Engaging Diverse Knowledge Systems for Sustained Impact

November, 2021

Valerie A. Luzadis Professor, Social-Ecological Systems and Ecological Economics, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry; Chair, GCSE board of Directors

Collaborations and partnerships are commonplace in science and in environmental decision-making because we understand clearly that by working together, we are better positioned to address complex societal problems. Building on science-based knowledge from a long and strong foundation of reductionist approaches, we now frequently embrace more holistic and participatory methodologies, which are praised as more equitable, inclusive, and democratic. Examination of these efforts from a broader perspective reveals that we can do more in a world struggling with violence, inequities, and social, and environmental degradation.  

In this essay, I suggest that we have an opportunity to have much greater and more sustained impact by recognizing the power and influence these partnerships can have to demonstrate the respectful engagement of diverse knowledge systems. To do this, I will briefly explore how we replicate the dominant paradigm of a science mentality in our current approaches to partnership and collaboration, acknowledging the trauma that this can and does cause. I then offer a few ideas for how to move toward respectful engagement of multiple knowledge systems.   

Following the dominant paradigms of science, our tendency in practice is to take the stance that we know something that people need to know without giving much, if any, consideration to what they already know or that they may know in ways we may not have encountered previously. While the frequency of partnerships has increased in recent years, many, maybe even most of them, are based on developing only enough of a relationship for people to accept what we, as scientists, already know we have to offer, instead of being truly collaborative, participatory, and flexible from the start. We have learned to “be experts”:  to tell, to profess, to compare, to direct, and to persuade, all amounting to a primarily unidirectional communication aimed at our “partners”. We listen enough to make our own points better instead of empathetically listening to deeply understand and co-create the best ways forward. Engaging communities as subjects of study is not true partnership. Nor is inviting others into our world on the condition that they accept and abide by our rules. Recently, a nod has been made toward Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in an arguably weak effort to recognize indigenous knowledge doing just that. In my humble opinion, this is no way to learn about and engage another knowledge system.  

Recent worldwide attention to the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements shows us that we must and can do things differently. These movements created numerous opportunities and support for us to do our own individual work to see and to unlearn the longstanding oppressive structures and systems of our colonizing history. Unlearning is crucial to this process. Recognizing that we are steeped in such structures and systems and acknowledging the traumas caused by dualistic, elitist, hierarchical power structures, including within Western science, medicine, and the public policy decisions stemming from them, is a start. Once we are open to seeing this, we can go beyond acknowledgement to intentionally discovering pathways that no longer replicate the harms of these power-over mentalities. 

Engaging diverse knowledge systems respectfully requires self-confidence with humility and humanity as we consider who is involved, who owns the outcomes, and how we can collaborate in truly equitable ways. It also requires self-knowledge. It is no longer enough to bring only our analytical intellectual selves to this work. We must bring our whole selves to all that we do. I call this engaging with heart: learning and embracing the many ways in which we know, extending beyond the analytical and intellectual. Learning to intertwine it all to inform our actions can be described in a deliciously paradoxical way: “thinking with the heart and feeling with the mind”.  The results are impactful, compassionate, humble, and respectful. 

Creating opportunities for solutions to emerge in more ways than only analytical with our partners – aligning with ancestral knowledge, intuitive knowledge, and imaginative and anticipatory possibilities – will transform the outcomes and our world. Stemming from our study of systems, evolution, and complexity science we have learned the limitations of prediction and the reality and value of the emergence of novelty. Discourse in policy has grown to include adaptive management or learning from doing and making the necessary adjustments along the way as we learn. More recently, the need for an anticipatory approach to policy has been recognized if we are to adequately protect people and planet. It is not enough to adapt as we go from the same base mindset, we need to be open to other ways of knowing. With rapidly changing conditions, anticipating the possibilities will provide a stronger means of engaging – if we do so with the right relationships and intellectual humility – the recognition that what we believe in this moment might be wrong. 

Systems thinking also helps us to better understand both possibilities and limits by bringing together the many threads that intertwine to create the complex situations we face. One critical example is how funding sources often limit the possibilities by focusing on short timeframes, immediate outcomes, pre-set frameworks, and the requirement to state the outcomes prior to the start of the endeavor. This restricts or even precludes the possibility of new ideas, approaches, and knowledge to emerge from partnerships. As we move toward engaging diverse knowledge systems, working with funders to find new ways will also be necessary. We quickly see the systemic nature of making change and the challenges of stepping forward with change in one area without supporting adjustments in the rest of the system. Nonetheless, we must carry on. Engaging with heart, with openness, and with intellectual humility, creates greater hope for sustained positive impact. 


The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the GCSE or its members.