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Transforming philanthropy: Embedding Indigenous principles in learning and evaluation

The Mastercard Foundation’s EleV initiative aims to transform education and employment systems to enable 30,000 Indigenous young people to access post-secondary education and transition to jobs and entrepreneurship. Central to this goal is the Anishinaabe concept of “Mino Bimaadiziwin,” which means “to live a good life” – one that reflects the individual’s goals and values based on their worldview.

The Mastercard Foundation’s EleV initiative aims to transform education and employment systems to enable 30,000 Indigenous young people to access post-secondary education and transition to jobs and entrepreneurship. Central to this goal is the Anishinaabe concept of “Mino Bimaadiziwin,” which means “to live a good life” – one that reflects the individual’s goals and values based on their worldview.

Indigenous learning principles in action

A group of students from Vancouver Island University (VIU) sit in a circle, outdoors, on the land. They share stories and experiences about their journeys to and through post-secondary education with a learning facilitator and with one another. The students’ connections to the land, waters, forest, families, ancestors, Elders, and each other are highlighted through tears and laughter. “Story” engages every aspect of their being: emotional in sharing the feelings of the speaker, spiritual in recognizing the connectedness of all things, intellectual in learning from one another’s experience, and physical in listening with ears, eyes, and bodies.

The learning facilitator is not merely an observer or collector of stories but is part of the circle and is personally impacted. The learning facilitator holds an important role and responsibility and must commit to a meaningful, ongoing relationship with the students. The learning facilitator will share the learnings from the stories, but in a way that recognizes and ensures the storyteller remains the true owner of their story.

As the circle – this co-created and collaborative learning space – concludes, an Elder guides everyone in recognizing the spiritual energy living within each story and the power of these stories to inspire collective action. These stories will contribute to a larger collaborative meaning-making process, providing important insights on ways to make educational policies, processes, supports, and spaces more welcoming to Indigenous students.

The EleV initiative: Supporting Indigenous youth toward Mino Bimaadiziwin

The learning facilitator is in place through a partnership with VIU and the Mastercard Foundation’s EleV (ˈe-lə-ˌVEE) initiative. The name EleV was selected in consultation with partner Indigenous communities and youth. It is a play on the words “elevate” and “élève” (“student” in French). The capital V evokes a flock of geese flying a long distance, wherein each member takes a turn in the tiring lead position – a lesson from nature on collaborative leadership.

“EleV is a commitment to Indigenous youth to support them in their pathways through education and on to meaningful livelihoods based on their values, traditions, and aspirations,” says Jennifer Brennan, head of Canada Programs for the Mastercard Foundation.

EleV aims to transform education and employment systems to enable 30,000 Indigenous young people to access post-secondary education and transition to jobs and entrepreneurship. This example of data-gathering represents the EleV initiative’s unique approach to learning. Central to this goal, as confirmed by Indigenous youth and communities, is for youth to be living “Mino Bimaadiziwin,” an Anishinaabe (Ojibway) concept that means “to live a good life,” one that reflects the individual’s goals and values based on their worldview.

This is what Mino Bimaadiziwin is about – letting our teachings guide us into the future.

Brent Hardisty

“It is important that we all work together, youth and Elders alike, to maintain our sacred ways to ensure balance in life,” says Brent Hardisty, a young artist from Sagamok First Nation in the Robinson Huron Treaty Territory of Ontario. “This is what Mino Bimaadiziwin is about – letting our teachings guide us into the future.”

The EleV work is underway through several broad regional collaborative partnerships, anchored within Indigenous communities and organizations, post-secondary institutions, and other key partners. Partners are selected specifically because they are designed and driven by Indigenous people and organizations, or because they have a deep relationship with Indigenous communities. In all cases, the focus is on partners that are taking innovative approaches to rethinking education and employment in service of Indigenous youth. The overarching goal is systems change, through testing new models for Indigenous youth success, learning about what works – and what doesn’t – and sharing stories, insights, and learnings with the broader education and employment systems to spark transformation. Each partnership has its own priorities and activities created in collaboration with EleV, Indigenous communities, youth and students, and key regional stakeholders.

