It was a year ago that Native Forward made the decision to convert our office to a remote workspace to slow the spread of COVID-19. It was a year ago that we started practicing social distancing. It was a year ago, that our world fundamentally changed.
While I believe many of us had hoped that our world would have reached some semblance of normal again, the truth remains that our communities continue to feel the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Historically, illness and disease in the United States has taken a disproportionate toll on our communities, and the impacts of COVID-19 are no different. To date, there have been over 531,000 deaths in the United States attributed to coronavirus. Yet, according to The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S., a study by APM Research Lab, Indian Country alone has seen at least 5,477 who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
According to the same study, Indigenous Americans have the highest actual COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide. Native people have also seen their mortality rate accelerate the fastest in the past four weeks. What is more, we know those figures are not fully accurate, due to racial misclassification and the exclusion of Native communities from data sets and analyses used to make health policy decisions.
Native Forward extends its continued prayers and support to Native communities across the country working to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. Our hearts go out to the thousands who have lost family members, friends and loved ones. While we cannot physically be together, our hearts, thoughts and prayers remain with you always.
Our people are strong and resilient. We will get through this — and Native Forward remains steadfast in our dedication to empowering Native students who have been impacted by the pandemic. Our work is not done.
Our students are the inspiration and motivation for the work we do at Native Forward. In this prolonged period of stress and confusion, we are their support system and ally. Beyond the direct health threats presented by the pandemic, our students are faced with economic distress, displacement, homelessness, unemployment — the list goes on.
To support them our team established the Student Emergency Fund in March as a rapid response to support students who were affected. So far, we have raised over $210,000 to support students across the United States, made possible by the generous support of our partners Wells Fargo and NDN Collective, as well as countless individual donations. From the distributed funds, Native Forward allocated 51% for housing, 19% for food, 16% for utilities and 12% for additional support including travel expenses and household items.
We also developed and implemented the Empowering Scholars Initiative, made possible thanks to the generosity of MacKenzie Scott. The Empowering Scholars Initiative is a $1 million scholarship fund that created opportunities to fund first- and second-generation decedents, part-time students, Ph.D. candidates pursuing research opportunities and scholars taking graduate entrance exams for the first time in our organization’s 50-year history. The funding also allowed us to continue providing COVID-19 relief funding to Native students across the United States.
At the end of the last academic year, we saw a significant increase (15%) in the number of requests for part-time funding due to the impacts of the pandemic. We also supported 14% of our scholars with funding for basic necessities like food and shelter so they could continue on their educational path. These are the realities of what Native students are facing right now and it is our responsibility to ensure we are working to meet these needs. Creating the Empowering Scholars Initiative was a direct response to these needs.
Additionally, we developed College During COVID-19, a full suite of comprehensive resources and tools for our students to utilize as they navigate higher education in an online learning environment. This section of our Student Resource Center is dedicated solely to providing strategies for our students to excel in online learning platforms and resources for our students to ensure they have all the necessary tools for a productive learning environment – including internet access.
While we know that our work is not finished, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There will be a time again in which we can gather with our loved ones. Until then, Native Forward is committed to doing our part to empower our students and our communities. I am confident our best days at Native Forward are ahead of us and I look forward to sharing them with you.
Be safe and take care of yourself and your loved ones,
Lemlmtš (Thank You)
Chief Executive Officer