0 9 min 3 weeks

A new national nonprofit is teaming up with the Red Lake Nation in northern Minnesota to boost culturally specific pet care efforts as part of a broad movement to increase diversity and equity in the animal welfare industry.

Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE), a Baltimore-based nonprofit, provides education and resources to communities of color across the U.S. in an industry that is largely dominated by white people and, in some cases, has inflicted harm or created deep distrust. Red Lake is the second community in the U.S. and the first in Minnesota to collaborate with CARE since it launched in 2019.

“Animal welfare tends to come into communities with the assumption that there’s nothing going on,” said James Evans, who’s worked for years with animal welfare nonprofits through his Maryland-based communications firm and now leads CARE. “Communities that need help, we believe, are quite capable of helping themselves if they’re supported in the same way that white organizations sustain other white organizations.”

Veronica Kingbird-Bratvold and other Red Lake Nation tribal members have been volunteering for years in a grassroots, community-led effort called Awesiinyag Are Loved, delivering straw, donated pet food and other supplies across the northern Minnesota reservation — one of seven Anishinaabe communities in Minnesota. “Awesiinyag” is the Anishinaabe word for animals.

“Our biggest focus is keeping animals with their families if possible so [we’re] getting them the resources they need,” she said. “We’re trying to uplift each other, and that’s what is really powerful.”

In Red Lake, 250 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, Awesiinyag Are Loved has relied on donations, bake sales and proceeds from selling sweatshirts. But now CARE, which has seven employees, is helping to establish a formal nonprofit that can collect more donations and grants. It also raised $2,000 for Awesiinyag Are Loved and is creating signs and assisting with social media.

“We’ve dreamed about this but we all work full-time jobs. … [CARE is] easing the burden by supporting us,” said Kingbird-Bratvold, an assistant professor at Bemidji State University. “They’re just letting us dream what we want this to be like.

“We’re so used to not asking for support. We’re so used to doing things on our own.”

Awesiinyag Are Loved hosted its first pet clinic in Red Lake this week. More than 170 dogs and cats were spayed and neutered or treated through wellness checkups by the Minnesota Spay Neuter Assistance Program and the University of Minnesota Student Initiative for Reservation Veterinary Services.

Kingbird-Bratvold hopes it becomes an annual event after seeing the need for those services. (Go to bit.ly/3gbCOwQ or careawo.org/donate to donate to Awesiinyag Are Loved.)

Over the past five years, the group’s volunteers have delivered straw to keep pets warm and other supplies and have helped transport injured or stray cats and dogs. Their work is also culturally specific, providing pet care education in an occasional newsletter, with tips on tick and flea medication alongside Anishinaabe teachings and language.

“It’s really inspiring … going to places that are seldom recognized and finding all these amazing people doing things for their communities,” Evans said.

For years, animal welfare groups asked Evans’ firm how to reach more people of color, but the organizations themselves were mostly run by white people.

So he and his team created CARE, which is run by people of color who operate in a way that is “the opposite of white saviorism,” he said. Their approach is to listen to what communities are already doing for animals to see how they can assist, he said.

“We’re going in to help them support challenges they’ve already identified themselves,” Evans said. “There is no one in this field attempting to bring BIPOC issues to the front and center.”

Amid the racial reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year, nonprofits and foundations across Minnesota have shifted their focus to racial justice work, hoping to boost the number of employees of color as well as people of color in leadership roles, on boards and in volunteer ranks.

While there is no up-to-date data on racial disparities in Minnesota philanthropy, there are vast gaps in philanthropic support nationally for organizations focused on communities of color. Only 0.23% of philanthropic funds go to Native American-led nonprofits, according to the First Nations Development Institute.

“When you’re talking about funding to BIPOC-led organizations that are simply trying to use their community wisdom to solve community problems, it is easier for a white woman or a white man to come into a BIPOC community and be fully funded,” Evans said. “But the philanthropic community does not trust, unfortunately, the demographic they are most often trying to target for assistance.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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