Pursuing learning and evaluation through an Indigenous lens

EleV embraces efforts to embed new values and principles in learning. Typically, evaluation in the non-profit sector and for Indigenous communities is done for accountability purposes, satisfying the requirements of philanthropic or government funders rather than those of the people the program is meant to benefit. It may be conducted by a third party external to the work, ask questions not meaningful to the program or community, not inform programming in real time, and can often be an add-on or burden to those trying to make meaningful change. For Indigenous Peoples, there is the additional colonial context of evaluation and research as extractive, unhelpful, or even harmful, and dismissive of Indigenous cultures, experiences, and knowledge systems.

We want to ensure an approach to learning that is relevant, responsive, grounded in local Indigenous knowledge, and genuinely useful.

Jennifer Brennan

EleV works to flip this. “We want to ensure an approach to learning that is relevant, responsive, grounded in local Indigenous knowledge, and genuinely useful to our partners, to Indigenous youth and Indigenous communities,” says Brennan. “We’re measuring not only outputs but outcomes, and we have to do this with our partners, not for them.”

It is clear that real transformation and systems change requires a deep commitment to building relationships that allow for collective reflection, iteration, and learning.

A journey of learning about learning

With EleV, the learning came early. At first, despite prioritizing Indigenous values and ways of knowing, the initiative defaulted to a familiar, standard approach to program evaluation. This created unintended challenges, including a physical, accountability, and management separation between “learning” and “programming.” This made it difficult for learnings to inform activities in real time, or for flexibility and adjustments to the learning plan in response to changing realities on the ground. It created the dynamic of learning as add-on work rather than symbiotic, integrated, and supportive. This “default” approach served to highlight the importance of deep local cultural context and existing community relationships as key enablers in Indigenous evaluation. Coming out of this experience, all EleV partners were brought together to reflect on their learning needs, and to identify their own individual, contextually relevant approaches respecting local Indigenous values and principles.

This led to something new: EleV supported each regional partner in hiring an internal, embedded learning facilitator, someone deeply familiar with the needs and cultural contexts of the Indigenous youth and communities involved. Support was provided for each partner to engage with Indigenous knowledge-holders and build a learning framework that was culturally appropriate. The learning facilitator collaborates in real time with the “doers” to design a learning plan that is nimble, creative, values-based, and locally relevant. Deep embedded listening with youth, students, staff, communities, and others reveals rich insights that inform programming and strategic direction both within EleV and externally.

This new approach has been well received. New opportunities are being created for different types of conversations. Relationships are strengthened between Indigenous learners and communities. Learning is shifting from an add-on to a core part of the work and something that is essential for achieving our shared goals with Indigenous youth and communities.

The learning facilitator role in practice

The role of learning facilitator is a departure from traditional Western-focused evaluation and thus requires support from everyone involved: institutional leadership, Indigenous communities, and the EleV team. The EleV team is collectively learning how to decolonize its practices and move away from reporting driven purely by output and accountability to an approach that is more generative, grounded, and ultimately more impactful. EleV and partners aspire to embed learning in programming deeply and purposefully to gain real-time insights in ways that reflect the local Indigenous culture and protocols while also recognizing the long-term nature of systems change. Each partner develops their own unique learning framework based on their vision and local context, with diverse data-collection methods, research principles, metaphors, and stories.

“As a funder, it becomes critical to accept these differences and complexities and find ways to make meaning across diverse approaches,” Brennan says. To that end, the EleV initiative engaged a thought leader in Indigenous evaluation to support the network and inform its internal practices – an “initiative-level learning facilitator.”

“As a funder, it becomes critical to accept these differences and complexities and find ways to make meaning across diverse approaches.

Jennifer Brennan

The initiative-level learning facilitator supports partners one-on-one and convenes all the regional EleV partners into a community of practice (COP). The COP meets monthly to share and learn, and to openly explore and articulate the values, principles, and methodologies specific to each partner’s Indigenous context. It provides a system for ongoing mutual support and sharing, a space to explore methodological insights as some facilitators navigate systems and institutions that have a very different way of doing things.

