Where Did You Come From? Recognizing the Roots of Place and People in Stakeholder Relationships

 Nov 3, 2015    by Meaghan Guckian

Traveling to Suring, Wisconsin for the 3rd annual Northeast Climate Science Center Fellows Retreat marked the first for my time with the consortium institutions—I was a rookie if you will. As we crossed underneath the YMCA U-Nah-Li-Ya’s entrance arch, the excitement in the air was palpable; we were going back to camp, bunk beds and all. But no greeting was more welcoming than that which we received from our hosts, teachers and representatives from the College of Menominee Nation (CMN) and The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin. Following the welcome prayer, NE CSC Graduate Fellow Marie Schaefer and USDA Forest Service Tribal Liasion Dr. Jen Youngblood led us through a brief, yet powerful exercise accentuating tribal perspectives related to impending climate change impacts. For me, a social scientist amidst a room of applied climatologists, hydrologists, engineers and ecologists, the exercise was a subtle reminder of what really provides the foundation for successful stakeholder and/or collaborative relationships.

Marie and Jen charged us to describe our research to the person sitting next to us. The second task remained the same, though slightly nuanced, they asked us to reframe as if our research impacted those we loved most dearly. After a brief discussion, Marie and Jen explained that this is the lens through which many tribal members view the impacts of climate change. Tribal people have cultural and spiritual connections to nature that have transcended generations. Changes to the earth’s climate pose a serious threat to the health of the people and the tribe’s cultural resources, insofar as climate change is disproportionately threatening tribal populations. This has catalyzed collaborations between the NE CSC, CMN, tribal communities and others to address existing vulnerabilities and potential solutions for tribal communities across the Northeast.

Why perspective matters

As a social scientist interested in issues surrounding climate change and adaptation, I’m often asked and think about the principles for effective communication, collaboration and improved decision-making.  If you turn to any current climate communication guide or stakeholder collaboration guide, you will likely find that the foremost principle underscores some form of knowing your audience. Although this may present a rudimentary takeaway, it is by far the most essential, dynamic and deserving of the utmost empathy. We’ve all heard the sayings, “step into their shoes,” or “see the world through their eyes.” Although it’s easy to acknowledge these proverbial sayings, they fall short in conveying the social and temporal complexity of true perspective taking (particularly, when reflecting on tribal communities and their relationship with place).

Separating wild riceNE CSC fellows and staff help separate wild rice husks. Photo: M.Guckian

What is important to understand is that everyone operates at the confluence of a broad set of experiences, information, norms, values, worldviews, etc. that start building and shaping our perspectives from birth. For tribes, experiences and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) about the land, teachings, and cultural resources are carefully passed from one generation to the next to ensure the preservation of culture and to protect both land and people. Past experiences of self and others guide action in the future, hence a saying that was shared with us by a member of the Menominee tribe when speaking to Menominee Creation, “In order to know where you are going, you have to know where you came from…”

Starting where people are at is a loaded statement and often times puts the onus on the researcher and/or practitioner to be willing to accept a role outside the confines of typical fieldwork or data mapping—in some cases, that of a facilitator. Developing a better understanding of the individuals, people, places, and communities we aim to work with provides the foundation for finding solutions and strategies that work in parallel to the dominant values and/or perspectives that already exist within it. Thus, matching appropriate tools or solutions to the context is paramount. Working with tribal communities, this equates to identifying culturally appropriate strategies to address climate change impacts that are rooted-in-place.

For other communities, it may be identifying what strategies are in parallel to the predominant value orientation that exists within the community. What research suggests (see Wolf et al., 2012) is that starting with values and engaging your audience has been show to increase the likelihood for positive change and the durability of whatever solution or strategy is implemented.

Moving toward change

In part, starting where they are at also echoes a predominant focus of the NE CSC 3rd annual fellows retreat, and marks a recent shift towards improving stakeholder relationships by moving away from the traditional top-down solution delivery approach, to more reciprocal and collaborative relationships. For a time, scientific information (e.g. model projections, surveying) trumped any form of locally based knowledge structures, however relevant and powerful. However, there is a great deal to learn from traditional ecological knowledge that has accumulated in-place and been passed from generation to generation (and within generation observed variability) that may fall outside the scope of any climate projection model. Tribal communities provide the paradigmatic example of deep ecological place-based knowledge, through TEK. By marrying established scientific information (e.g., climate model projections) with TEK (see here for guidelines for considering TEK in climate change initiatives), there is potential to tap into vital resources and the production of more usable climate science and continue moving toward a process outlined as the coproduction of knowledge.

As researchers intimately studying the impacts presented by climate change, we understand urgency and uncertainty. By starting where people are at, identifying existing values and cultivating knowledge of place, we may, in turn, generate more usable climate science in addition to establishing the foundation for better informed, more appropriate and durable solutions and/or adaptations to climate change.  Before venturing into your next stakeholder or collaborative project, it may prove fruitful to walk yourself through an exercise similar to the one presented by NE CSC Fellow Marie and Dr. Jen Youngblood.

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NE CSC Fellows listening to Chris Caldwell, Director of Sustainability Development Institute at CMN | Photo: M.Guckian