Reimagining How We Gather and Use Evidence Through Culturally Responsive Research

Mathematica Celebrates Native American Heritage Month
Nov 25, 2019

Mathematica partners with a number of federal agencies working with tribal communities on a range of pressing issues, including child welfare, family support, and mental health. We’re eager to collaborate with and learn from these communities to help move the needle on their complex and unique social challenges. But we also know that lack of reliable, consistent, and accessible data on tribal populations and their needs presents a major hurdle for making informed policy and program decisions.

Our work with tribal communities involves two-way learning throughout the research process, drawing from the tenets of community-based participatory research. Native communities help guide the way forward on the journey from inquiry to insight. These groups seek to define their own research agendas, collect their own data, and use those data in ways that align with tribal self-determination to navigate the path to change. This approach shifts the focus from research on a particular population to research with them. In the process, we find new ways to listen to people’s stories and help communities make progress in their own way to heal from trauma and abuse.

Mathematica is committed to using data as a tool to achieve positive change, and to working with tribal communities to build their research capacity and bolster sovereignty with data that reflect their diverse and unique needs. We prioritize the indigenous perspective throughout the research process, from formulating research questions to using culturally appropriate data collection methods, and from analyzing and deciphering trends in data to disseminating findings to stakeholders working to transform their communities.

Here we reflect on our experiences, what we have learned, and how this work has inspired us to take stock and offer a fresh perspective on our approach.

Amanda Lechner, health researcher

I had the opportunity to work with tribal communities for the first time on a project looking at psychological trauma in American Indian/Alaskan Native (AI/AN) youth. I knew of the high prevalence of trauma among them, but I did not know much about the history of researchers’ exploiting tribal communities, or the communities’ mistrust toward researchers because of ethical and human rights violations in the name of research.

Now that I recognize this legacy, it felt extremely important to approach this project with humility and to make sure we worked to understand, honor, and prioritize the indigenous perspective. Rather than leading the work, my role was to be a really good listener, letting Native experts guide us from the very beginning. Working with Native scholars, we revised our initial research questions to align with Native perspectives, such as, “What kinds of community-based interventions are tribes using?” and “How can the federal government support tribes in developing community-driven interventions?”

This project emphasized the importance of matching our approach with tribal communities’ needs and perspectives and bringing thoughtful counsel to every client, no matter the challenge.

Michael Cavanaugh, analyst

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to appreciate and honor indigenous perspectives. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that Native people transmit knowledge through story. Wisdom sits in places and people, but to appreciate that wisdom, you have to be willing to listen. Although I have advanced degrees in American Indian studies and anthropology, it’s my experiences working with and learning from Native people that shape how I think about research and doing it in a good way.

It is critical to truly listen and appreciate knowledge in all the forms it might take. I’ve learned to approach the work with humility and a perspective that honors their wisdom … because their knowledge matters, their histories matter, and their stories and cultures are rich with tradition and strength. And to shape meaningful policy that serves their needs, their perspective must be at the fore as we find new ways to listen to what the evidence tells us.

Joe Baker, health researcher

My first experience working with tribal communities was leading recruitment for a study examining the strengths and needs of children in Tribal Head Start programs. It was an honor to get to be a part of a collaborative research project on which I worked with and learned from 21 different tribes that gave us their trust and their time. This experience confirmed for me the importance of considering what you are doing with others’ cultural perspectives in mind. The journey from inquiry to insight requires constantly examining what you think you know, being transparent in what you don’t know, seeking to understand others, and knowing where our differences might have brought us to different places today.

Some might argue that for research to be truly unbiased, culture should not factor into the process. However, research and data collection are often developed without these cultures in mind, but rather the dominant western culture of the field, so ignoring culture can create the bias you want to avoid. Many standardized measures and processes that researchers consider valid and reliable have not been tested with tribal populations. Only the people who have the experiences we want to learn about have the answers we need. To conduct truly rigorous and objective research means ensuring the communities we seek to learn from have the primary voice in the research. Sometimes this will require compromise, such as adapting existing measures with as much input from as many members of the community as possible. But the guiding principle in our work is to strive to move beyond merely accommodating their culture, to a true collaboration and mutual ownership of the research. We can both conduct and analyze the research objectively while being proponents for improving the lives of the people behind the data, and that is core to our mission at Mathematica.

Ananya Khan, program analyst

Namaste. The divine in me honors the divine in you. This small word imparts a profound meaning but is often casually spoken without true understanding of its significance. The same is true of aspects of AI/AN cultures, which many perceive in a fragmented way that lacks understanding of the subtleties of a deeper civilization.

Coming from India, a country with deeply rooted and rich traditions, I relate to the similarities and nuances between our cultures. I can see the subtlety and importance of our varied traditions and connect to our shared colonial history and its subsequent ramifications. As a result, I have always been drawn to the AI/AN world.

Native Americans have continued to lose their land, traditions, and lives over the past several hundred years. Although this systemic problem has persisted for centuries, Native voices are not always heard and their challenges not completely understood. I am proud to be part of a company that works with the federal government to expand access to resources, research, and findings in the tribal area. When I learned that there was a need in the tribal affinity group, I immediately volunteered. I believe my background enables me to approach the wisdom of the Native populations with profound respect and appreciation.

Crystal Blyler, senior researcher

In working with AI/AN experts, my perspective on behavioral health has expanded and deepened. In Western medicine, we tend to parse. We look at mental illness as something occurring within an individual. We separate troubles into diagnoses. We try to isolate the critical ingredients of effective treatment approaches. Our research breaks down contributing factors through ever finer-grained analyses. Native American viewpoints, on the other hand, are holistic at their core. The physical, mental, spiritual, historical, communal, and familial cannot be meaningfully separated. All are one, acting together in both the good and the bad. Likewise, healing approaches address challenges holistically, linking troubled youth with their Native culture, history, communities, and traditions.

The differences between Western and Native worldviews present challenges to Western researchers seeking to study behavioral health or promote evidence-based practices in tribal communities, as holistic concepts are difficult to operationally define, measure, and implement by those without sufficient understanding. Perceiving the challenges individuals experience holistically can be at odds with Western impulses to categorize troubles into diagnostic groups and isolate and treat disorders within individuals. Focusing attention on negative outcomes can be at odds with life-affirming Native healing approaches. Gaining understanding of Native perspectives and approaches requires quiet patience as tribal members convey knowledge through stories rather than quick and easy bullet points.

Allowing community members to lead behavioral health work pertaining to them, therefore, is essential, not only to acknowledge the sovereignty of tribal nations but also to respect the centuries of tradition that convey wisdom about which Westerners might not be aware. In the current national environment in which behavioral health services based on healing human interactions are increasingly hard to come by, Westerners could learn a lot from AI/AN communities.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of Mathematica.