Identity | Shelly Valdez
"When you look at identity from a communal perspective, they're steeped in their core cultural values, they don't think of self as much as community."
2017 Interview Highlights:
How do you think about identity from an evaluation perspective?
One of my projects is focused on native undergraduate and graduate students doing STEM in higher education. These students mostly come with a grounded understanding of their culture and living within those communities. But most of them that I have interviewed don’t have a solid base of their language. So the language that they’re organically growing through this process of being engaged in an environment with STEM (and technology) is highly saturated with traditional ecological knowledge. Their science language is growing.
In one focus group interview, I asked about their understanding of TEK [traditional ecological knowledge]. It was embedded in their culture, and they didn’t realize that there was a separate term for it or realize that that’s what they were doing until they got into higher education. So with that said, their identity is internalized from a cultural lens, but when they got into the university science arena and were steeped in “Western” science, they started learning all this science language that has shifted their thinking about TEK.
When I talk to them now, the language of Western science is really prevalent. They are building their language skills, which means that they are creating their own unique identity of what science means to them from a traditional lens, and now deepening this understanding from a Western science lens. I think identity is individually based, because it’s not a culture that they’re born into, it’s a learned understanding. Through these students’ understanding, and through my own, we’re learning about science identity in so many ways from that cultural lens, we just don’t call it science identity. We don’t have a term for science, it’s what we do, it’s our ways of knowing.
Are you saying that for these native students, in some ways STEM is already part of their identity, part of their understanding of the world?
Right. It isn’t defined by Western wording or Western understanding. It is defined and embedded in their languages, in their culture and their environment; it is the notion of being grounded in “place.” Even though they were separated somewhat from their language, it was still very active within that environment. I think that for native, indigenous people that’s explicit. We don’t have any words for research, for example. There’s not really any terminology like that in indigenous language, it’s just the way of knowing, which is very deep and poetic if you truly understand. And I think that researchers and evaluators in this field really need to understand that.
What evaluation methodologies are you using?
Jill Stein and I have been collaborating for more than 13 years. We’re growing together, and we call this concept collaborative evaluation. Jill comes from the Western context of evaluation, and I come from the indigenous processes used in evaluation. There’s no model, just a process, because we’re working with so many tribes and it’s dependent on the environment we’re in. You can also refer to it as emergent evaluation. It doesn’t mean that there’s a framework, it just means we’re being very careful while “walking through” evaluation. There’s a history of trauma that native people have experienced from researchers and evaluations of indigenous communities.
We need to change the word evaluator to storyteller. We call ourselves storytellers, because that’s very natural. We’re here to tell their story. Research hasn’t been so welcomed because of the past histories in indigenous communities. It’s just walking together. And when Jill has a question, I’m there to help guide that and help create a relationship, so that tribal community members see that we’re not a threat, we’re here to tell their story.
What kinds of activities are you doing to elicit the stories from participants?
We use a participatory process—one that is important for us to engage. We work together and develop the evaluation questions, and then we morph them into statements or invites, so that it’s less threatening. One of the notions within indigenous communities is that when you’re invited in by those individuals and welcome them, that’s where deep and genuine relationships emerge. So we’re using that same concept and notion of inviting. In other words, we’re inviting the participants to share some experiences with us in this particular environment.