Theme 3: On power, privilege and possibilities

by Jamie Gamble, Penny Hagen, Kate McKegg and Sue West.

This blog is part of the Innovate for Impact blog series and explores the importance of respecting culture, building trust and shifting power when working in partnership with communities.

This theme was written before the terrible events of March 15, in Christchurch, New Zealand, when 50 Muslims attending Friday prayers at two Christchurch mosques were gunned down whilst at prayer, with many others wounded.

These events have surfaced tensions that exist between espoused societal values of tolerance and inclusion and the lived experiences of those who experience every day racism, because of their ethnicity, religion or difference to the dominant culture in our societies.

In the days that have followed the attacks, countless commentators of colour including Muslims, Māori and migrants have been calling for the connection to be made between this act of white supremacist terror and colonization. Early colonizers believed white people were superior to people of colour, so much so they killed and subjugated them.

The person who killed 50 Muslims did so because he believes white people are superior to people of colour. Māori lawyer Moana Jackson points out, “In many ways, today’s white supremacists are the most recent and most extreme colonizers.” A painful bridge we will have to cross if we really want to stop this kind of violence is to recognise that this is not the first time we’ve seen this scale of white supremacist violence. In fact, many of our modern nations are built on the exercise of subjugation and violence towards people of colour.

As commentators Marianne Elliott, Brannavan Gnanalingam, Laura O’Connell-Rapira, Lamia Imam, and Jess Berentson-Shaw asked recently, do we have the courage to look beyond the surface to face the fuller, more complex story of our colonial history and its remnants, which continue to shape our countries today?

How does all this link to social innovation?

In the world of wicked problems and constrained resources, our focus quite naturally tends to be on those that bear the burden of inequity and sustained disadvantage – because it is where the patterns of disadvantage are playing out in the most obvious ways. And so there is an enormous amount of work that is being done in these communities globally, everyday. Work in which someone that doesn’t look, sound, live, nor understand these communities are sent to make judgments, assess their conditions and progress, and render decisions about what the treatment or solution should be to solve their problems.

The distance between those with authority to make decisions and those bearing the consequences of those decisions has resulted in an extraordinary and continuing record of policy failure. The imposition of a way of thinking, a way of being, on another hasn’t served humanity or the planet well.

This approach has never worked, and our communities have been telling us for a long time that this is not what they want or need, yet those with power and privilege in our funding systems haven’t been listening to their voices.  The systems we have for funding and delivering services and programmes continues to be lead by people with substantial advantages, making assumptions and decisions about people they know very little about.

What might we do about this?

In the aftermath of Christchurch, there is much talk about the power of love, with many referring to Martin Luther King’s quote “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” But as Moana Jackson reminds us, Martin Luther King also said that while love might prompt a desire for change, the change itself could not occur without the practical exertion “of weary feet and sharp minds.” It involves active toil and an honest analysis of historic cause and consequence, as well as the willingness to dream different dreams.

We live in a time where Indigenous populations across the world – are exploring ways to decolonise, indigenise and re-imagine knowledge theory and practice in every academic discipline and practice that is informed by their world views, including evaluation and design (Chilisa, 2012). Many of the worlds colonized and marginalized peoples are working to claim back lost identities and as evaluator and author Bagelle Chillisa says they are working to “…create spaces for significant self-hoods as well as writing back and talking back to the West in modes couched in the histories, cultures, linguistic and life experiences of their cultures” (Chilisa, 2012).

Begin by acknowledging our own power and privilege

For those of us who are non-indigenous, or not from the communities we work in, if we are to have any hope of engaging authentically in a trusted relationship, we have to begin by acknowledging our own power and privilege and our own history, in relation to those we work among and with.

We have always been ‘in relationship’ with these communities, we just rarely acknowledge this. And many of us are poorly equipped to act well in relationship with many of the communities we find ourselves in.  Many of these communities, particularly indigenous communities, were literally dehumanised by colonisation.

So, our relationship has not been a healthy one, it’s been brutal, and the abusive nature of that relationship continues when we don’t accept our own position and power.  Often we work with the best of intentions, trying hard to work in participatory, or collaborative ways. But even when (and perhaps because) there are good intentions to do the right thing, there often are no fundamental shifts in power imbalances between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples or the systems within which we operate. Unwittingly, our attempts to do the right thing may actually serve to further displace, overshadow and mask indigenous efforts, causing more harm.

In New Zealand, there has been recent vigorous criticism of co-design and evaluation processes and methodologies that are intended to change systems for indigenous communities, but are not led by, or done authentically with indigenous communities.  A colleague, Nan Wehipeihana, argues some of our so called participatory processes and methodologies, in evaluation and co-design, have been about providing “the trappings of permission” and space for non-indigenous to work in indigenous spaces. If we are to be useful allies of community and indigenous aspirations for transformation – we have to have more than good intentions.

Transformative change relies on quality relationships

Having the power to craft our futures is a genuine human desire, so only when we are truly prepared to fundamentally shift the power of who gets to decide, then we are in a place to begin a new kind of relationship, where shared values can be explored, and different ways of knowing can be embedded, privileged, centred and integrated. The quality and validity of what can emerge from an authentic culturally grounded relationship and process will be infallibly superior to what can be generated by an imposed process run by a small group of outside ‘experts’. With control in the hands of an outside expert, we simply cannot be transformative.

The potential for transformative change that is needed lies in the quality of our interactions and relationships in the first instance. Unfortunately for hundreds of years, there have been ongoing examples of trust breaking and betraying behaviours and actions on the part of dominant, non-indigenous cultures towards indigenous peoples and other communities.  For those of us working in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the USA, and other nations founded through processes and systems of colonisation, trust is in short supply among our indigenous communities of non-indigenous folks who come in as experts.

