This interview with Northwest Health Foundation’s Jen Matheson, Director of Programs, and Laura Nash, Communications Consultant, is part of a series about disability-inclusive grantmaking.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.
What steps is your organization taking to ensure all of your grantmaking is fully disability-inclusive?
Initially, we focused on disability as a specific program area, but now we’re moving to integrate it with all our work. We have a program called Advancing Disability Justice in partnership with the Collins Foundation, through which we work with disability justice leaders. Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Stacey Milbern facilitated our Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative in 2017 and 2018, which was a group of 14 people of color with disabilities who met several times to talk about how we can prioritize the disability justice voice in leadership and decision-making. Following these meetings, the group put together a recommendations report for advancing disability justice in our region that informs the work we’re now doing.
Our work with disability justice leaders is ongoing as a way to educate both our staff and the organizations we work with, especially racial justice-focused organizations. We believe community-led, self-determining approaches are core to everything we do; communities should be able to determine the best solutions for themselves. This means looking at who’s leading organizations, who’s on the board. Our goal is to ensure we’re focusing on disability-led work.
As your organization focuses on disability-inclusive grantmaking, how are you also incorporating disability-inclusive principles internally?
It’s currently a learning journey for us and something we’re actively working on as we can. For example, we’ve spent some time internally talking about how people identify. We led a process using a survey tool for staff and board members to explore their thinking on self-identify, including disability and other identities.
We also think about how to ensure people have access when they come to meetings we host. For example, we ask what access supports we can provide, such as CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation) services or sign language interpreters. And we’ve incorporated a practice known as access check-ins at meetings and events, which means that we take time at the beginning to hear from individuals about any accessibility needs they may have. This both helps everyone think about how they show up and participate and creates space for people with disabilities to ask for what they need. We’ve also made our meeting spaces scent-free.
What recommendations do you have for other grantmaking organizations to get buy-in from all levels of the organization to participate in disability-inclusive grantmaking?
It’s important to lead with the voices of the leaders from communities you work with. For us, the recommendations report from the Disability Justice Leaders Collaborative gave us key places to start. We share the report with other organizations and suggest they pick even just one or two recommendations and put them into action. Look at it as movement building, a longer term investment in infrastructure and capacity building.
Disability inclusive work isn’t just a blank that can be filled in. There are people and organizations out there doing the work, and collaboration is crucial. Have the challenging conversations about who’s doing the disability work and whose identities are not represented at the table.
Why was a move toward disability-inclusive grantmaking so important within your organization?
About a decade ago, as the Northwest Health Foundation was looking at how to focus grantmaking, we picked three equity priorities that most impact health outcomes throughout life: race and ethnicity–which includes immigration/refugee status–geography, and disability, with racial justice being centered for all our priorities. We define health as having four elements (mental, physical, social, spiritual), but it’s important for communities to determine what health means to them.
A few years ago, we started tracking our giving and realized we needed to expand our focus in the areas of geography and disability. Key to this was relationship-building, so we started having conversations with the local disability community to forge connections. Through these relationships, we’ve been able to develop our disability equity work.