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Opinion

Bridging social divides: how can decolonising knowledge help?

Published on 23 April 2021

Image of Peter Taylor
Peter Taylor

Director of Research

Image of Crystal Tremblay
Crystal Tremblay

University of Victoria

In many ways and in many countries we seem to be witnessing greater social divides driven by race, gender, class and financial inequities. Powerful evidence of these were brought into sharp focus by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. Throughout 2020 we also saw the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbating inequalities and how it is having its greatest impacts where social divides are greatest. A key issue to examine is the role of colonial power. Why is decolonising knowledge so important if social divides are to be bridged?

We brought this question to a roundtable at the end of last year at the Victoria Forum with about 30 participants, whose thinking was stimulated by Kathryn Toure and Martha Mutisi, IDRC (based in Nairobi, Kenya); and Paul Lacerte, Raven Indigenous Capital Partners (BC, Canada).  Many other people and organizations are asking similar questions and we learned a lot from the Victoria Forum conversation which we will try to share some insights from here.

We humans frequently fail to recognise or value knowledge needed to address some of our greatest challenges, because of where it resides and who has generated it. There is no one way of knowing. Wisdom exists in every community. To decolonize knowledge, we must recognize people as knowers of their experience and weave together knowledge from various sources, including from Indigenous and local knowledge systems. The most compelling narratives are shaped by multiple perspectives and different forms and expressions of knowledge, and by working in a spirit of inclusion and in participatory ways.

These views reinforce messages about decolonisation arising from other conversations, for example in global health circles. Leanne Brady, at the 5th Africa Health Economics and Policy Association in Ghana (2019), observed that her role as a health policy and systems researcher is to “make room for different perspectives” and “work with those multiple perspectives, rather than just create a hierarchy”. This view is reinforced by Renzo Guinto (2019): “Territorial colonialism may be long over, but the colonization of the mind, of culture, of domestic politics and of the economy continues and reparations are yet to be realized”.

To learn and change, we need to invest. Multiple, diverse knowledge systems need a strong financial and economic base which allows them to grow. But change isn’t easy. We all need to unpack what we have learned about who we are, the powers and privileges we hold, and our ideas and practices of “leadership”. We need to recognize and break down barriers and walls between us if we are serious about change. And invoke and experience connection and belonging on this shared journey.

Victoria Forum speaker Carol Anne Hilton, founder and CEO of Indigenomics, and several others including our panelist Paul Lacerte, are calling for a decolonization of the global economy, and the development of tools such as the indigenous economic freedom index – “to utilize metrics, money and meaning to facilitate de-risking the perception of the investment into the Indigenous economy…and supports building an ecosystem, a constellation that requires that expansion and inclusion of Indigenous world view”.

What actions are needed?

We identified, in our conversation at the Virtual Victoria Forum, five core ways through which we believe it is possible to make progress in decolonising knowledge.

  1. Ensure solutions are shaped/created by those who experience the challenges being addressed, if they are to succeed and be sustained.
  2. Establish reflective spaces for inclusive processes, in which participants are aware of and interrogate their privilege and how they can use it to make change that disrupts inequalities. Check and challenge policies and practices that discriminate.
  3. Find connections and ways in which we belong with each other, as communities, on this shared journey towards
  4. Appreciate that the benefits of decolonising knowledge are not obvious to everyone. Nor are they desired by those who believe they may “lose” status or privilege. Through sharing evidence and experience, demonstrate the value of decolonised knowledge for liberation and a more positive future for all.
  5. Bring needed resources that include:
    • Patience, humility, time – to allow for the discomfort of “unlearning” and the wonders of continually “relearning” with others
    • Transparency about how we live and model diversity and inclusion in our activities and in our organizations and communities
    • Courage to interrogate history and privilege and to work toward change
    • Power sharing – be ready to give up what we hold individually and realise the outcomes will ultimately be positive for all
    • Recognition of people as knowers of their own experience
    • Financial investment where needed; to decolonise knowledge, we need also to decolonise wealth – this is what economic reconciliation looks like.

But there is a sixth challenge, which might be the hardest in practice. Ultimately, this gets personal. We need to work on ourselves: “Am I OK with the status quo? Am I part of the problem?”. As we find the answers to these questions, we need to personally stand up and work with others in our organizations and in our communities.

Our final message was and is a clarion call for action. We have an opportunity at this stage of a global crisis to imagine a world different from the one we have now. We need to work with a sense of urgency, now together, if we are serious about transforming knowledge and transforming lives.

This blog post is based on a Virtual Victoria Forum session on exploring social divides focusing on decolonising knowledge, co-hosted by Peter Taylor of IDS and Crystal Tremblay of the University of Victoria. Held in November 2020 its purpose was to identify contemporary and urgent environmental, economic, and social challenges and pathways towards genuine transformations.

The webinar recording is available here for viewing.

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