Navajo-Hopi Nations,Flagstaff & Winslow News
Sat, Jan. 16

Change Labs receives award for helping Native entrepreneurs
Championing Equity, Equality and Inclusion

Change Labs participants look at a diagram during a community vision project in 2019. (Photo/Raymond Chee)

Change Labs participants look at a diagram during a community vision project in 2019. (Photo/Raymond Chee)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Change Labs is the recipient of the Championing Equity, Equality and Inclusion category of the 2020 .ORG Impact Awards because of its entrepreneurial programs and commitment to connecting people to Native-owned business on the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

Public Interest Registry (PIR), the people behind .ORG domain names, launched the award last year to recognize, honor and award the incredible achievements of the global .Org community.

Jon Nevett, president and CEO of PIR said this year, it received over 500 nominations showcasing the diverse and inspiring work taking place in the .ORG community. Of all the finalists, Change Labs came out on top.

“Change Labs, they’re the best of the best,” Nevett said.

He explained the award was established to recognize efforts to further diversity, equity and inclusion in society.

“We couldn’t think of a better example than that than Change Labs,” Nevett said. “It is Native led and Native controlled and it was selected for its commitment to offering its services to Native Americans who want achieve their dreams by becoming small business owners.”

Change Labs was designed as a safe place for entrepreneurs and community members to explore and develop their ideas. Change Labs provides infrastructure — a physical address, internet access, desk space, software access, financial planning, leadership planning and other tools, which allows Native-owned small businesses to develop and grow.

Heather Fleming, executive director of Change Labs, emphasized that winning the award felt awesome, partly because Change Labs is still a relatively young organization and the possibility of gaining some funding because of the award is important too.

“It’s kinda cool that now I can say, ‘Change Labs, an award-winning organization.’ I’m really excited about it in that regard,” Fleming said. “And also, it’s been a really, really tough year. I was very proud to be able to tell our team that we have been honored with an award. It was a nice morale booster at the end of the year when things are just getting a little bit tougher.”

Fleming said when you look at philanthropy and Native communities, typically very little funding ends up in Native communities and the money is often controlled by non-Native led organizations.

“Which isn’t necessarily always a bad thing but to me and my co-founder Jessica [Stago, with Grand Canyon Trust], we want to see that model start to disappear,” Fleming said. “There’s so many wonderful Native leaders out there that there’s no reason that funders should continue [with their original model] when they can find incredible Native-led and Native-controlled organizations to give to if they are interested in supporting and enabling Native communities.”

Fleming said Change Labs is cognizant of how it spends every dollar.

“We try to track how much of our money goes to Native staff, Native contractors, Native companies versus non-Native,” she said. “Employing almost 100 percent Native people within the organization, I’m hoping it’s a signifier of change and things to come.”

Fleming said this goes as far as hiring Native artists to pair with its clients when they are designing logos or other marketing ideas through the business incubator and a Create and Elevate program.

“Because we find that most of the Native artists and designers out there are culturally cognizant and mindful of things like symbolism when it comes to icons and color choice,” Fleming said. “A lot of our clients have a Navajo word in the name of their business, so there needs to be a correct spelling and people calling up their grandfathers to check things…. Those are the sorts of cultural nuances that come from people working with Native people that can quickly get lost if you have to explain the culture significance to someone outside your culture.”

Fleming said Change Labs is not completely exclusionary, but the Create and Elevate marketing program has nothing but benefits for Native people to be supporting other Native people.

Impact of COVID-19

Fleming said the impact of COVID-19 on the communities Change Labs helps has been tough.

“Even the entrepreneurs who have been successful despite the COVID factor, there’s still the social factor that relates to all of this,” Fleming said. “We all can’t get together as a community anymore.”

Fleming said there is an emotional toll because so many people in the community have passed away or ended up in the hospital.

“It’s just fear for our elders and our community members,” Fleming said. “So, even if someone is doing quite well…even they are still suffering with the things the rest of us are suffering with — the fear, the emotional turmoil and really the isolation with the stay-at-home mandates and not being able to get together in person.”

Fleming said those who were already online have a big advantage over those whose businesses were not online.

“Couple that with, even the Change Labs staff, has trouble getting online from the home,” Fleming said. “There’s nothing we can do about that. We’re still waiting for progress to come so people can weather the storm better and navigate these issues.”

Those issues include being able to access resources, getting online, posting to Instagram, checking emails and receiving orders and calls.

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