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Ripple Effect of Support Advances Arts and Culture for BIPOC Communities

This image was created by Charity Upshaw, a Navajo artist, who participated in the 2017 Brea Foley Portrait Competition hosted by Soul of Nations.

In our 2018 Annual Report, First Nations Board Chair Benny Shendo (Jemez Pueblo) writes of the ripple effect – how one splash point of entry into water can emanate out to ever-widening ripples across the surface. He describes how that same ripple effect happens through the financial grants, training and technical assistance, and advocacy and policy work of First Nations. He wrote, “That assistance goes to small Native American nonprofits, tribal departments, and community-based organizations that, in turn, amplify that splash of help with ripples that can move across the local community and, often, across tribal nations and the U.S.”

At First Nations, we see this happening time and time again with our investments in Indian Country. One example is the impact of Soul of Nations Foundation, a nonprofit created to support Native American youth through inspiring business entrepreneurship, academic excellence, and engagement in the arts.

The organization received grant support through First Nations in 2017 and 2018, and with it, began its programming to recognize and highlight the gifts and talents of Native American youth.

Today, several years later, Soul of Nations’ co-founder and Executive Director Ernest Hill said the organization’s mission remains steadfast. It is committed to providing unwavering support to Indigenous and black artists and researchers, both within the United States and across the globe − with a new focus on Africa and Afro Indigenous community members in the Americas.

Investing in Artists

First Nations learned of Soul of Nations when Hill asked us in 2016 to sponsor Soul of Nations’ first-ever Brea Foley Portrait Competition. The next year, we provided additional funding through our Native Arts Initiative to support a second year of the competition.

Hill said the art program began as a way to increase confidence and opportunities among teens on the Navajo Nation, where there were high rates of youth suicide and low rates of high school graduation. Through a partnership with Northern Arizona University, the organization was able to connect directly with Native youth.

“We started with apparel and leading donation drives for professional clothing,” Hill said. “From that outreach, we began to ask kids directly what they wanted to be when they grew up. For many, the answer was ‘artist.’ From that point, we said, ‘Let’s create an art program.’”

Each Brea Foley Portrait Competition featured a celebration of artists at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Hill shared that he reached out blindly to First Nations for support, having heard of First Nations as a student at Overland High School in Denver, where his family still resides. He asked for funding to organize the Brea Foley Art Portrait Competition, named after Soul of Nations’ co-founder Brea Foley. The competition provided an opportunity for Native high school students from throughout Arizona and New Mexico to submit and showcase their work at the Navajo Nation Museum. A panel of Diné artists and curators from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and the Navajo Nation Museum judged their work and provided feedback.

Each year of the competition, three winning artists received a $1,000 grant and a trip to New York City, where their art was featured in a short-term exhibit at the Smithsonian. Winning artists also participated in an artist residency program, and received a tailored art curriculum of additional training and support in applying for college art programs.

Through the competition, the organization was also able to nurture ongoing relationships, continue mentoring, and get one step closer to operating an art center dedicated to exhibiting, elucidating, and documenting contemporary art and anthropology of the Indigenous communities of the Americas.

In 2020, Soul of Nations ended its outreach on the Navajo Nation due to COVID, but established a Native arts presence in New York City based on its relationship with the Smithsonian. From there, the ripple effect continued, as the organization went on to evolve its support of Indigenous and black artists and researchers, with a new focus on Africa and Afro Indigenous community members in the Americas.

Soul of Nations Today

The Soul of Nations of 2024 has four main programs aimed at helping people in Indigenous and black communities use the expressive arts to inspire and shape alternative social, economic, and technological relations.

These programs include two Soul Centers, one in New York and one in Italy. Soul Center New York is a hybrid institution that includes space for vernacular sculpture, ceremonial performance, and collective experimental healing. It is a space for showing, broadcasting, and making art public, and also, reflecting, meeting, and creating community. It aims to be a model for creating socially engaged networks, and creating new purpose for vacant spaces of historical and architectural interest in Manhattan.

At the same time, the Soul Center Italia functions as a contemporary art gallery and residency concept dedicated to exhibiting, elucidating, and documenting the modern anthropology of Indigenous American, African American, and Afro Italian communities in Florence.

The Soul Center for the Arts in Italy provides emerging and renowned Indigenous American and African American visual artists the opportunity to engage in public restorative healing practices and workshops, while unearthing Afro-diasporic historic and present regal legacies.

Hill explained that the work in Italy is centered on fostering democracy and human rights for black people living in Italy, where it can be a hostile environment for working in the arts. He said through the Soul Center Italia, Soul of Nations did not want to become just another foundation that brings people to Italy, but one that lifts up what is already there.

The organization’s Advocacy and Research Program is a hybrid fellowship designed to provide opportunities for young research fellows to identify ways of best leveraging civil society’s skills, tools, and access to investigate and monitor policy-reform strategies. The objective of the program is to empower at-risk minority communities in the policy development sector by focusing on human rights and fundamental freedoms, governance, and environmentalism.

Finally, the organization’s Green Architecture Project is a one-year hybrid fellowship between Indigenous and black women and nonbinary artists and designers to explore cultural intersectionality when it comes to issues such as access to affordable housing, urban planning, environmental policy, and traditional architectural representation.

Through the Green Architecture Project, Soul of Nations provides grants from $2,000 to $5,000 for emerging artists and architects. Here, a fellow in Bolivia inspires a child to create and build.

In addition to these programs, Soul of Nations also continues to award grants to artists for fellowship, design mentorship, and art creation.

To date, the organization has served over 300 Indigenous and other BIPOC artists, instilling confidence, improving health and education outcomes, and creating opportunities for their art to be seen, appreciated, and valued. It continues to help young people who have stepped forward to say, “I want to be an artist.”

Hill shared with First Nations his firm belief that without the initial support of First Nations, the impact of Soul of Nations would not have been as profound. “Your willingness to take a chance on our work and your enduring inspiration have been instrumental in our continued efforts.”

A Shared Vision

Hill reconnected with First Nations President and CEO Mike Roberts last fall at an event promoting First Nations’ and Nonprofit Quarterly’s Invisible No More: Voices from Native America. He provided an update on Soul of Nations and reflected on the messages in the book about the nuances of Native philanthropy.

“We have these terms in philanthropy that are killing communities because we have to fit into these colonial structures,” he said. Recognizing this, he said Soul of Nations measures its own success on its own terms, getting direct feedback from artists about their work and their impact. He said many of their artists stay with the program for multiple years, returning to mentor younger artists and adding to the sustainability of the program. “The only way to measure success is to talk to people who are actively engaged in the work.”

The impact of Soul of Nations and the strides it is making for young artists continues to ripple throughout communities, and we are honored to have played a small role in its formation that has led to ever-widening impact.

To learn more about Soul of Nations Foundation, follow the nonprofit organization on Instagram: @SoulofNations