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ExplorINg Decolonization

May 31, 2022

“Decolonization is work that belongs to all of us, everywhere. It asks us to think about our relationship with Indigenous lands that colonizers have unjustly claimed, re-defined and repurposed all over the world. It asks us to embrace responsibility as opposed to accepting fault. Lastly, decolonization is a path forward to creating systems which are just and equitable, addressing inequality through education, dialogue, communication, and action.”

For the last few years, I have been trying to understand what it means to decolonize the way I hold myself as a leader in workspaces. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the process yet, but this is what I have learned so far:

Colonization is a process that strictly quantifies resources and knowledge, controls value, and defines worth to take and retain power. While we normally think of this at a high State/Nation level, it is successful because it radically influences all relationships from the individual to the Nation level. In workplaces, this shows up in

– In how we relate to each other and power dynamics. Specifically when conflict occurs and how power shows up in that situation.

– Strict and linear processes that require compliance

– One directional obligations

– Dehumanization of individuals and their needs

– Expectations around time

– Hierarchy in decision making

– Hiring practices and what we value on in terms of experience

Decolonization at the highest level considers how structures and systems need to change and give up power to support Indigenous peoples’ prosperity and Nationhood. We can use that as a guiding philosophy in our practices to transform our approach to work:

1. Moving from Rights to Obligations

This does not mean that we put our needs aside, rather that we filter our approach through what obligations we have to: ourselves, our communities, and our partners. In the below diagram, there is a recognition that Maslow’s pyramid of needs came from Blackfoot teachings. While Maslow, had self-actualization as the pinnacle of the human experience, the Blackfoot, had it as a foundational element from which we build from ourselves and into caring for community, and ultimately using those as building blocks to grow our culture. This perspective moves our obligations from those of “individualistic” to those of “community”. My understanding of this is that to approach community work well, we need to do the work to understand ourselves, how we show up, what power we hold, and where we are disempowered. By doing this, we can understand the way we show up that might be violent to people and what we need to be successful. When we have this awareness of the power and power structures that we carry with us, we can then understand what we need to do to show up for our communities and partners in healthy ways.

From experience, when this work is not done, people often unintentionally hurt others by using power structures to delegitimize needs and excuse the harm that they cause as not their issue but rather the other person’s fault. In this process, they are enacting colonial processes of quantifying whose knowledge and experience are more valid, controlling whose value is more important, and defining whose needs are worth more. Decolonization starts with us all considering how we do that and how that shows up in our relationships.

2. Relinquishing control and ownership

Strict control and a sense of ownership are very common in workspaces. This shows up in over-defining projects, roles, and responsibilities, who gets to make decisions, when and how people are engaged, complaints processes, policies, project deliverables, partnerships, consultation, etc. I was recently told by an Elder “don’t give them all the answers Laura, it takes away their autonomy to define the process and their roles for themselves”. At work though, it can be incredibly unsettling to go into projects without clear deliverables and timelines. To balance this, I have been trying to reconceptualize what is “mine” within work and instead center on who will be using the thing that I am helping create. In doing that, I give up complete control and instead have to trust to process and accept that it will be uncomfortable and not always highly defined. Below is a graphic that shows a ladder of participation. In traditional work, the lower four levels (consultation, informing, education, coercion) are common. An act of decolonization is to consider how the upper levels (co-production, co-design, engagement) can be incorporated into all processes including the creation of policy, procedures, and strategic plans.

3. Centering all conversations in reciprocal relationships and collective decisions

At the center of decolonial work is acknowledging that systems and structures have been created to reinforce power and create weapons for power holders to use to enforce compliance. Currently with the “great resignation” employees are reminding employers that relationships and obligations are two-directional. The first step is acknowledging that no matter your identity, you do hold more power in some situations and the second step is noticing how you use power within your relationships. Once that is done, you can start to understand how you can approach work, projects, and staff in a way that encourages collective ownership and decision-making. For leaders, this is a very vulnerable process because it means that we give up control over things that we are accountable for. For others, this can be an uncomfortable process because it means acknowledging the harm we might have caused our colleagues.

Here are some tips to undertake centering conversations in reciprocal relationships and collective decisions:

– Next time you are in a meeting, start by asking a person how they are and if they have done anything for themselves lately, etc.

– In a partnership meeting, dedicate a large chunk of time to simply introducing yourselves.

– If you are safe enough, be vulnerable by sharing how you are doing and what your process has been in learning.

– When making a decision, plan for time to send the reasoning and thought process to your team and ask for any nuances you might have missed

– When creating something, don’t over commit to it and invite other teams members to make meaningful and extensive changes if needed

– Apologize when needed

– Make time for collaboration and capacity building

Ultimately, colonization has affected everyone who lives in a colonized Nation, and therefore it is all of our responsibility to partake in decolonization. Colonization is taught in school, infused in parenting, shows up in work practices, and in all our relationships. People are uncomfortable with the work needed to understand how we have been impacted by colonization and how that has informed the way we relate to people – specifically how it shows up in how we use power.

Where to start in your decolonizing journey:

· Identify who has been the stewards of the land that you live, play, and work on and know what treaty you are on.

· Consider how you view ownership. Shift from owner to steward. Shift from control to collaborative decision-making.

· Integrate the natural world into your daily practices -> even if that means just taking a meeting outside

· When confronted with the harm you have caused, instead of reacting or making assumptions, take a moment to think, feel, and root yourself. THEN go back to the conversation with the intention of building the relationship

· Make time – to do self-reflection, to consider power structures you hold, to think and reflect

· Make more time – in projects and with processes

The work of decolonization involves radically rethinking why and how the structures we uphold exist and ultimately challenges us to rethink relationships, hierarchy, and who we think of as valid. Further listening on Decolonizing ourselves: