A word from the president: AFN needs to evolve to better serve, unify

SONY DSCBy: Margie Brown, CIRI president and chief executive officer

A year ago, I wrote about the Alaska Federation of Natives’ (AFN) progress toward becoming once again a vibrant, innovative organization that effectively represents the collective, yet broad interests of Alaska Native people. I wrote about how as a delegate in 2009, I was pleased to vote to approve AFN Resolution 09-05, which directed the AFN board to undertake a process to widen representation of its membership while streamlining its governance. Delegates to the 2009 convention believed this type of reorganization is necessary to increase AFN’s effectiveness and to make the organization relevant once again to Alaska Native people and their institutions.

Progress of reorganization has been slow in spite of the concerted efforts by a small band of people dedicated to fulfilling the reorganization mandate. We should know shortly, however, whether all these efforts are for naught as the AFN board once again takes up reorganization at its December meeting.

Responding to Resolution 09-05, for two years, a Leadership Committee represented by appointees from each of the twelve regions studied AFN, its mission and purpose, its current organization and membership. When the Leadership Committee presented a series of meaningful options on May 3, 2011 to the AFN board of directors, all of the options were rejected. Disappointingly, the AFN board did not provide any alternative solutions or identify next steps in answering the mandates of AFN Resolution 09-05.

This outcome was not acceptable to many of us who strongly feel AFN needs to be reorganized. The CIRI Board carefully discussed the matter and we made a request to the AFN co-chairs to address the situation. Some organizations, such as CITC, also gave notice that in order to justify continued funding, the AFN board needed to embrace reorganization. Faced with these demands, the AFN board met in special session and formed a new Executive Governance committee.

The Executive committee is tasked with once again bringing recommendations for reorganization and bylaw changes forward for the AFN board’s consideration at the December 2012 AFN board meeting. CIRI’s own Greg Razo was appointed by a unanimous vote to serve as board chair for this newly formed committee and he is working hard to bring this to some resolution. It is too early to tell whether Greg’s hard work will be successful, but I am grateful that he is giving it his best effort.

There is little doubt that the emergence of strong regional Alaska Native organizations has impacted AFN. Since the passage of ANCSA, Alaska Native corporations have grown into Alaska’s economic powerhouses, delivering statewide economic benefits, including jobs, revenue and resource development. Within each of our regions, strong nonprofit affiliates are also operating. All of our regional organizations have steadily enhanced the quality of life of tens of thousands of Alaska Native people.

With the development of strong regional organizations, one might wonder why AFN is needed. More than forty-five years ago, Alaska Native leaders realized that Alaska Native people needed to galvanize politically if they were to have a say in the resolution of land claims and the structure of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). They knew that a statewide organization was needed to take input from across the state and to bridge cultural and regional differences. Thus, AFN, the first Alaska Native statewide institution, was created to drive political change and, in the process, negotiate the provisions of ANCSA.

Today, AFN remains the only organization that has legitimate authority to call all Alaska Native people into a statewide convention. No regional organization has this authority. And meeting the needs of Alaska Native people statewide, expressed through the political process, remains a crucial role for AFN.

CIRI’s desires for AFN are twofold. First, we would like to see broader representation at AFN, where tribal entities and other Alaska Native organizations feel that they have a stake in the viability of AFN. Second, bringing more entities into the fold cannot be done without tightening the governance mechanisms of AFN. We suggest a smaller governance board that would oversee the organization, its budgets, and its performance and outcomes so that more accountability to its members is achieved.< When the AFN delegates at the 2009 Convention left the floor of the convention, having passed the Resolution 09-05, those delegates wisely recognized hard work is needed to restore AFN's clout and relevancy. Now, with little to show that there has been any progress made in the intervening years, a sense of urgency hangs in the air. Alaska Native people, through AFN, the very organization they created, were seated at the negotiating table when the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was crafted. With this incredible legacy to protect and with political challenges in the future, I am both hopeful and fearful: hopeful that the AFN board finds a way to ensure that the AFN remains relevant to broader Alaska Native interests, and fearful that without embracing the change demanded by the AFN convention delegates, AFN's very existence is in jeopardy.