How to really engage with marginalized stakeholders
A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a couple of researchers, as myself, working on stakeholder engagement in STEM. Many talked about how the digital transformation, imposed by the pandemic, might be a bumpy ride at first. But, once we adapt to engaging stakeholders remotely, organization and implementation can be done even more efficiently online.
The setting of my project drove me to perceive things differently. I agree that a digital transformation might bring many benefits to the way we engage stakeholders. However, I think that the caveats are somewhat understated. In fact, the disadvantages were not mentioned by any of my peers until I cut the conversation asking:
“But, what about equity, diversity, and inclusivity (EDI)?”
My team and I work with Mayan Indigenous communities in Solola, Guatemala, researching and implementing inclusive participatory modelling. The broader aim of our work is to foster community-based decision-making, to save the very picturesque lake Atitlan from nutrient pollution and irreversible degradation.
Establishing remote or online channels of communication has been very difficult for us during COVID-19. In this light, I started thinking:
Pause. Rewind. What if COVID-19 happened before our project started?
Would it have been possible to remotely create and sustain meaningful relationships? Could we have reached out to as many stakeholders? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
Accessibility is a privilege.
While a stable internet connection is the norm to many, internet access remains limited in numerous regions and communities, especially underrepresented ones. During my stay in Solola, I noticed that good internet access was definitely a privilege. Implementing a remote stakeholder engagement process that heavily relied on internet access would’ve further reinforced the marginalization of underrepresented stakeholder groups.
Additionally, multiple key stakeholders could not read or write and were uncomfortable with technology. These participants were mainly involved in agriculture and aquaculture, and have been crucial to informing best management practices that could be successfully implemented by actors on the ground. Engaging these stakeholders via video conferencing or other digital tools wouldn’t have been feasible.
Building trust requires high-level engagement, transparency, time, and effort.
In Solola, previous stakeholder engagement approaches had often failed to effectively incorporate Indigenous communities. This produced decisions that were publicized as ‘participatory’, but were in fact reinforcing the interests of actors in power. We had to put in extra work to gain the trust of communities that had been poorly engaged and had witnessed the ‘tyrannical potential’ of participatory activities.
First, non-Indigenous team members learned Mayan languages. External and internal communications were in Mayan Kaqchikel. Although this was important for effective communication, it also had greater implications: Indigenous stakeholders perceived that as an effort made to connect with the community.
Second, we tried our best to maintain transparency throughout the project. We openly communicated the nitty-gritty details: starting from our affiliations to our end goal. For example, before each interview, we allocated 10 minutes to explain the details of the process, answer specific questions, and address any concerns. We (myself and two team members) took this a step further and lived with the community for three months (so far), sharing the same lifestyle and interacting with its members daily. This was key to maintaining transparency, creating meaningful relationships, building informal channels of communication, and breaking the misconception of researchers being elitists. Engaging marginalized stakeholders required daily effort and meaningful connections that I can’t imagine being formed remotely.
In this light, and on a final note, here are some takeaways to STEM folks in participatory research:
Do not turn a blind eye on the lack of representation: while planning a stakeholder engagement process, it is important to channel your sense of EDI.
- Actively seek out underrepresented groups.
- Amplify the need to include them to your colleagues and superiors.
- Use practices and tools that can ensure their effective participation.
Don’t be a researcher of convenience: Inclusive engagement takes time and effort.
- Be patient and don’t give up quickly – building trust takes time.
- Learn more about the cultural, social, and political aspects of the communities you’re engaging.
- Be transparent – participants should know why, what, where, who, and how.
- Take the time to communicate your science inclusively – your communication should be understood by all participants, including marginalized stakeholders.
Moving forward, we need to approach stakeholder engagement design differently, and EDI should be at the center – not an afterthought.
Reference: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, based on data from the NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team. Retrieved from https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/41385/harmful-bloom-in-lake-atitlan-guatemala