Spring of 2020 was drastically different than any of us could have predicted. Evolving circumstances required many nonprofit organizations to shift focus and priorities almost daily. As Burners Without Borders (BWB) assessed how to respond, the scale and scope of the disaster was unlike anything we had seen before. In this map of activity, BWB played a role that we’re familiar with — filling gaps, testing solutions, and bridging groups that were working in different regions and with diverse communities throughout the United States.
BWB often adds value in our partnerships as a trustworthy community resource, connecting collaborators throughout and across our networks. Such was the case in our work with two organizations: Get Us PPE (GUP), a nonprofit national organization that delivers personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline workers who need it most, and Protect Native Elders (PNE), a charitable intertribal organization working to provide rapid relief support to indigenous communities fighting COVID-19.
These organizational partnerships are seeded through individual relationships. We at BWB are grateful to be formally recognized as partners of Protect Native Elders, and for the good work we may continue to support.
Trust is built: BWB, PNE, and GUP started with a foundation of trust in the alignment of our missions in March and April 2020 as the pandemic first hit the United States. We all went into our COVID-19 response work with the purpose of helping. Marketing and branding were not on the table.
Within Get Us PPE, dozens of decentralized databases dropped their organizational affiliation to coalesce under GUP in service to our mission of gathering and sharing comprehensive data. The decentralizing of project ownership and focus on the critical task at hand clearly demonstrated our shared community values. All contributors went into it for the right reasons; we were able to trust each other, and because of that we made a difference together.
It has been important to acknowledge that we at Burners Without Borders (and GUP) don’t know how to be the most helpful to Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is not our lived experience and we are not experts in the needs of Indigenous communities. We know that those most affected by crises are the experts in what they themselves need.
Because of this, our relationship is inherently agile and reactive to feedback from our partners at PNE. Protect Native Elders approached BWB with inquiries and campaigns around a wide spectrum of critical needs: food supplies, PPE, water systems, vehicle procurement. In service to and centering the voices of those most affected and therefore most knowledgeable about community needs, our ears were open wide for ways to be additive, supportive, and reactive to changing information.
As BWB started to work collaboratively and partner with PNE, we were able to advise some strategies, vet and verify accountability, and also act as a champion to validate PNE and prioritize Indigenous communities within the GUP affiliate system.
When first enrolling PNE into the GUP affiliate program (to access funding and supplies), there were some obstacles in the data-sharing process that GUP needed to verify before sharing work and resources. During those first four months in spring and summer of 2020, they were able to be vetted into the system (leading to critical support for communities throughout the US) through their relationship with BWB.
To-date, Protect Native Elders has distributed more than $1.3 million in PPE and critical supplies. Out of that, $250,000 worth of PPE was distributed in partnership with GUP. We have been humbled to play a small part in service to these grassroots initiatives.
But this story of partnership is ultimately not about the metrics. The story is much richer than a set of numbers. While we often think of organizations as entities, in grassroots volunteer work those organizations are mostly represented by individual people, and by the trust developed through personal relationships. Each relationship stands on the shoulders of organizational resources, but those resources can only go as far as the trust built allows us to access and share those resources. In BWB we sometimes refer to this as “moving at the speed of trust.” In coalition and movement building, we find that we can grow our impact only as quickly as we can build trust.
Want to learn more about relationship building in civic impact? Find resources and watch a recording of BWB’s Mutual Aid Panel from May 2020.
Cover image of Protect Native Elders logo and Burners Without Borders logo, 2021