Decolonizing Knowledge at HASTAC 2019

5 September 2019

Recently, Siko and Adele of Whose Knowledge? had the opportunity to co-host a panel session with Persephone Hooper Lewis, Leslie Chan and Maari Zwick-Maitreyi at the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory (HASTAC) 2019 conference. This year’s HASTAC theme was decolonizing technology and reprogramming education. We were honored to be guests on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) people, where the conference was held.

Decolonizing Knowledge: Open for whom, by whom?

Our panel discussion focused on decolonizing knowledge, particularly looking at the experiences of marginalized communities in “open” knowledge spaces.

Technology and education can be powerful means for either monoculturalism or pluralism, but without centering the leadership, imagination and knowledge of marginalized communities (including indigenous people, women, people of color, LGBTQIA communities and folks from the global South, e.g. the majority of the world), technology and epistemic practices become sterile and colonizing infrastructure.

Central to the origin story of the Web was the commitment to “openness”, both in terms of technical design and architecture of participation. The open access movement and free-knowledge platforms like Wikipedia have similarly been founded on the idea that “open” is a universal good, ignoring the fact that “open” has often been used by the colonizer as a means to extract land, knowledge, and culture. And in all three of these – the open access movement, Wikipedia, and the broader internet – so much of the world’s knowledge remains invisible. 

Decolonizing “open” tech and educational spaces requires asking critical questions, like:

  • Open for what, for whom, by whom? 
  • Whose knowledge is shared in what contexts, and by whom? Who gets centered? Who gets silenced? 
  • What does it look like to center indigenous ways of knowing, feminist’s ways of knowing, plural ways of knowing, in the design and architecture of the internet and “open” knowledge spaces? What does it look like in our classrooms and publications? 

For those who weren’t able to be in the room for a robust discussion of these topics with indigenous scholars, critical scholars of technology, and community activists, don’t worry – we have audio recordings and slides!


Listen to what Persephone, Maari and Leslie shared during the panel in response to these questions:

To whom do you belong? What challenges or struggles do you and your communities face when sharing knowledges in “open” spaces?

(Speaker 1: Persephone, Speaker 2: Maari, Speaker 3: Leslie, Speaker 4: Maari)


How are you making your communities’ knowledges visible in “open” knowledge spaces?

(Speaker 1: Maari, Speaker 2: Leslie, Speaker 3:Persephone)

Post-conference Reflections

We’ve been continuing to reflect on how meaningful this conference overall was for us. Adele and Siko were inspired by the way in which so many brilliant indigenous women keynoters like Alana Sayers, Marisa Elena Duarte and Jules Arita Koostachin brought their personal and family stories in as a decolonizing methodology, and were constantly connecting technology and education back to their land and their communities.

Here are some other reflections from the panelists after the conference:

Can you reflect on something you took away or learned from the conference that you’re bringing into your decolonization work going forward?

Persephone Hooper Lewis

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to attend the HASTAC 2019 conference on the traditional and unceded territory of the Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) nation. The gathering was a wonderful experience that taught me numerous lessons, while also reinforcing the understandings I held prior to the event. This conference offered THE example of a mainstream association successfully centering Indigeneity. Many groups have included “decolonizing” as a hip  buzz word and concept in their conference themes. However, HASTAC 2019 was the first time I have seen a group faithfully and respectfully commit to ensuring Indigenous people were central to all aspects of the conference. Attending a conference will all Native women keynote speakers transformed the space and impacted attendees in ways that I did not expect. I felt a true appreciation for Indigenous perspectives from attendees and did not experience the defensiveness from non-Native folx that I experience on a daily basis at my institution.

Most conferences have Indigenous strands or presentation options but these knowledges and ways of being are not built into the main areas of the conference.  HASTAC 2019 demonstrated the strength of bold conference planning. From their adherence to practicing social justice principles, I was able to see Inidgenous allies working through their location in a settler society and deciding to sit in uncomfortability. Therefore, we were able to grow together, which offered an energy boost I greatly needed at that time. Witnessing the decolonization process offered me hope for a future where Indigenous bodies, voices, and intellects are included and seen as having contemporary value.  The academic and experiential knowledge I gathered at HASTAC reinforced the need for the work I do in education and gave me hope that settler colonialism can be confronted one person at a time.

Leslie Chan

One of the lessons I learned from the many amazing Indigenous scholars and knowledge keepers at the conference was the vast range of Indigenous philosophies of relationality and reciprocity as they pertain to land, knowledge, gender, and a host of social activities. These understandings of relationship are in sharp contrast to Western modes of knowledge production, which are often individualistic, hierarchical, competitive, and highly exploitative and extractive.

A key realization for me then was that relationality could inform our understanding of “openness”; and as relationality is inherently fluid, dynamic, and highly dependent on context, so too should our understanding of “openness”. This means that we should be working towards the realization of relational modes of knowledge praxis, rather than promoting a universal set of prescriptive conditions for “open” knowledge that are driven by a hidden set of ideological assumptions about knowledge as economic resources to be exploited.

Adopting a relational paradigm also allows us to pay closer attention to various forms of hidden power and power imbalances that continue to structure asymmetrical relationships of Western knowledge system. Following this path, it means that we should question how “openness”, when decontextualize, could reproduce and entrench power imbalances and knowledge inequity. The conference reinvigorated my desire to take steps to disrupt and decenter the privileges uncritical acceptance of “openness” produce, and to center relational thinking as a way to restore the diversity of knowledges and ways of knowing. This is indeed crucial to “Sustainable” development both locally and globally.

Maari Zwick-Maitreyi 

There were so many things I learnt and was inspired by at HASTAC 2019. Firstly, even being in that physical space of the Musqueam (xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) people left me with deep feelings of gratitude and hope. The beautiful Musqueam sculptures and art work on campus, the street signs in their language – all spoke to me of the weight of the work, organizing, and struggle that indigenous people in that area had put in to reclaim space that was theirs. These physicalities lent indigenous and oppressed people hope that the same and more is still possible for their communities to decolonize/deBrahminize their places in the world as well.

At each keynote and panel, I was so mesmerized by the beautiful conception, words and actions of indigenous leaders. It helped to see each person’s vision of a free world where love, lives, knowledge, resources can be equitable. These experiences of hope and vision are crucial to carrying on our work. In the past few years, we, as a Dalit knowledge justice group at Equality Labs, have run into several practical and emotional roadblocks as we inevitably often have to work within a white/oppressor caste supremacist frameworks of knowledge and pedagogy. The energy we have taken away from at HASTAC has, most of all helped reinvigorate our strategies with new ideas, perseverance and enthusiasm based on inspiration from indigenous activists and our fellow colleagues and friends.

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