Solidarity Case Study: A Conversation with Don Ragona

Solidarity Case Study: A Conversation with Don Ragona - Proteus Fund

The Proteus Fund has been working with frontline organizations and philanthropy to better support solidarity as a value and strategy for moving towards representative, inclusive democracy.

To inform these efforts, the following case study features questions and answers with Don Ragona, the Director of Development and General Counsel of the Native American Rights Fund on the value of intentional solidarity work. Don reflects on a series of racial justice leader convenings called “Solidarity Summits” and their impact. Solidarity Summits are cross-community gatherings that foster and support solidarity across racial justice leadership and organizations.

The following is lightly edited for length.

How was the trajectory of learning at the Solidarity Summits, where you worked to foster solidarity between racial justice leaders and communities?

I’m a huge fan of the Summits and the whole Solidarity Summit concept. By the time I joined the second meeting of the cohort, people were familiar with each other. What I found was that it was a very intimate setting, so very quickly, you started to feel very safe. They asked us to bring something very personal to the meeting, explain that and share that. You realize that very quickly that everyone that was in that program pretty much was in the same boat that you were, dealing with almost identical issues but within their own communities. You were able to realize, wow, I’m listening to them speak…you could substitute their community for my community, their experiences for my experiences, a lot of them were really similar. So, you were able to build that trust up pretty quickly and feel comfortable pretty quickly, and then delving into some of the issues, identifying who’s really being the antagonist here and who are the protagonists here. Quickly finding out we have far more in common, and we’re given the opportunities to work with each other and that happened a lot quicker than if we tried to do these things on our own.

When the summits concluded, what did you come out of that experience with?

I was in the first and third cohorts, so I got to participate in two. What I took away from this I have carried over here. The Native community isn’t large, though we have large land bases, but we’re really a small community compared to the rest of the country. You can’t really believe the census numbers, because Native people aren’t big fans of censuses. So if the census says we’ve got 4-5 million people, we probably have double that. Even then, it’s still a small percentage compared to everyone else in the US. What the summit meant to me is that we can’t really adequately or effectively address the issues within our community around the country without allies, without building an understanding of what other people in other communities are going through…a prime example of that is voting rights. We now model coalitions among other Native groups, and we’ve started building coalitions with other groups…because it’s so effective when we do this.

What are some of those values or talking points that you share out with people who were not at the summits, to talk about how your work was impacted?

It’s just that, giving that example. Saying that if we are doing our work separately and apart. There will be influencers saying that we shouldn’t be doing work together, but really we should because we have far more similarities than differences…we have a common foe that is trying to keep both our communities suppressed, whether through redistricting or voting rights legislation. We’re allowing them to do that by fighting each other or ignoring each other and only trying to address the problems in our community alone, instead of going out and speaking one on one or speaking with organizations and saying we can be more effective collaboratively. We’ve been able to be successful in this work, and we’ve been able to grow partnerships with broader communities of color.

What has grown within yourself and within your work because of the summits?

Fairly profoundly. As a younger man, I started to get involved with the American Indian movement, and a lot of the people I grew up around were family members. They were always big on this, but it was never in a formal way about building allies. But they always recognized we were too small of a group to do this by ourselves. Most of us are separate communities. I ignored that when I was younger and said, this is our issue, our problem. I didn’t keep my eyes open, and I didn’t travel and have those kinds of experiences. But after the summits and meeting one on one with community leaders across the country, it was like, wow, these guys are just like us. There is no difference. So, now the idea of keeping a homogeneous fight, like ‘this is only an Indian fight’, doesn’t happen.

We actually brought the Native and Sikh community in NY together for an exchange, and we realized we’re going to be a lot more powerful together. We needed to look at them as a different tribe and not as something foreign or unrelatable.

When solidarity works well, what does that look like?

It works well because our communities start to engage with each other. We respect each other, and we support each other. But we don’t become each other. We get to still stay who we are, but we share. We invite folks to do things together, but it’s not this thing of the American melting pot. We get to stay who we are, and they respect us for that and vice versa. So, we welcome people to observe and hang out, but we don’t necessarily want to recruit new Indians and they don’t want to recruit new Muslims or Sikhs. We do want to know that we’re here to support one another.

When George Floyd was killed, this had nothing to do with us, but Minneapolis has a large Native American population. To help heal and support that community, a group of Native women jingle dress dancers went to the spot where George Floyd was killed, and they performed a jingle dance. That’s a healing dance. It’s a form of a medicine ceremony, to show they supported the community and were there in solidarity. This may seem like a different issue, but the American Indian Movement actually got started in Minneapolis because of what the cops did back then.

They were abusing Native people and killing and beating them, much the same way George Floyd was. So that’s why AIM started. That memory stayed alive, so the Native community thought we’re going to go and offer them something very personal because they are us in this circumstance. That very same thing happened to us. And if we turn our backs now, that’s pretty bad.

If every movement organization had dedicated resources for solidarity practice, what do you think would change about how folks build policy, advocacy, or other organizing?

A lot could change. If communities were unified on particular specific issues, this could change everything. We don’t do this work to the exclusion of the white community. What we’re looking for is our equal share. We would have a better chance of winning on issues that are important to all of us. Right now, a lot of divide and conquer is still happening.