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March 11, 2022
Together, First Light Education Project and the Brazelton Touchpoints Center (BTC) lead the Indigenous Early Learning Collaborative (IELC), a new national initiative envisioned and designed in consultation with over 50 different tribal individuals, educators, and representatives from early childhood learning and care organizations and tribal departments of early childhood education. Launched in 2021, Native educators, early learning professionals, and leaders from four tribal/Native partner communities are learning how to generate local solutions to historical and current dilemmas of practice. Community-Based Inquiry (CBI) — a process by which Indigenous communities engage in asking and investigating their own questions about their early childhood practices — is the driver and focal point of this project.
First Light Education Project and BTC have created a unique partnership to co-facilitate this work side by side with our early childhood partners. First Light Education Project, led by Dr. Tarajean Yazzie-Mintz (Diné), is a Native-run organization built on Indigenous principles and implementing Indigenous practices, with expertise and experience in early childhood education and building systems of care and learning. BTC is a long-time leader in early childhood learning and development, with a long history of working in and strengthening communities in the United States and around the world. We have created an equitable partnership to conceptualize and operationalize the IELC, bringing together expertise, experience, and community connections to jointly implement the IELC.
Here’s what our first four community partners are saying:
“Great opportunity to create a research question around our community expectations of early childhood education.” – Wiikwedong ECE Collaborative Member, Planning & Visioning Meeting, January 2021
“We survived a genocide; we are coming out. We are still very connected to place. Again, the emotional toll [is there], and how we keep getting up every day and doing the work we do because we also understand what we are doing – the bigger picture – it’s a pathway to recovery for us – so we show up.” – Wicoie Nandagikendan Team Member, Reflective Inquiry Session, December 2021
“We’re calling to our community, calling them into us, we’re not calling them out, we are calling in. And we are calling to our young people our community and letting them know we are here.” – Daybreak Star Team Member, Reflective Inquiry Session, November 2021
“… in order for us to be effective at what we do, from the mindset that we want to approach it, it will come with the grounding of our Indigenous selves first.” – INPEACE / Keiki Steps Team Member, Reflective Inquiry Session, June 2021
The unique approach that CBI takes to research and strengthening practices in communities — which originates with and is implemented and sustained by the communities themselves — means that communities are not dependent on either First Light Education Project or BTC to analyze their practices or take action. Instead, we co-design with their approaches and identify methods to answer their questions as, simultaneously, they implement their ideas in practice. Through cycles of inquiry and action, communities ask and answer their own questions, and implement their own solutions.
In CBI, community members are the researchers: they know the context and the questions that need to be studied, have access to relevant data and generate critical ideas on how to implement solutions in practice. In this model, external researchers —from universities, foundations, and organizations — support the work of community-based researchers by helping community members frame their own research questions, design methods that will lead to answers to their questions, and collect and analyze data.
Community-Based Inquiry as an Equitable Practice with Indigenous Early Educational Communities
The implementation of equitable practices is critical in working with communities, particularly Native communities, from which researchers have often taken knowledge for professional gain without valuing community members’ expertise and knowledge. Study findings by researchers building their careers on work in Native communities rarely make it back to the communities and often are of little value to communities making timely practice advances. For too long, Indigenous communities have been over-researched and underserved. In CBI, community members are the center and drivers of the work, as both practitioners and researchers.
The IELC enters and cultivates authentic partnerships with communities, with a balanced approach to who guides, who leads, who learns, and how inquiry happens. We move forward in this work together driven by a collective commitment to answering the community’s questions — not our own. The knowledge of the community partners — of content, context, history, community relationships, and practice — is foundational to this work and their futures. The community teams are composed of members from diverse experiences holding a range of roles in their community to ensure representation of various groups in the communities and opportunities to solve a range of practice dilemmas. The work is focused on learning and process, not conclusion. The knowledge that emerges serves community members immediately. The goal is strengthening practice, not publishing in journals. The community need not wait for peer-reviewed articles or for external researchers to share knowledge before implementing practice changes. Through modeling and practicing authentic, equitable partnerships and centering the work within the community, the IELC is implementing community-based inquiry as an equitable and sustainable practice in Indigenous early educational communities.