This COP is key to pursuing learning that is meaningful while helping point the way to systems change that benefits Indigenous youth. The COP helps onboard new partners and learning facilitators and serves as an expanding and evolving network of Indigenous learning practitioners. It is critical for supporting the work of learning facilitators in their own organizations while also expanding knowledge and approaches on Indigenous evaluation.

“As an organization, it’s important to take advantage of all learning opportunities in order to grow,” says Brandon Mitchell of Ulnooweg Indigenous Communities Foundation, an EleV partner based in Atlantic Canada that is working to strengthen the relationship between the philanthropic sector and Indigenous communities. “Our strength is in our diversity, experience, and creativity. With the regions we service, we have the flexibility to develop, adjust, adapt, and reflect on learning approaches that are community focused and culturally relevant. The great thing about the community of practice is that it brings us into a network of Indigenous people and organizations doing similar work with their own approaches and methodologies. In this space we can share our ideas, successes, and our learnings.”

The COP is an important source of feedback for the EleV initiative to ensure its approach and practices are meeting the needs of all partners and enabling learning and transformation.

EleV is about embracing distinctiveness and complexity, supporting partners, and minimizing the kinds of expectations typically imposed by funders. Partners do report periodically and use learnings to plan for the next year of work, but the reporting templates are adjusted to align with their emerging learning framework while also capturing core information and data. Flexibility and responsiveness ensure that partners can shift work in response to the learnings and the evolving visions of Indigenous youth and communities. And every year, all partners are brought together for an annual meeting to reflect on their learning, share best practices and challenges, and build consensus for a vision of national transformation.

Learnings for philanthropy

Through this journey, the EleV team has gathered some key insights that are relevant to all funders working with Indigenous communities or organizations, or those that are interested in evolving approaches to learning and evaluation.

First: Moving from transactional, accountability-focused evaluation toward transformative learning that focuses on program impacts requires a commitment to building deep, open, and trust-based relationships with the organizations and communities impacted by your work.

Second: Funders need to recognize the expertise that is in the community, be clear and upfront about needs and expectations, and, most importantly, invest in and support the capacity for partners to learn and understand the impacts of the work. This requires rethinking the meaning of “validity” and moving away from far-removed external evaluators to those who are closest to the context and have the greatest stake in the depth and sustainability of the change.

Third: Learning should continually and directly inform planning, so planning processes must be highly flexible. They must be able to shift based on changed assumptions, new evidence, and ongoing direction from those whose lives are affected. Funders must be ready – and have the aligned supportive processes – to shift plans and partnerships based on what is learned.

Indigenous knowledge systems and approaches should be central to any learning and evaluation that involves Indigenous organizations, communities, and peoples.

A final overarching point is that Indigenous knowledge systems and approaches should be central to any learning and evaluation that involves Indigenous organizations, communities, and peoples. It is too easy to default to Western evaluation methods when moving from theory to practice. It is instead essential to acknowledge the vast diversity in Indigenous knowledge and worldviews across the country, and ensure approaches are grounded in local context and protocol.

The benefits of learning through Indigenous principles

A true commitment to Indigenous-led innovation requires a commitment to learning, reflection, and improvement. The EleV approach was not created in isolation. It was co-created through a number of tests, pilots, and iterations. It is achieving results. At VIU, for example, the insights gathered from deep listening with students has led to tangible changes like new supports for students, their families and communities, and students with children. It has sparked new policies in education funding and academics. It has revealed new and unique insights and fostered new and different kinds of relationships that would not have been possible through more typical evaluation approaches.

Co-creation, learning, and relationships with partners are ongoing efforts. This is a journey through new territory, one neither simple nor linear. It means embracing complexity, distinctiveness, and Indigenous wisdom in order to achieve deep purposeful learning – together. It is about literally and metaphorically sharing around the circle. Commitment instills confidence that with each iteration the learning approach is of greater service to all partners. Ultimately, the aim is to tell a richer and more nuanced story of the shared journey to transformation and success by and for Indigenous youth.

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