Working with other cultures demands sharing, not teaching

Photo courtesy of Sarah Hognestad

This past summer, I worked as an outreach science instructor for Actua’s National Aboriginal Outreach program in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut. The program’s goals are to inspire scientific curiosity and to encourage children to finish school and pursue science and engineering careers.

The trip made me aware of the potential risks of intervening in a culture other than my own.

On one hand, I come from a middle-class, European-descended family living in Ottawa, so it’s fair to say that traditional Inuit culture is rather different than my own. The concept of outreach makes me fundamentally uncomfortable because it suggests a neo-colonial attitude. It implies a power imbalance in which an “expert” enters a community and shares something that the community was previously missing.

I fear that somewhere within these outreach endeavours is an attempt to make other cultures similar to our own—that maybe we mask our neo-colonial endeavors by calling them community engagement or outreach programs to suggest they are selfless acts.

On the other hand, the underrepresentation of Aboriginal students in post-secondary science and engineering programs is a real problem. According to the most recent Canadian census, the territories have classroom attendance rates falling as low as 25 per cent and Nunavut high schools have a 50 per cent dropout rate. This is a serious issue and I understand that offering a hands-on approach to science could be very beneficial for students in these remote communities.

However in working with a local school, I provided resources and scientific knowledge for those who would otherwise have limited access. I also acted as a role model for children wishing to pursue careers in science and engineering fields.

The program taught me that avoiding outreach programs is not the answer. Most of the people who participate in and facilitate these programs have no neo-colonial intentions. But I did learn that all outreach workers and volunteers should be aware of the implications their presence can have in a community.

As an outreach worker, it was my responsibility to be a humble guest in the community. In all my community interactions, I sought to make clear my respect for the community members’ culture and to reassure them that my intent was to share my knowledge and learn equally from them as they did from me. Cultural exchange, rather than one culture teaching another, built real trust and developed the most meaningful conversations.

The underlying social issues in these communities are complex, but change is possible through trust and communication. It is not enough to send “experts” into a community to share their knowledge, as this risks spreading neo-colonial and assimilative values.

In a cultural sensitivity workshop I attended in my training sessions before I travelled north, a senior advisor for Actua left all the outreach instructors with this message: It is through humility that we build cross-cultural relationships and it is through these humble relationships that we see positive change.

I believe this to be true. I saw very clear changes in people’s attitudes toward me during my time up north. During my first few days in each community I met many sceptics. But as I spoke with community members about traditional legends and customs and tried to learn new words, I believe it became clear that I aimed not to develop their community, but rather to inspire their children and be inspired by them.

Although what I learned speaks particularly of my own experience as a science instructor in Inuit communities, the neo-colonial risk is not unique to this situation. The necessity of cultural sensitivity with outreach work also resonates in scenarios where North Americans travel to teach in countries that have oppressive colonial pasts. We must be aware of the histories of these communities and respect that the past influences these communities today.

Outreach programs can be a positive experience for everyone involved, so long as visitors remain humble, respectful of existing cultures, and never forget that learning and listening are just as important as teaching.