Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Epistemology: Knowing Your Community

The Culturally Responsive Evaluation and Awareness conference in Chicago left me with awe. True awe, the jaw-dropping, mind-blowing "wow," so bear with me as I struggle to articulate the experience into a blog entry. First off to hear words like "evaluation" and "holographic" in the same sentence was certainly a new experience. These are the people that care more about the stories and "soft" qualitative evidence as the statistical quantitative data. There were large representations of native Hawaiians and New Zealand Maori people along with several American Indian tribes. The conference began with three of these tribes singing their equivalent to the national anthem and then the representatives of the visiting tribes bringing gifts to the local tribes to thank them for letting them be on their land. It was incredible to see the intentionality in these tribe members of not only thanking them for hosting, but acknowledging the land that we were standing upon. That in itself made me know this conference was going to be a game-changer.
The next 2.5 days were spent listening to speakers from many different communities of color and researchers and graduate students talking about how they had implemented culturally responsive practices in their cultural contexts and/or work. A main lesson I learned during the Sistema fellowship of tailoring your program to the community was discussed in almost every presentation. After breaking down epistemology (ways of knowing), I want to take that concept one step further: value your community. Knowledge is only the beginning. Knowledge means nothing if one doesn't use it to respond in a culturally responsive way, which requires valuing the culture(s) of the people one is working with.

I'm working on a case study for my graduate school Integrative Leadership course at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management where we had to select an initiative that exhibited integrative leadership and assess the presence/absence of integrative leadership in the initiative. While there are many definitions of Integrative leadership, our group has defined integrative leadership as the ability to bring diverse voices together to achieve collective impact ensuring all voices are represented at the executive/decision-making level. The organization we selected, Gen Next, has brought together many different stakeholders (corporations, foundations, schools, city officials, neighborhood associations) to close the nation's largest achievement gap and by doing so certainly exhibited qualities of integrative leadership at a sectoral level. However, in our interviews, we learned of contradicting viewpoints as to what extent the initiative has been successful. Mainly due to the fact that the communities GenNext is serving are feeling undervalued. A lesson I heard again and again during this conference was "It's not what you do what you do, but how you do what you do." The why of everyone wanting to close the achievement gap is certainly aligned, but when corporations and foundations want higher literacy and graduation scores, without looking at the youth holistically, particularly that of their cultural values, many community members have felt they are trying to produce worker bees. Efficiency and independence are two examples of assumed values. What if these character traits aren't valued in the communities for which Gen Next is trying to serve? In order for there to be a lasting, significant impact, one must have integrative leadership at a societal level, which requires aligning values, and that is tremendous, deliberate work. Work where people must be humble and make no assumptions and actively listen to each other without judgment. This requires giving up power and authority.

This conference discussed a lot of these dynamics that are part of Critical Theory discourse and was perfectly applicable to both my work in Sistema as well as my graduate coursework in international development. It's all about building trust in relationships and respecting the values of the community, which researchers/development practioners (especially funders) don't always do. I went into this conference with believing the ultimate indicator of social change is agency, that is the power that one has the ability and power to change his/her life trajectory. However, as we've seen in a case study in Uganda, autonomy and independence aren't necessarily values they share. Rather interdependence is part of life and it's through that interdependence that people are motivated to help one another (you scratched my back so I'll scratch yours).

As most good discussions and conferences go, I left the conference with more questions than answers, but also with a framework of knowing what types of questions one needs to ask and to make no assumptions. Aloha in Hawaiian is not just a mere greeting; it means love AND understanding. Now that's a beautiful thing. 

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