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Decolonizing Data for Missing and Murdered Indigenous People: Part 3

Decolonizing Our Relationship with Data

Decolonizing our relationship with data is such an important practice that I wanted to share a few ways that we at SPS work to decolonize our use of data in all of our projects-not just projects specific to indigenous populations. It is a constant practice.

As a research firm with deep and strong community ties, it has never been a question whether we should decolonize our relationship with data. The forced assimilation and removal of community voices–especially indigenous voices-from the documentation and data collection that happens in our communities has robbed all of us–researchers and community members–of the ability to see the whole story and understand the vast array of solutions to community issues like substance misuse, suicide, and domestic and sexual violence. This also means that as researchers, we could be collecting better data.

So What is Colonized Data, Again?

Colonized data looks like numbers without context, without stories, without people.

Tiana’s story (you can read the first part of her story here and the second part here) about Alaska Native people going missing in the data due to the white-washing of racial data in police reports is a perfect example of colonized data practices by law enforcement.

Colonized data looks like numbers without context, without stories, without people. It looks like randomized-control trials that try to tightly control all of the context of a program, rather than allowing for programs to vary in their implementation and lifting up the commonalities. It looks like a lack of qualitative methodology and missing stories. It looks like voices missing from decision-making tables about how and when data is collected, analyzed and utilized. It looks like participatory research that is more demanding than rewarding to our community partners. It looks like community-based participatory research projects that give 85% of their budget to a university and its administration and 15% to a community organization.

Let’s be honest: Colonized data practices run rampant in the United States. We are taught by mainstream American culture to want fast “results” to demand “answers” that are simple and actionable–without any questioning of how those “answers” were obtained and who suggested them. What sounds dramatic is what makes the news. Our stereotypes of a population are what drive our investigation of it...Do you really think that high rates of alcoholism among Alaska Native people is what drives high rates of violence against women and girls in Alaska? Think again. Look beyond the stereotype. Ask better questions. Better yet–sit down and listen.

How SPS Decolonizes Data

This is what drives our approach to decolonizing data at SPS. We listen. We take the time to understand what context is driving what issue. There is a history to everything and we listen for it.

We never compromise our relationship with a community for data. It’s just that simple. People and community and our relationships come first. If a projector funder is asking for something that doesn’t feel right to our community/client, we don’t do it.

Being strengths-based is essential. Any time we are presented by a funder with example measures or tools that are deficit framed and/or pathologizing(i.e., “what’s wrong with this person or people”), we engage in revisions or find different measures, and we make sure to explain to the funder or their evaluation team why being deficit-based is a problem. We have to disentangle the impacts of colonialism from our measures of wellness. We have to stop using deficit-oriented tools to evaluate programs that are trying to prevent the impacts of colonialism (e.g., suicide, violence, and alcohol misuse). Measure the things that the community knows are healing and protecting their people from the impacts of colonization. Measure language revitalization. Measure cultural connectedness. Measure cultural healing and wellness practices like sweats and steams and food sovereignty and subsistence practices.

We have to stop using deficit-oriented tools to evaluate programs that are trying to prevent the impacts of colonialism (e.g., suicide, violence, and alcohol misuse).

We respect the sovereignty of data. As researchers and evaluators, we hold a lot of power when it comes to funding and grant compliance. One of the most important roles we can have is to advocate for the sovereignty of data with funders and government systems that may not (probably don’t) respect the independence or sovereignty of indigenous populations. Here are some ways that we work to respect data sovereignty:

  • We have a role as an activist and/or ethical researcher to be educators and help our clients make informed decisions about what is done with their data.

  • Our role as evaluator has power and/or privilege and we can advocate for others’ rights by using our power in these settings.

  • When entering formal partnerships with community partners and funders, we establish data use/sharing agreements between all parties.

  • Understand that silence and complicity with authority is a tool of colonialism that carries through today. Often times our clients feel pressure from funders to divulge information and use certain methodologies that they know is not best for their community. It is okay to ask questions of those who hold power. Sometimes the evaluator has the power to break the silence and shift power

Attention to our ethics is essential at EVERY step of using data – from conceptualizing an issue and determining how to ask questions about it to visualizing data and disseminating findings. We must be vigilant and question ourselves at all times about whose voice might be missing, what population might be disserved, and how we might be replicating the mainstream settler colonial culture that is so well engrained into our thinking.

We take time for hard conversations and to learn how to do better. 

We are actively hiring and partnering with indigenous researchers and other researchers of color. It is imperative that data about communities be collected by people of those communities. Part of this work includes diversifying our staff and dedicating company resources to being an internship site for masters students of color who are in training to become researchers and evaluators. It also includes hiring independent contractors to work on projects if we don’t have internal staff with the experience or identity that is needed for a project and referring work to colleagues of color who are more qualified for a project.

We take time for hard conversations and to learn how to do better. Our organization has paid time set aside every month for our team to come together and discuss hard topics and determine how we can improve our work over time. We call two of these meetings our “Critical Consciousness Corner” and “How We Do What We Do.” It’s important to have the latter conversation so we actually take action and change our behaviors to avoid the trap of being performative.

We work to improve our data equity and practice equitable evaluation. Equity is a close cousin to decolonization. There is a lot of excellent work being done to outline and address equity in evaluation and data, and much of this work is being led by researchers of color. For example, check out the Equitable Evaluation Initiative and the work of Jara Dean Coffey.

This leads to another important decolonizing practice to highlight. Actively looking to what people of color have been doing before creating something new. White researchers are really good at landing on the scene and creating new things before finding out what local solutions already exist. I just witnessed white university researchers doing this last month and it has to stop. White researchers have to hold one another accountable when we see this happening. “Recreating the wheel” is settler mentality and leads to the erasure of the contributions and brilliance of people of color.

Let's Keep Learning and Do Better

It’s hard work to decolonize. And it is the best, most rewarding, and most important work to be doing. We have more work todo here at SPS. What are you doing to decolonize your relationship with data? Let us know in the comments.

If you’d like to dive in and learn more, there are brilliant people of color working to define and take action for data sovereignty and the decolonization of data. We need to lift up their work and lift it high! Such as:


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