So, before we can reconcile our differences and past hurts, so that we can begin to work constructively with each other, we have to find ways to rebuild centuries of broken trust.

Alex Hotere Barnes – a NZ Pakeha writer and activist has said

“a singular formula for building indigenous and non-indigenous relationships is at best imaginary, yet full with possibilities”. “Relationship building is an ongoing process that is fluid and unfolding. It requires commitment, attention, awareness and communication. There are ‘ups’ and ‘downs’ but through it all there are tremendous opportunities to work in solidarity and to make changes that will result in a more just world for present and future generations (p14, 2013)”.

Brené Brown (Rising Strong, 2015) has developed an ‘Anatomy of Trust’ that has seven elements that have been used in the development of relationships, repairing years of broken trust between indigenous and non-indigenous communities in Canada.

Be open to new ways of thinking

Cultural and community differences are more than surface variations in style, preference, and behaviour; “and reflect fundamental differences about how people experience social life, evaluate information, decide what is true, attribute causes to social phenomena, and understand their place in the world (Hopson, 2007, p8).

And in the contemporary world, as we wrestle with ever more wicked social, scientific and ecological problems, at local and global scales, the interconnectedness of things is becoming more evident to many Western thinkers and scientists, including evaluators and co-designers (Williams & Hummelbrunner, 2011).

There seems to be a pressing need for us to open our eyes, ears, minds and spirits to the possibilities that exist for other ways of thinking and knowing because as Māori academic and scientist Kepa Morgan (2015) has recently argued, our ability to modify and understand our environments with current scientific thinking is exceeded by our ignorance of the implications.

We still live in a colonising society – where institutional racism and culturally unsafe practices are the normal way to do things. A prerequisite to being a functional and effective ally to the aspirations of indigenous communities and others who bear the burden of inequity, is to first, do no harm.

Learning to listen well, pay respectful attention, share power and sustain relationships over the long term will unlock powerful learning opportunities and fill your whole self, heart, head, soul and spirit. And hopefully this ‘way of working’ will also make a contribution to all our future wellbeing.

Insights from He Oranga Poutama

One example where a government agency opted to be more open to sharing power in an effort to sustain relationships with indigenous communities, is the developmental evaluation of He Oranga Poutama (an initiative that supports Māori wellbeing through sport and recreation).

Sport New Zealand has a long term relationship with a number of Māori communities and providers, and has taken steps towards genuine power sharing at times. Over this time, there have been some fairly major shifts and positive changes for traditional Māori sport and recreation. The evaluation of He Oranga Poutama was funded by Sport NZ, a government organisation. The programme had evolved from a focus on increasing the participation by Māori in sport to one of participating and leading as Māori in sport and traditional physical recreation at community level.

Sport NZ recognised the need for Māori concepts and principles to define as Māori participation in sport and recreation, in the He Oranga Poutama programming context. The resulting framework – Te Whetu Rēhua – acknowledges the cultural distinctiveness of He Oranga Poutama; it is based on five key values important for Māori cultural and social development. The framework became the foundation on which He Oranga Poutama’s program management, delivery, monitoring and evaluation were based.

It was a framework that came from the Māori world, to be used with and by Māori communities, as well as for the evaluation. The developmental evaluation was also grounded in Māori ways of doing things or tikanga. This process reaffirmed what Māori have been saying for a long time, that privileging Māori values and Māori ways of doing things, and holding to this in the face of time pressures, budgets, data and evidence demands, Māori models, Māori values and Māori processes work for Māori.

Reflections on shifting power, privilege and possibilities

We reflected that through the processes of entering and being welcomed into Māori spaces and places, and through the use of Māori cultural practices, our normative frames of reasoning, as evaluators, shifted. We came to see that consideration of multi-generational impacts, and the consequences for our spirits as well as the environment and the more mundane physical assets/aspects of our everyday life, were all important considerations.

They all featured in the decisions we collectively made about what value means, where our conceptions of value come from, and the legitimacy of these claims as decisions were made about what was worth doing and what was not.

Unfortunately, our experience of power sharing with indigenous communities in evaluation work, or in co-design are few. Often acceptance of different ways of doing this is only at a surface level, or at the margins. As we have noted in other work, it is far more common place that the knowledge systems of those in power are not disrupted, they hold sway and indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing are misunderstood, not heard, and even dismissed[1].

A central challenge for this work is finding spaces and ways to ‘decentre’ the cultural authority of western knowledge and practice so the opportunities that exist in the creative and transformative potential of other knowledge systems can be realised. There is an ethical imperative to uphold other cultural ways of doing things, especially when it directly affects or impacts our communities. There are many more opportunities for change, for meeting the aspirations of our communities, if we apply their own knowledge systems and processes, not those of the distantly powerful and privileged.

[1] Wehipeihana, N., & McKegg, K. (2018). Values and culture in evaluative thinking: Insights from Aotearoa New Zealand. In A. T. Vo & T. Archibald (Eds.), Evaluative Thinking. New Directions for Evaluation. 158, 93–107.

Innovate for Impact blog series

This blog post is part of a series identifying shifts the co-authors believe are emerging and important to community service and systems change. You’ll find links to the other posts (as they are published) are below.

The blog series is co-authored by Jamie Gamble (Imprint Consulting), Penny Hagen (Auckland Co-design Lab) and Kate McKegg (The Kinnect Group) in collaboration with Sue West from the Centre for Community Child Health.

More Innovate for Impact resources

Contact Sue West for Innovate for Impact blog series enquiries.

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