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Community Science with Indigenous Communities

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By Raj Pandya, TEX Director


As much as anything, I hope that TEX can be a group of people learning and doing community science together. Learning together means sharing ideas, even ideas that aren’t perfect, so that we can improve them together.  In that spirit, I offer this blog of imperfect ideas, framed by a very imperfect introduction.  Enjoy, please, and improve on it.

Here is the imperfect introduction, based on two ideas:

  1. Community science means working with all communities, including Indigenous communities.
  2. Working with Indegenous communities can teach us things that can apply to community science in general.

One of the Science to Action scientific sessions at the most recent AGU Fall Meeting (PA52A: Native Science: How Indigenous Perspectives Inform Environmental Science and Policy, co-organized by Ryan Emanuel, Heather Lazrus and Karletta Chief) dug into this topic in some detail. The session was accompanied by an informal mixer, and that event was as important for learning as the session.  The upshot of both sessions: science and Indigenous knowledge have a lot to gain from a conversation together, especially if they can approach the conversation from a position of mutual respect.

  1. What does that mutual respect looks like? Speaking as a scientist, I thought it would be useful to offer five tips for scientists like me who want to work well with Indegenous communities.Let go of the assumed epistemic superiority of mainstream science. One scientist who interviewed for a TEX project said they’d like to work with cities so that the cities could see that using science was the only reliable way to make decisions—a textbook expression of assumed epistemic superiority. A better approach is what I’ve heard two people I admire say, essentially: “Science is useful, and it isn’t the only useful thing.” Or, a slightly different take: “Science is necessary, but not sufficient.”
  2. Understand the difference between collaboration and extraction, and do collaboration. Dominique M. Davíd-Chavez, one of the presenters at the AGU session that got me thinking about all this, analyzed more than 100 published studies connecting climate science and Indigenous knowledge. She found the majority could have been done more collaboratively, to put it as gently as possible. I was impressed, though, that Dominique didn’t just diagnose the problem; she also offered a strategy for making work more collaborative. It took the form of 10 questions you can ask in the creation and management of the project.  For starters, “Are Indigenous community members included in the decision to initiate the study?”
  3. Remember that how we do things is as important as what we do. A simple example: Don’t design sessions that force moderators to interrupt elders.  Reflecting on the experience of this very session, in which all speakers were held to strict 15-minute time slots, one of the panel moderators later said, “I felt pressure from ‘the system’ to adhere to our strict timeline for a wide variety of reasons, but I felt equally if not more compelled to give due respect to those who came to share their work, especially our elders. In the end it turned out great, the but tension reminds us that it’s not easy to inhabit these two spaces simultaneously.”

    That last sentence, about inhabiting two spaces, reminds me to remember empathy. Many of us in science are navigating an experience that blends where we come from with where we are now, and sometimes that blend is tense.  For some the tension is greater, and it is worth remembering that my experience of science isn’t the same as that of others.

  4. Question historic approaches. Just because it’s the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean it’s working. Sometimes, historic practices grew out of times with a lot less equity than we now strive for, and it’s all too easy to unwittingly perpetuate that inequity.

    At minimum, historic approaches are usually associated with a dominant culture, and don’t always welcome other cultures. Fifteen-minute slots for all speakers in a session is one example.  A tougher example: The night before the scientific session, Karletta organized a mixer for people in the session.  As I was on my way to the mixer, I met an old friend. He mentioned he’d gone to a formal diversity reception, but felt it was too big and too self-congratulatory. Ouch. That was my organization’s reception.  He wanted to organize a less formal event for Latino and Latina scientists—a place to talk about their experiences in science, offer mentoring and advice, and build their community. Not to separate themselves from the rest of the organization, but to explore together how they could connect the gifts they have to offer from their unique culture and identity with the broader science community on their terms, in ways that enrich everyone while maintaining their ownership.  When I got to the event Karletta organized, I saw what that more nuanced vision of diversity looked like first hand.

  5. Don’t get so focused on “drilling down” that you lose site of the bigger goals. This came out during the TEX project launch workshop. To me, it was a reminder not to forget that science, maybe especially Earth science, is part of our attempt to live well with the planet and all its living creatures. Earth sciences share that goal with Indigenous systems, but Indigenous systems seem to do a better job holding that goal in mind. For me, this is an especially important learning opportunity for science, and a good reason (although not the only one) for mainstream science to abandon its assumed epistemic superiority.


One thing I think I’ve learned from working with Indigenous communities, and from my own experience with my family in India, is the power of a story to signify a set of complicated, interconnected ideas.  So, I’d like to close with a true story that I think says many of the things that I learned in this session.

A former intern, Casey Thornborough, had the high and low temperatures for all state capitals memorized by the time he was 10 years old. In his junior year of college, he was doing research in a large, national lab in the heart of the country, and wanted to connect that work to concerns in Indian Country.  At the time, despite almost 300 scientists on the lab’s staff, not one was working in Indian Country.

Casey’s story reminds me that community science is about asking a whole set of important questions. Questions about what counts as good, worthwhile work, how you choose that work, how you do that work, where you work, and perhaps, most importantly, why you are doing the work in the first place.

mgoodwin editor

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