Help us ground these concepts in tangibles. Tell us what the ‘work’ looks like.
Well a lot of the ‘work’ has been the actual relationship building, identifying shared values and expanding our common ground. That’s turned into projects and outcomes carried forward across the region by our partners.
In the past two years that’s looked like food distribution programs in response to the pandemic, community forest initiatives like the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership and Keex’ Kwaan Community Forest Partnership that are changing what land management looks like and uplifting Indigenous control and representation. It’s youth programs like the Alaska Youth Stewards that work across several communities and give high school students professional development opportunities out on the land and within their rural community. It’s surf camp and the Cultural Heritage programs that are improving the management of totem trees on federal lands.
It’s internships, food security fellowships, farmers summits, the Path to Prosperity competition and all the workshops and support that Spruce Root gives local entrepreneurs. It’s restoring salmon streams. It’s respecting Indigenous values as foundational to all that we do. It’s a lot, we’ve been doing this for ten years I could go on forever.
And it’s not always recognized as ‘SSP projects’ because we are a collective, not a single organization and it’s our partners and people on the ground who are our collective ‘face’. However, it’s been catalyzed or supported through SSP whether through relationships made during opportunities to collaborate, sharing of funding or infrastructure, collective capacity, or even simple introductions between changemakers.
Let’s talk money. For many Southeast Alaskans who are living check to check, 20 million may seem enormous. To others who are familiar with the high cost of development, $20 million seems minuscule. Help us understand what this amount of money means for Southeast Alaska.
First off, let’s get right with the numbers. Twenty million is only our first goal to launch the Trust. We are closing in on that milestone. Our long term goal is to raise +$100 million. As it grows, we are able to use the interest earned from the investment of the principal ($100M) to support the activities and projects of the SSP network in perpetuity.
That includes funding for catalyst positions within the SSP network hosted by community and regional-based institutions. Right now, we have catalysts in Yakutat, Sitka, Kake, Klawock, Kasaan, and Hoonah and regional positions focused on Forestry and Fisheries, Food Sovereignty, Indigenous Guardianship, Energy Security, Local Business, Storytelling, Regenerative Tourism. There are over 100 people and organizations who see the value in our work and bring additional capacity and expertise to the network by participating. This isn’t an exclusive partnership.
We also have backbone support in communications, my role as Program Director, funds to support gatherings and more and all of this requires money and we spend an enormous part of each year looking for ways to fund this. The idea is for this Trust to free up that collective capacity to instead focus our energy on supporting community priorities, working together on projects and growing the partnership’s impact across the region. .
Q. What does expansion look like?
It includes adding catalyst positions in more communities and in more regional focus areas. We are hiring for a position with Tlingit & Haida focused on strengthening regional youth programming and we are looking at adding a seafood focused position, one focused on housing challenges and more.
And we are still only talking about a portion of what we do. Even a 100+ million endowment is a far cry from the amount of money needed to execute all that is needed.
The SSP leverages money to make more money to do more work and that’s always been the case
An impact study done by Ecotrust in 2018 showed that for every dollar invested in SSP, an impact multiplier of 7 was realized in the form of leverage and impact. And that was years ago.
In other words, Seacoast Trust is part of, but not all of, the financial mechanisms fueling this collective development work?
Correct. Right now we received a Rural Innovation Stronger Economy Grant from the USDA, are in Phase 1 of the Build Back Better program through the Economic Development Agency, which could open access to up to $100 million. We’re waiting to hear back from the USDA Forest Service on proposals we put in regarding the Southeast Sustainability Strategy regarding that 25 million they committed to the Southeast. And that’s just a few we are particularly excited about because we aren’t just challenging philanthropy to invest in community-led solutions, we are working with federal agencies and federal dollars directly. All our partners are pulling in different funding sources all the time because you’re right, the cost of this work is immense.
Alright, let’s stop talking about money. Let’s get back to the work because the legacy of the SSP and the Seacoast Trust isn’t about a closet full of cash, it’s about positive and enduring impacts for our communities today and for generations that follow, correct? Can you describe what success looks like to you?
What we are working towards are stable communities with economic and food sovereignty, affordable clean energy, and Indigenous led conservation.
I want my kids to do all the things that we do today and be able to work in Yakutat and live here if they want to in a thriving community where it doesn’t cost $50 dollars to get a gallon of milk.
Success is having all the beauty and bounty of the land but also a solid school system, dependable infrastructure, a municipality that’s in a good place and not a dilapidated community that’s barely getting by.
I want to see Southeast Alaska thriving and not just for the very wealthy to have vacation homes on our picturesque islands so they can go fishing. I mean a place where families can do well all year round and the Indigenous peoples— our culture, our values, our priorities, and way of life are not only accepted, but respected.
What does success look like over the next 365 days for Southeast Alaskans?
A big area of emphasis in 2022 will be in economic and workforce development.
We secured a few large grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Economic Development Administration that are allowing us to plan for and execute projects within non-timber forest products, construction, agriculture, stewardship, tourism, mariculture, fisheries.
Every community is different and the SSP honors and respects those differences. These grants will be used to, understand, and document how communities want to move forward, what economies they want to develop and how, and what’s holding them back in regard to capital, infrastructure, capacity, labor, workforce, and more.
With unanticipated funds coming through Federal COVID relief funding, alot of development could happen very rapidly.
We want that development and those funds to be grounded in actual wants and needs and spent and executed with intention and care. So this next year is going to be focused on assessment and mapping out how and what communities need in order to build the future that communities want.
Success in the next 365 days is setting ourselves up to succeed in the long term.
What can Southeast Alaskans who are passionate about building a more resilient region do? How can we get involved?
We need capacity. We have good jobs that need good people to fill them. As we grow and build we continue to have an issue in our region that is the repercussions of outmigration that happened over the past two decades with especially the smallest and Indigenous communities seeing a big shift of people from rural to urban settings.
And while there are some amazing people in our communities doing wonderful work, if we are to continue to exist we need people to step into the open positions and for people to come back home.
We aren’t talking about just any jobs, but jobs with meaning. Jobs that are about our legacy and positive impacts for the community, planet, region. You’re doing it for the people that have lived here since time immemorial and generations to come.
Right now, we are already hiring for a number of positions, and we’re looking at an influx of jobs over the next year or two that we absolutely cannot fill without more people stepping up. It’s hard work but it’s highly rewarding.
And it’s not just jobs, there’s different routes that everybody can go. There’s internships, entry level and director level positions, seasonal work, work out on the land and waters, opportunities to start a business, or support entrepreneurs, lead workshops, trainings, summits and more.
So, if you’re interested in any of this work, come check us out. Come read the website. Come join us at a digital or in person gathering, find out what SSP is doing in your community, and see if you can get involved. All ages and levels of experience are welcomed.
In 2022, we are ready to welcome you.
• The Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a dynamic collective uniting diverse skills and perspectives to strengthen cultural, ecological, and economic resilience across Southeast Alaska. It envisions self-determined and connected communities where Southeast Indigenous values continue to inspire society, shape our relationships, and ensure that each generation thrives on healthy lands and waters. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can also be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.