Elevate lived experience and data sovereignty tension?

Our organization put in our strategic plan that we want to “elevate lived experience” in our data snapshots and issue briefs, and we have been working with various organizations to build connections and consult about what the data seems to be showing and what the deeper systemic reasons could be. We have looked to include in our publications data, often qualitative data, that is wholly generated by affected populations. A tribal organization in our state has let us know that it is their goal that other organizations started and led by people of color become less willing to share data with organizations like ours and that these other organizations embrace the concepts of data sovereignty. I am wondering about constructive ways to respond to this tension?


Very interesting - thanks for sharing! I have no substantive recommendations, and I’m speaking as a White person, so the feedback from people of color would be much more valuable to your question, but my first thought is to lean into it and celebrate and furthermore support the capacity of organizations led by people of color to exercise ownership over their data and what is done with it. I don’t think that pulling back on data-sharing is necessarily the answer, but I can definitely understand it as a response because so many times, data sharing is not done collaboratively nor in a way that shares decision-making power equitably with people of color.

One approach, especially if you are not receiving data from the communities you were hoping to, could be to instead view your data snapshots and issue briefs as an opportunity to call out the gaps in your data, describe that lived experience and community-perspective is key, and maybe insert a web-link to those organizations who are working within their communities, so the end-user of the data reports can go to those organizations to see their stories and their own data reports.


Hi Helen, I’m really excited about this shift towards data sovereignty! I have seen data sovereignty conversations add incredible richness, value, and integrity in other venues as we work towards decolonization. Consider approaching the tension you see here as an opportunity to build a stronger partnership. This could especially look like trust- and relationship-building through collaboration, co-creation, or other means important to the tribal nation you are working with. Note that this might well mean stepping back from your strategic plan goals and reassessing your organization’s role in sharing the stories from your community. More broadly, if the nation(s) you are working with did not participate in developing or approving your strategic plan regarding representation or use of their data and stories, or has since shifted their views, it might be worth a bigger rethink of that document and/or your consult model.

Some potential conversations or collaborations (I’m not sure what your organization does, so grains of salt here!): development of formal data and information sharing agreements with the representative if these don’t exist yet - including but not limited to uses, storytelling requirements and permission, review requirements, access, restrictions, authority, etc; brainstorming a more collaborative publication model with Indigenous co-authors or other ownership models/attribution; supporting an independent Native publication your org could then elevate or point to by agreement; a working group or session to review or rethink your orgs consult model to address any concerns and/or support other data sovereignty efforts among the communities you work with (Can your org partner to promote data sovereignty across other organizations and modeling how this new type of relationship would work?); agreements for resource sharing to support the community’s data capacity or self-publication; or other topics are of priority concern.

These conversations can rightfully take considerable time and investment, and rushing through rarely helps. But the outcomes will be transformational in fantastic ways that I certainly hope to replicate in my own organization! :slight_smile: Thanks so much for leading this important conversation in the meantime!

Hope this helps in some way, and best of luck in your efforts.


I am so happy to see this conversation taking place. This tension is at the heart of all things data equity.

The idea and practice of data sovereignty is likely one of the key pathways to some form of gathering and using data in ways that demonstrate care and respect for the people contributing data. Finding our way to true data sovereignty is going to take time, strength, and a rearranging of resources and priorities.

NOTE: ok, so I was going to say that thing about care and respect, and that’s true and important, but that’s not the sticking point here. That should read: “… key pathways to gather and use data in ways that meaningfully share, or even completely hand over, power.

I echo what the others have shared - I would frame this situation as an opportunity to make some real progress. One practical tool we use in these types of situations is the Data Relationship Assessment. This allows everyone involved to express their conception of “sovereignty” in a concrete way the types of price, value, profit, and ownership that are aligned with the equity goals of the situation. You can find an example here.

I think sovereignty conversations can get really stuck into differences in “ownership” and “profit”, but often a difference in “value” is the most fruitful area to delve into. Additionally, you may work with people who don’t conceive of data in a way where price, value, profit, or ownership are relevant. However, I’d say that often, anyone concerned with “sovereignty” is concerned with some of these ideas. On the other hand, they may be working under the idea of sovereignty as a term that stands in as a rejection of that framework, which is also super valid and super cool.

Can I ask a somewhat delicate question to continue this conversation:

How did it feel for you/other people on the team when you reached out for data to do something you see as helpful, only to be somewhat strongly rebuffed? How does it feel now that you’ve been thinking/talking about it for a while?

1 Like

Finding our way to true data sovereignty is going to take time, strength, and a rearranging of resources and priorities- yes, that is the key take-away.

We have a statement that we are probably adding to our next written product, and welcome your feedback on it-

“We take seriously our responsibility in sharing data from public sources, each with its own purpose and methods of collecting and disseminating information. We recognize that data has historically and continues to be used to marginalize and harm BIPOC communities. We acknowledge this harm and are exploring strategies with community partners as they apply the principles of data sovereignty through community-driven data collection and research.”

In terms of how it feels, it feels like we are learning all the time, and that can be exhausting. I would say that to get to this “no, we are not participating.” took 9 months and that felt like a long, somewhat fruitless endeavor from hearing from the beginning when a tribal organization person said “I don’t see myself in this data” and we said, “We would love to work with you to change that.”

1 Like

Thank you so much for continuing to share. This is a really tough situation that most people aren’t even willing to touch, much less discuss. I want to say that getting the data is only one type of fruit. The fact that you and your organization were willing to engage around things like data sovereignty and representation makes this process extremely valuable, for you and for the sector as a whole. So, I’m really sorry to hear that it felt fruitless and I really want to help us all get some fruit out of it! (ok, that’s a lot of emphasis on fruit…)

I am so interested in this story. In it, I think we’ve got groups and people who are essentially on the same team, working out a really, really important issue between them. Without compromising anything private, I would LOVE to know more details about:

  1. the moment that someone raised an objection (where in the feedback/consultation process, etc.),

  2. what happened on your organization’s end during those nine months of trying to work it out, and

  3. whatever details were provided about the ultimate decision to withhold the data. Is there anything from the process that you can use to set up the next cycle of connection?

I want to be clear; I don’t think anyone is doing anything wrong in either seeking out data (to be fair, I’m not sure what data that is) OR deciding not to share the data. I totally agree that “constructive” is a great goal here, so I really want to know more about it.

1 Like